As the race tackled the Col de Marie Blanque in the Pyrenees on Monday, last year's top four finishers moved clear of the pack. A few yards back, three former winners watched the gap open. All looked capable of moving across to the leaders, but they chose not to. In French cycling parlance, they 'sat on the wheels'.
Laurent Fignon, of France, scored crushing wins in the 2,500- mile race in 1983 and 1984. Ireland's Stephen Roche rode to a canny victory in 1987, while Spain's Pedro Delgado was unstoppable in 1988. Yet on that climb in the Pyrenees all three acknowledged that they may well be limited to playing second fiddle in this year's race.
A more accurate term might in fact be reserve first violin. For Fignon, Roche and Delgado have all come to the Tour to further their careers by assisting younger men to take cycling's most coveted prize. If the younger generation falls down, they will ride in, or so they hope. But their acceptance of such a role amounts to an admission that none of them has confidence that he can win the race.
Last year, Delgado was instrumental in his team-mate and fellow Spaniard Miguel Indurain's first victory. He was able to advise Indurain on how to cope with the pressure of leading the world's biggest annual sporting event: during the day the Tour de France leader is an Aunt Sally for his rivals' attacks while in the evening, he has to cope with the incessant demands of television and press.
Delgado also played the part of tactical foil: if he stayed with Indurain's rivals when they attacked, they would be less likely to persist, knowing he would be able to take an easy ride. In the event, Indurain was so strong, and his rivals so intimidated, that he was not even attacked.
During the winter, the two Italian stars who finished behind Indurain in 1991, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci, restructured their teams, conscious of Indurain's advantage with Delgado at his side. Bugno brought in Fignon, Chiappucci brought in Roche. Both were signed on the understanding that they would play a supporting role in the Tour de France, if the younger man proved stronger.
Ironically, before he achieved world status Chiappucci was one of Roche's work horses in the Irishman's days in Italy, while until last year Indurain was devoted to Delgado's service. In 1990 he gave up a chance of victory in the Tour to help Delgado, for whom he has passionate respect.
Each one knows that his status will be decided as the race unfolds: tomorrow's 65km individual time-trial around Luxembourg will be crucial. If Delgado, Fignon or Roche finishes behind their younger leader, they will be relegated to second in the hierarchy until the finish in Paris unless the other man cracks.
This week, Roche has played the team-mate's role expected of him. In the opening stage at San Sebastian he and Chiappucci left the triple winner, Greg LeMond, behind on the first climb. Roche piled the pressure on to take Chiappucci and the rest clear of the American.
Next day in the Pyrenees, Roche marked the French danger man, Luc Leblanc, while Chiappucci did his best to forge a lead with Bugno and Indurain. Delgado and Fignon did the same job, which left Leblanc open to attack from three sides if he spent too much energy in the chase.
Roche and Fignon were driving forces in Wednesday's team trial, where they and their leaders regained most of the time which Indurain took in the individual opener. In this test of collective strength, a senior man is vital to organise the other team members, who must give it everything, but stay together to record a fast time. 'I was telling the others how hard to ride, how long to ride for, and if they were going too hard for the rest,' Roche said.
When Chiappucci broke away on Friday, the Irishman played an important part in slowing his pursuers down. Yesterday, Chiappucci returned the favour, saying at the start of this stage that it was Roche's turn to attack.
However, the presence of a second ambitious rider in a Tour de France team can also create problems. In 1986, the five-times winner, Bernard Hinault, swore he would help LeMond, then seemed to do everything in his power to make the American lose. Last year, Fignon was unable to accept Leblanc as team leader. In each case the team was split.
Roche, Fignon and Delgado all know just how sweet victory in the Tour can be. If they have the condition when the race hits the Alps this week, they may find the temptation to put self above team becomes difficult to master.
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