Cycling: The greatest free show on earth: The Tour de France can lay claim to be the most ruthless sporting event of all, and nowhere is it more cruel than in the mountains. Richard Williams follows the trail from the Alps to Marseilles

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IT'S nine o'clock in the morning, about an hour before the circus will come to the little valley town of Vizille, but already a small boy outside the gates of the Ecole Nationale Professionelle is using his jacket to practise the technique of the matador's cape. In an hour's time, when the cyclists arrive, he'll jump out into the path of the racers, holding his coat as close to the men and machines as he dares, grinning for the motorcycle cameras while his classmates shout encouragement.

He doesn't know that another boy a few hundred miles to the north had tried a similar stunt three days earlier, and felled one of the favourites in this year's Tour de France. Alex Zulle, the 25-year-old half-Swiss, half-Dutch leader of the Spanish ONCE team, was among many experts' picks to put up a challenge to Miguel Indurain, the winner of the last two Tours and the odds- on favourite for this one. On the opening day of the race, Zulle had taken second place behind the majestic Basque in the prologue, a short time trial around le Puy du Fou, a half- ruined chateau in the Vendee.

In the saddle, bicycle racers look like wonderful machines, exuding rhythm and power and grace. But when they fall, they turn back into small boys: hot tears, dusty grazes, torn shorts, arms reaching out to the motherly embrace of their soigneur. At le Puy du Fou, clicking up and down through the electronic gears of his high-tech time trial bike, the pink-shirted Zulle had looked ready to sustain a significant effort. Eight days later, though, his hopes had come crashing down and no one could console him. He got up and carried on, but for him it was already over.

THE BOY who brought down Alex Zulle and the boy outside the school in Vizille are just two among six million. By this time next week, about one in 10 of all the population of France will have turned out to watch the 80th edition of le Grand Boucle encircling their country. These are people who know the greatest free show on earth when they see it.

Last Wednesday, it seemed as though most of those six million had camped out overnight in order to watch the riders tackle the first of this year's mountain stages, from Villard-de- Lans, just south of Grenoble, to Serre- Chevalier, a ski resort in the Hautes- Alpes. Tens of thousands, at the very least, had found their way by car, bicycle, motorcycle and foot up the slopes of the day's two big climbs: the 1,924- metre Col du Glandon and the notorious 2,645-metre Col du Galibier.

The Tour's first day in the mountains always has a special excitement. Here, the old-timers tell each other, is where the race really begins. This year, Miguel Indurain had set things up by pulverising the field in a long time trial around the Lac de Madine in the north-east corner of France, establishing a 95-second lead in the overall classification ahead of his nearest challenger, the Dutchman Erik Breukink, Zulle's No 2. Now, having spent most of the first week sitting back and letting the boys play, Indurain had made his statement. The leader's yellow jersey was around his shoulders again, and L'Equipe rewarded him with a new title: le Chrono-Maitre.

A rest day after the time trial let the rest of the field absorb the lesson while they flew south to the Alps. What it meant was that on Wednesday and Thursday, when the race entered the mountains, anyone who was still planning a serious challenge had to make his move. Mostly this meant the two Italians, Claudio Chiappucci, last year's runner-up, and Gianni Bugno, the reigning world champion, and a second Swiss, Tony Rominger. Each had made an indifferent start, but all are good climbers. Over the next two days, on the Glandon and the Galibier on Wednesday and on the Izoard and the giant Bonette-Restefond on Thursday, they would get the chance to reassert themselves. Otherwise Indurain would probably be wearing yellow all the way to the Champs-Elysees.

None of the significant riders was in the first break, in which 19 riders participated before an Italian, Stefano

Colage, accelerated away to reach the top of the Glandon with a one-minute lead. By the time they approached the Galibier, they had been engulfed.

First included in the Tour in 1911, eight years after the race was invented by Henri Desgrange, the editor of a sports newspaper called L'Auto, the Galibier was for many years the supreme test of a climber. The incorporation of the nearby Alpe d'Huez in 1952 removed its supremacy, but on Wednesday it looked as if it had a mind to take the title back. Up above 6,000ft the weather was dark and menacing. Only the anoraks and racing vests of the fans added a strip of brightness to the north-facing slopes, the dark-grey scree otherwise relieved only by patches of left-over snow. It was cold, barely above freezing, as Indurain led a new breakaway of five riders through the narrow chute left by the spectators in the final few hundred metres before the summit. Not even a burly fan in blue salopettes running heedlessly alongside at full tilt could disturb the composure of the Spaniard, who allowed Rominger to lead him over the summit and past the imposing memorial to Desgrange ahead of a Colombian rider, Alvaro Mejia.

