Riis made a late charge and took the stage, leaving Indurain, on his 30th birthday, with the yellow jersey and few capable of seriously challenging him. Riis stayed with his breakaway group until the last 20 kilometres, then sprinted away with the peloton a minute and 40 seconds behind, taking the stage by nine seconds from the Slovak Jan Svorada.
Weakened by stomach trouble since Wednesday, the 33- year-old Rominger, who had been trailing Indurain by nearly eight minutes, found riding in temperatures of 36C too much to handle. 'I suffered a lot on Friday,' he said after complaining of a stomach ache before the start of yesterday's stage. 'I had blood tests to see if it's a virus.'
Rominger's sad exit, during a relatively easy flat stage, came in sharp contrast to his hopes at the start of the race. After coming second to Indurain in last year's Tour, and winning his third consecutive Tour of Spain last May, he was being widely tipped to break the Spaniard's stranglehold on the title. He had even overtaken Indurain as No 1 in the world rankings.
He suffered the first of two blows which eventually brought him down in last Monday's individual time trial, losing a full two minutes in Indurain's courageous race against the clock. The second blow came in the mists of the Hautacam on Friday, when he lost another 2min 20sec in the tortuous 1,560m climb.
'I haven't had such a bad day in the mountains for four years,' he said. 'But I've no excuses. Indurain is very strong, stronger I think than even last year. He is brilliant, so impressive.'
Such has been Indurain's power, from his time-trial performance last week to his second and sixth placings in the mountains, that the group's biggest threat was the balding Riis, 11 minutes and 44 seconds behind him. Svorada outsprinted the flying Uzbek, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, for second place.
With the departure of Rominger, and the Italian Claudio Chiappucci, on Friday, Indurain is finding new rivals. Richard Virenque is a Frenchman who knows what it is like to wear a Tour jersey. At different times in 1992 he wore the yellow, the green jersey as points leader, and the red polka-dot colours of the best mountain climber.
He kept none, but this year is back with a new fire. He is in the spotted jersey once more and now ranks as Indurain's chief challenger, albeit seven minues and 56 seconds in arrears.
With more mountains to come and Virenque at his best on the slopes there could be a little anxiety for Indurain, but that is the last hope of a competitive race, which appears to have been won by Indurain's biggest margin, with eight days left.
Indurain is riding into the history books as the third man to win four Tours in a row. In Paris a week from today, if all goes well he should mount the podium once more in yellow.
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