Cycling: Speed merchants hit the road: The sprint kings resume their feud in the Tour de France next week. Jonathan Rendall reports

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The Independent Online
DJAMOLIDINE Abdoujaparov ended the 1991 Tour de France being helped, bleeding and dazed, over the finish line on the Champs-Elysees. The fearsome Uzbek sprinter had crashed spectacularly into a barrier at over 70kmph with just 100 metres to go. He was leading at the time.

'Abdou' might have thought that things could only get easier after that. In fact, they became more difficult the following year with the emergence of a rival sprint maniac in Mario Cipollini, a Florentine with film-star looks and a penchant for hair gel. The 'Tashkent Terror' and 'Mousse-olini' have been going at it hammer and tongs ever since, and will recommence hostilities next week when the Tour gets underway again.

Cipollini and Abdoujaparov, along with Jean-Paul van Poppel of The Netherlands and Germany's Olaf Ludwig, are the undisputed kings of the bunched sprint. They have no chance of winning the Tour overall. Their heightened sense of machismo must endure the ritual humiliation of the mountains, where their burly physiques are singularly inappropriate. But it is all worth it when the flat roads return, the finish line is in sight, and once again they coil themselves in readiness for the sudden burst of acceleration and the final, headlong rush of pure speed.

'When it comes to a sprint you've basically got Van Poppel, Abdou, Cipollini and Ludwig,' Martin Earley, the Irish rider who recently partnered Van Poppel to two stage wins in the tour of Spain, said. 'It depends who's good on the day. I've been in there with them and they're so much faster than me. There again, they wouldn't have much chance against me in the hills. In a sprint not only do they have so much power in the initial jump, but they can also sustain it. Very few people can stay with them once they've made the jump.'

It is Cipollini who is in the ascendant. Last year he clocked up 16 wins. This year, the self-styled 'fastest man in the world' added to his reputation by landing the prestigious Ghent-Wevelgem one-day classic. Frank Quinn, the agent of another great sprinter, Sean Kelly, says Cipollini may be one of the fastest ever. 'Kelly was a fierce man in his day, very strong,' Quinn said. 'But this fellow Cipollini is absolutely incredible. At the moment he is the one. Abdoujaparov I have no time for. You ask anyone in the peloton and they'll say they can do without Abdou. He's very fast, yes, but he doesn't look where he's going. He'll end up killing somebody.'

Just as Kelly had a long-running feud with Eric Vanderaerden in the 1980s as the pair battled for the Tour's green points jersey (awarded not for overall time but for the most consistently high-placed riders), so Cipollini and Abdoujaparov soon became bitter rivals. Others, while not happy about it, had been prepared to keep quiet about Abdoujaparov's wild, zig-zagging method. Not Cipollini. 'Send him back to Russia,' he said. On the road elbows and menaces have been exchanged.

Yet in the mountains sworn enemies of the sprints have been known to become unlikely allies in the tortuous battle for survival at the back of the field. Until 1989, when mountain stages were reduced in size, a familiar and somewhat comic feature in the hills was the sprinters' 'bus', a band of bedraggled macho-men who clubbed together out of self-preservation and who, with meticulous timing, would arrive just inside the cut-off time that threatens lagging riders with disqualification from the Tour.

Now it is far tougher in the hills and on the flat the premium on sprint victories has never been higher. Although, for the public, the sprint happens in an exhilarating blur of a few seconds, inside the bunch preparations are made several miles from the finish. The sprinter must be coaxed to the front by his team-mates and then, amid much jostling and at frightening speeds, positioned in the slip-stream of the right wheel to make his jump for home with maximum effect.

'It starts quite a way out,' Earley says of the days when he is partnering Van Poppel on a flat stage. 'My role is to get him to within about four kilometres from the finish. When you start leading the sprinter out you have to keep the speed up to prevent others from fighting their way round. Then two fresh guys from the team come up and lead him into the final kilometre until he goes. Then it's up to him. But it's not easy. You're going so fast. You can lose a wheel coming into the last corner. If the bunch comes swinging over on the left and he is trying to go on the left he can be blocked off and the sprint is lost. Anything can happen.'

Here there is no place for fear. As Cipollini told L'Equipe: 'I have never been scared in my life. I drive my Mercedes 500 SI Coupe at 300kmph; with the top down. I just put a bit more hair gel on as I don't like my hair to get in a mess.'

(Photograph and map omitted)