At the finish, after a gradual 27km descent from the grey-faced Galibier into the smiling sunshine of Serre-Chevalier, Rominger and Mejia crossed the line a few yards ahead of Indurain, who seemed perfectly content to let his rivals have the day's glory, secure in the knowledge that he had taken another three minutes out of Breukink, who now dropped behind Mejia and a young Pole, Zenon Jaskula, in the general classification. Rominger had rid

den hard and well, but Indurain's gesture was almost certainly prompted by the Swiss rider's ill-fortune in the first week, when he lost two colleagues to injury before the team time trial, was penalised a minute after officials decided that the remaining members had given each other illegal pushes, and then suffered from two punctures and unfavourable weather in the crucial individual race against the watch.

Indurain's serene generosity showed the extent of his dominance. Gianni Bugno certainly seemed to be thinking as much after trailing in almost eight minutes behind. 'It's finished for me, and for everybody else,' said the disillusioned man in the world champion's rainbow jersey. 'In fact I think I'm going to find myself a new job. Indurain is a phenomenon.'

Someone, though, was feeling even worse than Bugno. Way back in 86th place, 21 minutes behind Rominger, Lance Armstrong, the youngest man in the race, had just endured his first day in the Alps, only three days after winning his first Tour stage.

The 21-year-old from Austin, Texas, had not exactly been short of confidence. He greeted his win in the stage from Chalons-sur-Marne to Verdun with a rapid-fire wit that seemed to owe something to the sardonic delivery of John McEnroe. Now, flopped on his bunk in a darkened bedroom of the Motorola team's hotel in Serre-Chevalier, he was facing some new truths.

'I was hurting today,' he said. 'It was a strange feeling. Complete emptiness. I guess I gave 100 per cent in the stage I won, and 100 per cent in the time trial. Maybe that's the problem.'

Had the whole experience of a big

200km Tour stage in the Alps come as a surprise to him?

'Well, it certainly was long. Those climbs today . . . it's demoralising when you see a sign at the bottom that says '21km to the summit'. And they just keep on coming. Boom, boom, boom. I didn't even get the chance to go hard. I was just too wasted. I guess I started the day with my gas-tank light flashing.' A pause. 'Tomorrow may be my last day. I don't want to kill myself.'

The son of a car dealer and a real- estate agent, Armstrong swam competitively as a child, took up the triathlon at 14, and then switched to bikes, becoming a full-time racer three years ago. He turned pro after last year's Olympics, and won the US championship in March. Now he's being talked of as the new Greg LeMond.

Sports involving fitness and endurance are his thing. 'I was no good at American football or baseball or soccer, anything you need co-ordination for. I have no co-ordination.' Cycling, which probably makes more demands on a willingness to smash through walls than any other sport, perfectly suits his physique - and his other quality, which is a McEnroe-like intensity. 'I can go to the start-line,' he said, 'and look at the other guys and say, well, there's no way they want to win more than I do. No way. Because I want to win more than anybody.'

It was touching, then, to see him trying to cope with distress. He was thinking about another bad day, in San Sebastian a year ago, straight after the Olympics, when he'd come 111th out of 111 in a one-day race.

'I just remember those people laughing,' he said, 'which gives me an

other reason not to finish this race. I mean, I could finish it, but then I could be bollocksed for the rest of the season. No, I want to be fit to go to back to San Sebastian next month, two weeks after the Tour. And get my revenge.'

ON THURSDAY, Miguel Indurain rammed it home. The crushing victories of Monday and Wednesday, he seemed to be saying, had not been special efforts. He could do that, and maybe more besides, any time he wanted.

After a leisurely breakfast, the cast of the Tour de France - 3,500 people, from the two women who find cheap hotels for journalists to the president of Credit Lyonnais, the Tour's official bank - had assembled in the centre of Serre-Chevalier along with their 1,500 vehicles, ranging from a selection of helicopters to a quartet of motor-scooters got up to look like baskets of croissants and baguettes. The motorised breadbaskets were promoting that modern French abomination, a bakery chain, and were part of the caravane publicitaire which precedes the race by an hour, giving the spectators something else to look at and incidentally showering the countryside with race maps, sun-visors, plastic bags and other promotional detritus. In fresh sunshine, the whole deceptively chaotic cavalcade set off to the mournful strains of the 'Marche Marengo', played by the brass band of the local Chasseurs Alpins, neatly turned out in their snow-white uniforms, thick socks and brown mountain boots.

The racing was hard from the start, with Chiappucci trying to redeem himself in the eyes of a disappointed Italy by leading the pack up the moonscape

of the 2,360m Col d'Izoard and down past the broken tooth of rock to which are affixed twin plaques bearing the likenesses of two great rivals and Tour winners of the immediate post-war era, Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, subscribed by the readers of L'Equipe.

