Cycling: Roche shows resilience to take El Toro by the horns

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IN THE shadow of Mont Blanc Stephen Roche rediscovered some of his 1987 vintage to challenge Miguel Indurain and stoke the boilers for today's Alpine inferno to Sestriere. Five years ago Roche won the Tours of France and Italy and the world road race championship, but had failed to recapture that class until yesterday.

He took El Toro by the horns, and at one point was Tour leader 'on the road', but the combined forces of Pascal Lino, bearer of the yellow jersey, Miguel Indurain, his biggest worry, and Gianni Bugno brought Ireland down to earth.

Roche is now only 31 seconds behind Indurain, with Lino still clinging to a 1min 27sec lead as the queue of contenders grows. The Dubliner finished third at St Gervais after driving himself and five others into the race lead. 'If I had to live my life as a rider again I would be a time-trial specialist,' Roche said, referring to Indurain's crucial power in against-the-clock racing. 'It's much too hard to pull back time in the mountains. But you have to try something. I'm not going to be able to collar Indurain and the others on l'Alpe d'Huez.'

The drama started on the Saleve mountain, where in 1973 Luis Ocana had forged his yellow-jersey victory for Spain.

Yesterday Roche attacked to pursue two Swiss, Jorg Muller and Rolf Jaermann, and Fabrice Philipot of France. Between them and Roche dangled Giancarlo Perini, the Irishman's team-mate.

Pedro Delgado responded and together they hunted down the five. The signs looked favourable for Roche as the race passed La Roche sur Foron and the furniture store of Meubles Stephen, with the distant Alps beckoning.

Behind them and the splitting pack, the former Tour winners Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon were successfully battling to stay in contention, but they had to fight and fight.

It was a flashback day for Delgado, too. In 1988 he won the Tour, but has since committed himself to his team-mate Indurain's cause. He cracked Roche with an almighty counter-attack in the last five kilometres of the longest Tour day, 267 kilometres from Dole.

Jaermann clung to Delgado's wheel to outsprint the Spaniard for the first Swiss victory of this Tour. Roche rolled in 39 seconds later, having done the damage to Indurain, but at what cost to himself? He had feared that his ruptured spinal disc would be his biggest handicap, but certainly he did not race like a man with a bad back yesterday.

Today the Tour enters Italy and purgatory. Seven mountains lie between here and Sestriere, and Roche is concerned. 'I don't know what is going to happen,' the Irishman said. 'I prefer not to think about it. It hurt my legs just looking at the profile of the route to Sestriere.'

He has claimed since the Tour started that his form and condition was as good as 1987. 'I just have not managed to win anything to prove it. It's frustrating,' he said.

Yesterday he took some weight off the team leader, Claudio Chiappucci, who had only to watch as others flogged in pursuit. There was a hint of that 1987 Roche foray in the Tour of Italy when he went for the leader's pink jersey worn by his team-mate, Roberto Visentini.

He won that Tour, and with it the threatening antagonism of the Italian fans, and he needed police protection. Now he is back with the same sponsors, Carrera, all is forgiven, and possibly yesterday's epic could be a stepping stone for Chiappucci.

As the race rode through the magnificence of the Jura region, the leader, Lino, lost the valuable aid of Charly Mottet, who had stomach trouble and had been lying in 81st place, about 40 minutes behind his team-mate. Certainly the butterflies will be busy in a few stomachs this morning.

TOUR DE FRANCE 12th stage (267.5km, Dole to St Gervais Mont Blanc): 1 R Jaermann (Ariostea, Swit) 7hr 10min 56sec; 2 P Delgado (Banesto, Sp) +3sec; 3 S Roche (Carrera, Irl) +39; 4 G Perini (Carrera, It) +1min 43sec; 5 F Philipot (Banesto, Fr) +1:43; 6 A Da Silva (Festina, Por) +2:42; 7 F Mauleon (CLAS, Sp); 8 J-C Robin (Castorama, Fr) both same time; 9 J Nevens (Lotto, Bel) +2:45; 10 A Gonzales (Festina, Sp) +2:52; 11 J Museeuw (Lotto, Bel) +2:55; 12 L Jalabert (ONCE, Fr) s/t; 13 C Chiappucci (Carrera, It) +2:56; 14 M Indurain (Banesto, Sp); 15 G Bugno (Gatorade, It) both s/t. Selected: 24 G LeMond (Z, US) +2:56; 48 R Millar (TVM,

GB) s/t; 85 M Earley (PDM, Irl) +6:37; 86 S Kelly (Festina, Irl) s/t; 97 S Yates (Motorola, GB) +8:10.

Overall: 1 P Lino (RMO, Fr) 55hr 46min 51sec; 2 Indurain +1min 27sec; 3 Roche +1:58; 4 Delgado +4:08; 5 LeMond +4:27; 6 Bugno +4:39; 7 Chiappucci +4:54; 8 Perini +5:31; 9 Y Ledanois (Castorama, Fr) +5:52; 10 L Fignon (Gatorade, Fr) +7:32; 11 J Heppner (Telekom, Ger) +7:38; 12 R Alcala (PDM, Mex) +7:46; 13 G Rue (Castorama, Fr) +8:14; 14 L Leblanc (Castorama, Fr) +8:34; 15 E Breukink (PDM, Neth) +8:38. Selected: 25 Millar +12:21; 37 Kelly +18:37; 85 Earley +47:41; 86 Yates +48:15.

(Photograph omitted)