Since 1981, when Phil Anderson gave Australia their first yellow jersey and won stages in 1982 and 1991, the boys from Down Under have gained an impressive reputation as talented workers rather than star turns. Stephens, whose professional career started in England 13 years ago, has been an influential force behind the successes of Richard Virenque, the world ranked No 1 Laurent Jalabert, and the world time trial champion Alex Zulle.
For 17 days, the 33-year-old has grafted to ensure Virenque could maintain his challenge for the Tour lead. Yesterday, with his French leader having conceded the yellow jersey to Germany's Jan Ullrich, Stephens was unleashed.
"It felt really great coming in to the finish, but with the wet roads I was careful on each corner," he said. "It was not until the last 500 metres I started thinking of victory."
Ullrich, in the yellow jersey he has worn for eight days, arrived with the bulk of the 143 riders, 3min 58sec after Stephens, whose success did nothing to the leading overall standings. His sacrifices in the daily slog have put the Australian more than two hours behind Ullrich.
It was not all joy in the Deutsche Telekom camp. Last year, Bjarne Riis gave Denmark and Telekom their first Tour triumph. Yesterday he was almost forgotten, and angry. A tablet he had taken to relieve a painful wrist complaint upset his stomach on Tuesday, and he spent "an awful night".
Yesterday he suffered again. Jesper Skibby, another Dane but not a team- mate, had to push him all the way over the final Develier climb. "If he had not been there I could not have made it. My team should have been more helpful," Riis said.
He still finished with the main field, but the signs he may quit are growing ever stronger.
TOUR DE FRANCE 17th stage, Fribourg to Colmar, 218.5km: 1 N Stephens (Aus) Festina 4hr 54min 38sec; 2 O Camenzind (Swit) Mapei +3sec; 3 V Ekimov (Rus) US Postal; 4 L Roux (Fr) TVM; 5 E Dekker (Neth) Rabobank; 6 J Pascual (Sp) Kelme; 7 B Julich (US) Cofidis; 8 S Outschakov (Ukr) Polti; 9 P Farazijn (Bel) Lotto; 10 C Mengin (Fr) La Francaise des Jeux; 11 M Podenzana (It) Mercatone Uno, all same time; 12 G Totschnig (Aut) Telekom +5sec; 13 A Garmendia (Sp) ONCE +6; 14 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom +3:58; 15 F Moncassin (Fr) GAN; 16 M Traversoni (It) Mercatone Uno; 17 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank; 18 A Baffi (It) US Postal; 19 L Aus (Est) Casino; 20 N Loda (It) MG Technogym all s/t. Selected: 29 A Olano (Sp) Banesto +3:58; 34 R Virenque (Fr) Festina; 60 B Riis (Den) Telekom; 84 M Sciandri (GB) La Francaise des Jeux; 107 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE, all s/t.
Overall standings: 1 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom 86hr 27min 46sec; 2 Virenque+6:22; 3 M Pantani (It) Mercatone Uno +10:13; 4 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme 16:05; 5 Olano +16:40; 6 F Casagrande (It) Saeco +17:14; 7 Riis +18:07; 8 J Jimenez (Sp) Banesto +23:42; 9 R Conti (It) Mercatone Uno +28:20; 10 L Dufaux (Swit) Festina +29:46; 11 B Zberg (Swit) Mercatone Uno +31:39; 12 Camenzind +32:38; 13 P Luttenberger (Aut) Rabobank +38:16; 14 M Beltran (Sp) Banesto +43:15; 15 J-C Robin (Fr) US Postal +53:26; 16 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +55:11; 17 D Nardello (It) Mapei +56:39; 18 Julich +59:50; 19 C Moreau (Fr) Festina +1:00:37; 20 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise des Jeux +1:00:54. Selected: 43 Jalabert +1:55:12; 68 Sciandri +2:33:17.
Points standings: 1 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 304pts; 2 F Moncassin (Fr) GAN 208; 3 J Blijlevens (Neth) TVM 168; 4 Virenque 149; 5 M Traversoni (It) Mercatone Uno 142; 6 Ullrich 142; 7 R McEwen (Aus) RAB 128; 8 N Minali (It) Batik 121; 9 F Simon (Fr) GAN 106; 10 Pantani 105. King of the mountains: 1 Virenque 527pts; 2 Ullrich 324; 3 Casagrande 262; 4 Pantani 250; 5 L Brochard (Fr) Festina 238; 6 Dufaux 194; 7 P Herve (Fr) Festina 158; 8 Riis 139; 9 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme 127; 10 J M Jimenez (Sp) Banesto 116. Teams: 1 Telekom 260hr 08min 13sec; 2 Mercatone Uno 12:19; 3 Festina 21:46; 4 Banesto 30:24; 5 Kelme 1hr 40min 24sec; 6 Mapei 1hr 49min 29sec; 7 Rabobank 2hr 38min 45sec; 8 La Francaise des Jeux 3hr 32min 59sec; 9 Lotto 3hr 44min 23sec; 10 Casino 3hr 46min 28sec; 11 Saeco 3hr 58min 18sec; 12 US Postal Service 4hr 08min 10sec; 13 Cofidis 4hr 23min 55sec; 14 Big Mat Auber 4hr 24min 45sec; 15 ONCE 4hr 41min 41sec; 16 TVM 5hr 15min 42sec; 17 GAN 5hr 35min 40sec; 18 Roslotto 5hr 37min 40sec; 19 Polti 6hr 46min 53sec; 20 Batik 6hr 53min 30sec; 21 MG 8hr 03min 51sec.Reuse content