Not surprisingly, since it was invented and continues to be run by journalists, the Tour takes a sentimental view of history. Thursday's big test, though, didn't have much in the way of form. Opened in 1950, the road over the Col de la Bonette-Restefond had been used only twice before, in the early Sixties. On both occasions, the summit was reached first by Federico Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo.

When Robert Millar popped over the peak of what the local tourist board calls 'the highest road in Europe' on Thursday, Bahamontes's exploits crossed his mind. The Spaniard was three times crowned King of the Mountains, a title won by Millar in 1984. Until this moment, though, the Swallow of Glasgow had been having a bad race. At 34, Millar was thought to have one more good Tour in him; maybe just one more mountain stage win. But on Wednesday he missed a feeding station between the Glandon and the Galibier, had no energy when he needed it, and limped in 87th, one place behind Lance Armstrong.

He planned to put things right on Thursday, intending to save his effort for the final climb to the ski station at Isola 2000. But events conspired against him, and he found himself leading an attack halfway through the 180km stage. Dancing on the pedals as he did in his prime, with a light sway that seemed to impart a frictionless momentum to his machine, his thick brown ponytail bouncing on his shoulders, the little Scot dropped the Spaniard long before the summit of Bonette-Restefond. Then, descending the southern slope, through a bleak national park in which the klaxons and loudspeakers of the caravane publicitaire were silenced lest they disturb the protected chamoix and marmots, Millar encountered a headwind that allowed Indurain, Rominger and their pursuing pack to cut his lead from more than a minute to a few seconds by the foot of the last climb.

Remorselessly, moving like a big train, sharing the work, they chased him down before setting themselves for the prodigious ascent to the finish: a 45-minute climb of more than 1,000 vertical metres in 15km of road, taking in 30 hairpin bends - each one named and signposted after a former winner of the race.

The road, up the valley of the Guerche, had been closed to traffic for more than 36 hours. Nevertheless every square metre of verge was occupied by a camper van, or a tent, or a sleeping bag, or a picnic table. And every square centimetre of the road was covered with painted exhortations to the favourites. The waiting thousands were not disappointed.

'I didn't have enough time to adapt from riding the big gear in the valley to riding on the hill again,' Millar said afterwards. 'So I took it easy on the first part, the steep bit, and after they caught me I dropped back and recuperated a bit. Then I rode back up to them and waited for an opportunity.'

With 4km to go, and the worst of the hill behind him, Millar jumped. Past Delgado, past Jon Unzaga, past Mejia, past Hampsten and Chiappucci and Jaskula and Bjarne Riis and Rominger, and finally past Indurain himself. In no time the Scot had a lead of 100m.

It didn't work. By the 3km sign, he was history again. Once more Indurain took Rominger to the line, lifting his head with 10 metres to go and allowing the Swiss to put his wheel in front.

Millar crossed the line seventh. 'It was a nice day,' he said. But had it been his swan-song to the Tour? 'I don't know. I suffered a lot yesterday, but I knew why, and I knew I was riding good. Now I'll stay out of trouble and wait for the Pyrenees, next week. I think I might win one there. After that, it depends. I only do it for pleasure now. I don't have any real objectives any more. I just want to finish 12 Tours. And when I've finished 12, maybe I'll want to finish 13.'

FRIDAY was Miguel Indurain's birthday, and he spent it in the peloton, pedalling quietly down from the Alps through the aromatic lushness of Vence and Grasse, through the rustic villages and lavender fields of Peter Mayle's idealised Provence, through the good summer smells of the arriere pays and into the scrubby hills of the Massif de la Sainte-Baume, where picnickers hung birthday messages and Spanish flags from the little oak trees. The climbs were the sort of thing that wouldn't have got the yellow jersey out of bed on Wednesday or Thursday, and the pack allowed an obscure Italian, Fabio Roscioli, to sustain a long break through the horrible industrial suburbs of Marseilles and over the finishing line at the Plage du Prado.

Now Indurain needs only to avoid accidents to win his third consecutive Tour de France in Paris next Sunday. At 29, he may confidently look forward to equalling the record five victories of Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. His power, easeful style and strategic maturity seem to be such that he may even surpass them. It would be hard to find anyone in the retinue of 3,500 people following him around France last week who would be remotely inclined to bet against it.

And Lance Armstrong, after Wednesday's trauma, went back into the Alps on Thursday to test himself again. Shepherded by his team-mates Phil Anderson and Sean Yates, he finished just inside the top 100 before announcing, as he had predicted, that his Tour was over. The odds are that he, too, will be back.

(Photograph omitted)