Cycling / Tour de France:: Featherless Bird soars once more: Pantani gains on Indurain as Rodriguez takes the stage while finish deadline is extended to keep 68 riders in the race

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The Independent Online
THE Tour de France came close to being the Tour de Farce yesterday, but the legal eagles of cycling saved the day. Under the time elimination rule of the race, 68 riders would have been thrown out for failing to beat the finishing deadline, which would have left an already depleted Tour with only 58 riders for the final four days to Paris.

Those under threat were saved by an international rule that allows the deadline to be extended if more than 20 per cent of the field are affected. That ruling added eight minutes to the limit, allowing the race to start today with 126 riders, which was a relief to officials after having lost 63 to sickness, the heat and the fast pace.

The legal eagles apart, birds of a different feather were flying high in yesterday's Alpine stage, and again the Italian, Marco Pantani, distinguished himself.

After Baggio and Berlusconi, the nation needed lifting and the racer they call the Featherless Bird of the Mountains soared again in the standings after a plucky ride over three mountains.

Yet after 22 of the 149km he had to be talked out of quitting after falling heavily on his left knee. It was a time for quick inspiration and his Carrera team manager, Davide Boisava, offered it with: 'Go on, do it for Claudio.'

That was enough for Pantani. He had originally come to the Tour to support his room-mate and team leader, Claudio Chiappucci, but illness had sent his compatriot home.

With five of the 36km remaining up to Val Thorens, Europe's highest ski station at 2,275 metres, the bald head of Pantani went down as he produced his now daily charge for the finish line.

He had little chance of catching the Colombian, Nelson Rodriguez, who was winning his duel with Latvia's Piotr Ugrumov, but Pantani's drive took him to third place on the stage and lifted him to third in the overall standings.

He is only 50 seconds behind the Frenchman, Richard Virenque, and even Miguel Indurain knows that Pantani is hard to hold.

He showed Indurain a clean pair of wheels to finish second overall in the Tour of Italy, and whereas he cannot dislodge the Spaniard from first place, Pantani is putting fire into a tour that the reigning champion had put the damper on with his cautious tactics.

'I feel the hopes of Italy are on my shoulders,' Pantani said. ' I am only 24 and after my Tour of Italy performance I had come to this race to help Claudio.'

Further pressure was put on the young star by Gino Bartali, whose climbing prowess earned him two Tour victories either side of the Second World War. The ageing Bartali asked Pantani to 'defend my honour in the mountains.'

Pantani is doing his utmost, and Luc Leblanc, one of the French hopes, is tipping him to displace Virenque and finish second overall. 'It's a long time since we have seen such a strong climber in the Tour,' Leblanc said after Pantani had displaced him from third place overall.

Everyone had their struggles yesterday. Ugrumov lost his with the bantam-like Rodriguez, who weighs in at 9st, and who at 5ft 5in has to look up to giants such as Indurain.

Not yesterday, however, as Rodriguez, Ugrumov and the towering Dane, Bjarne, Riis raced away on the second climb, the Col de la Madeleine. Indurain could affford to let them take some time and once Rodriguez had disposed of Riis the pressure was off Indurain.

It was to return, however, as Pascal Lino, Leblanc and Virenque drove hard at the front of Indurain's group, and at the finish Indurain admitted that, whereas Pantani did not concern him particularly, the three Festina riders were always a problem.

TOUR DE FRANCE 17th stage (Bourg d'Oisans to Val Thorens, 149km, 93 miles): 1 N Rodriguez (Col) ZG Mobili 5hr 13min 52sec; 2 P Ugrumov (Lat) Gewiss Ballan +3secs; 3 M Pantani (It) Carrera +1min 8sec; 4 R Virenque (Fr) Festina +2:37; 5 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto; 6 A Zulle (Swi) ONCE all same time; 7 L Leblanc (Fr) Festina +2:40; 8 R Conti (It) Lampre +2:44; 9 H Buenahora (Col) Kelme +2:45; 10 U Bolts (Ger) Telkom +2:52; 11 A Elli (It) GB-MG; 12 F Escartin (Sp) Mapei Clas all s/t; 13 R Sorensen (Den) GB-MG +3:13; 14 O Pellicioli (It) Polti +3:47; 15 P Lino (Fr) Festina +4:01; 16 F Chioccioli (It) Mercatone Uno +4:10; 17 F Munoz (Col) Kelme +4:12; 18 G Bortolami (It) Mapei Clas +4:38; 19 T Davy (Fr) Castorama s/t; 20 B Riis (Den) Gewiss Ballan +5:42. Selected: 38 S Yates (GB) Motorola +20:02. Lead

ing overall standings: 1 Indurain 86hr 42min 45sec; 2 Virenque +7:21; 3 Pantani +8:11; 4 Leblanc +8:38; 5 Conti +10:04; 6 Ugrumov +11:34; 7 Elli +14:12; 8 Zulle +16:44; 9 Bolts +18:55; 10 V Poulnikov (Ukr) Carrera +19:15; 11 Davy +20:04; 12 Lino +20:32; 13 Rodriguez +24:18; 14 Pellicioli +24:51; 15 Escartin +25:17; 16 Buenahora +26:32; 17 A de las Cuevas (Fr) Castorama +26:40; 18 Bortolami 28:15; 19 Riis +28:29; 20 C Mottet (Fr) Novemail 32:11. Selected: 67 Yates +1hr 37min 32sec.

King of the Mountains: 1 Virenque 327pts; 2 Pantani 177; 3 Rodriguez 142. Points classification: 1 D Abdoujaparov (Uzbek) Polti 277; 2 S Martinello (It) Mercatone Uno 225; 3 J Svorada (Slovak) Lampre 199. Overall team classification: 1 Festina 262hr 32min 31sec; 2 Mapei Clas 261:8:53; 3 Banesto 261:12:32.

(Maps omitted)