So yesterday another chapter of mounting adventure was written as Indurain continued his quest for four Tour victories in a row. His would-be rivals are memories. Rominger, still weak from a stomach bug, lost almost 11 minutes on the road from Lourdes, and it will take a small miracle to claw back the 7min 56sec he lags behind Indurain overall.
Claudio Chiappucci, normally one of Indurain's chief tormentors, retired from the race before the start of the stage, with the stomach virus that almost brought him to a standstill on Wednesday. Gianni Bugno, another Italian threat of the past, lost more than 37 minutes and has slid out of contention.
Yesterday, on the ring of climbs known as the Circle of Death, the Casablanca-born Frenchman, Richard Virenque, blasted the stage apart. He and five others escaped near the top of the second mountain, Col d'Aspin, then four kilometres from the summit of the Tourmalet, one of the foundation stones of the Tour de France, Virenque drove away to spend the final 40 kilometres alone, up to the ski station of Luz Ardiden, recalling the day two years ago when he spent a day in the yellow jersey, three in the green points jersey, and five in the red polka dots of the best mountain racer.
He is back in the spots today and set for a third attempt to keep the jersey until Paris in nine days' time.
The curtain rose on the final kilometre to the finish yesterday with high-kicking pom-pom dancers performing for the crowds, but what the multitude really wanted was that third French victory and to see the Indurain road show in top gear. They were not disappointed.
Indurain is as cautious as ever. 'There are now three stages in which we must control the race before the Alps, and I must be very careful,' he said. 'My mission in this stage was to put more time between myself and Rominger. I have succeeded but there is still much to be done before I get to celebrate.'
As Chiappucci faded, his lively team-mate, Marco Pantani, bobbed up again, as he did to finish second in the Tour of Italy in June. He reached that high point with some remarkable escapes in the Dolomite mountains and is showing every threat of repeating it here.
TOUR DE FRANCE (12th stage, Lourdes to Luz Ardiden, 204.50km): 1 R Virenque (Fr) Festina 6hr 8min 32sec; 2 M Pantani (It) Carrera +4min 34sec; 3 O Pellicioli (It) Polti +5:52; 4 N Rodriguez (Col) ZG Mobili +7:02; 5 V Poulnikov (Ukr) Carrera +7:42; 6 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto; 7 L Leblanc (Fr) Festina both s/t; 8 L Cubino (Sp) Kelme +8:14; 9 H Buenahora (Col) Kelme +9:43; 10 A Camargo (Col) Kelme; 11 P Tonkov (Rus) Lampre s/t; 12 P Herve (Fr) Festina +10:07; 13 A de las Cuevas (Fr) Castorama +10:08; 14 T Davy (Fr) Castorama +10:22; 15 B Riis (Den) Gewiss Ballan +10:27; 16 U Bolts (Ger) Telekom +10:44; 17 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei Clas +10:51; 18 A Elli (It) GB-MG +11:07; 19 A Zuelle (Swit) ONCE +11:11; 20 R Gonzalez Arrieta (Sp) Banesto s/t. Selected: 55 L Armstrong (US) Motorola +20:09; 66 S Yates (GB) Motorola +25:26; 91 P Anderson (Aus) Motorola +37.22. Overall standings: 1 Indurain 58hr 3min 39sec; 2 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei Clas +7min 56sec; 3 Virenque s/t; 4 De las Cuevas +8:02; 5 Leblanc +8:35; 6 V Poulnikov (Ukr) +11:30; 7 Riis +11:44; 8 Pantani +11:55; 9 Davy +12:26; 10 P Ugrumov (Lat) Gewiss +13:17; 11 A Olano (Sp) Mapei Clas +14:05; 12 P Tonkov (Rus) Lampre +14:16; 13 Zuelle +16:13; 14 J-F Bernard (Fr) +16:14; 15 Rodriguez +16:44; 16 G Bortolami (It) Mapei Clas +17:38; 17 R Conti (It) Lampre +18:12; 18 P Lino (Fr) Festina +18:16; 19 A Elli (It) GB-MG +18:25; 20 A Peron (It) Polti +18:36. Selected: 56 Yates +40:10.
(Maps omitted)Reuse content