Cycling / Tour de France: Cipollini takes charge on full tanks: Italians employ surprise tactics to achieve breakthrough and advance to victory in team time trial

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THE barbecue fires were burning early on the roads through Normandy yesterday as the Tour de France advanced here, where nearly 50 years ago General Patton led an armoured charge to break the German lines.

Yesterday, nine Italian bicycles sped past thousands of roadside picnickers at more than 51kph (32mph) to take Mario Cipollini to the unexpected glory of the yellow jersey of Tour leader. His GB-MG squad achieved the kind of surprise in the 81-kilometre (50-mile) team time trial that 'Blood and Guts' Patton gained with his tactics in the same area.

They beat the pre-race favourites ONCE, the cosmopolitan line-up backed by Spanish cash, by five seconds, but ONCE could claim that the two punctures they suffered were more than enough to swing the race to Cipollini and company.

The Italian likes to be a playboy, but not when there is a sprint to be won, as in Sunday's stage. 'This yellow jersey is not a surprise, it is a dream. It proves, too, that I am not just a guy for the beach,' he said, referring to his preference to take time out for lazing around when he should be racing.

Yesterday, he and his team kicked sand in the faces of such as Miguel Indurain, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci. They plunged into temporary obscurity with Indurain 23rd, 1min 26sec behind Cipollini, but the Basque has been down with the lesser mortals before.

In 1991, he was 48th after six days, 3:32 in arrears, but arrived in Paris assured of his first Tour victory by more than three and a half minutes.

With Chiappucci, 16th and 1:15 behind, and Bugno, 31st and 1:47, the scene is set for fighting back, which is precisely what Indurain will do in Monday's individual time trial, his speciality, and the Italian duo will attempt in the mountains, their forte.

Cipollini's team may have taken the time-trial honours, but ONCE have five riders in the leading eight. Regrettably for the Spanish sponsors, none is home-grown, but Switzerland's Alex Zulle is their main investment. Anyone who can beat Indurain in a time trial and take a yellow jersey from his shoulders in his first professional season, cannot go unnoticed.

If a man suffered for his day in the saddle it was another Swiss, Tony Rominger, twice the winner of the Tour of Spain, and considered a strong contender in this Tour despite his hayfever.

He was 47sec off the overall lead at yesterday's start, and slid from 10th to 88th, as his team were more than three minutes slower than the winners. Then he and four team-mates were punished for pushing each other, and a further minute was added to his total time, which means he will be out of the top 100 by the time the results have been adjusted.

Centuries ago, King Henry II did his penance here for the murder of Thomas a Becket, but Rominger's 'crime' hardly seems to fit his penalty. Such is the discipline of time trialling, cycling's race of truth.

TOUR DE FRANCE Fourth stage (Team time trial, 81km, 50.6 miles, Dinard to Avranches): 1 GB- MG (It) 1hr 34min 10sec; 2 ONCE (Sp) +5sec; 3 Motorola (US) +26; 4 Novemail (Neth) +31; 5 Carrera (It) +47; 6 Telekom (Ger) +1min 21sec; 7 Banesto (Sp) +1:22; 8 Gatorade (It) +1:34; 9 Ariostea (It) +1:36; 10 Lampre (It) +1:49; 11 WordPerfect (Neth) +1:59; 12 TVM (Neth) +2:10; 13 Castorama (Fr) +2:15; 14 Clas (Sp) +3:06; 15 Lotto (Bel) +3:14.

Overall: 1 M Cipollini (It, GB-MG) 16hr 57min 51sec; 2 W Nelissen (Bel, Novemail) +6sec; 3 A Zulle (Swit, ONCE) +21; 4 L Jalabert (Fr, ONCE) +22; 5 Z Jaskula (Poland, GB-MG) +29; 6 J Bruyneel (Bel, ONCE) +39; 7 E Breukink (Neth, ONCE) same time; 8 P Louviot (Fr, ONCE) +52 9 J Museeuw (Bel, GB- MG) +58; 10 F Ballerini (It, GB-MG) +1min 5sec; 11 S Bauer (Can, Motorola) +1:07; 12 C Mottet (Fr, Novemail) +1:09; 13 A Hampsten (US, Motorola) +1:10; 14 R Sorensen (Den, Carrera) +1:13; 15 L Armstrong (US, Motorola) +1:15. Selected: 20 S Roche (Irl, Carrera) +1:19; 23 M Indurain (Sp, Banesto) +1:26; 27 S Yates (GB, Motorola) +1:37; 83 R Millar (GB, TVM) +3:19.