Cycling: Tour de France: Mondini win leaves leader in the clear

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The Independent Online
THE ODDS favoured the first French stage victory in the Tour de France, but local luck was out again as Gianpaolo Mondini gave Italy their seventh stage win by escaping while his 12 co-leaders, including five Frenchmen, played cat-and-mouse tactics with each other instead of pursuing him over the final four kilometres into the Futuroscope theme park, near Poitiers.

Mondini, who has won races in such diverse places as Japan, Sweden, and Poland, slipped away almost unchallenged as his rivals dallied for the last 55 kilometres to provide Italy with possibly its easiest stage win. He is only in his first Tour because the Sergei Gontchar, a Ukrainian, went over the 50 per cent limit in a blood test designed to guarded against use of erythropoietin (EPO), which tends to thicken the blood in generating additional red cells to increase its oxygen capacity. That barred Gontchar's Vini Caldirola squad from the Tour.

Mondini, 27 last week, dedicated his victory to his fiancee. "She has been patient while I have been away for some 40 days."

He was among 12 riders who caught the French rider Frederic Bessy 55 km from the finish. "I knew Bessy was tired, so I just kept my eyes on the meter. I was never below 50 kph," Mondini said.

Their escape was of no consequence to the Tour leader, Lance Armstrong, who still has a lead of 6min 15sec after finishing 3min 7sec abehind Mondini.

Racing opened with 19 riders escaping, a group that fell to five who were more than two and a half minutes clear after 91 kilometres. The Credit Agricole team, including Britain's Chris Boardman, chased hard to reel them in to safeguard Stuart O'Grady's figuring of winning a sprint finish.

The Australian crashed at 70kph in the last two kilometres on Thursday, and yesterday gave a repeat performance in the confusion of the feeding zone where riders grab linen bags of food from helpers without stopping.

He, Spain's Pedro Horillo and Italian Sergio Barbero were quickly back on their bikes. It was not an auspicious signal for O'Grady, who had said earlier that he was feeling better than at any other time in the Tour.

After Thursday's protest by the firemen, the wine-makers of Jonzac made their presence felt at the start. Consequently the race was shortened by 2.5 kilometres, although the vignerons proved a peaceable bunch.

It was not a welcome interruption, though, especially for the 11 teams had an early-morning visit from the "vampires", the teams' nickname for the Union Cycliste Internationale medical team, and 17 riders, including the top 10 overall, had to provide blood tests. Every test proved clear, a relief for the organisers, who this year have suffered a hangover from last year's doping scandal with Armstrong defending himself against allegations in some French newspapers.

Today's stage is the final time-trial of the Tour and Armstrong's chance to boost his overall lead over Spain's Fernando Escartin. His victory in the 56.5km time trial at Metz was the foundation of his lead, and today's race over a flat course, starting and finishing at Futuroscope, offers nothing to Escartin, a man of the mountains.

The last man to win all three Tour time-trials was Spain's Miguel Indurain seven years ago, but Spain's only out and out against-the-clock racer is Abraham Olano, who is weary and dejected after a tough time in the mountains.


18TH STAGE (Jonzac to Futuroscope, 184.5km) Leading positions: 1 G Mondini (It) Cantina Tollo 4hr 17min 43sec; 2 J-C Robin (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux 3 sec behind; 3 A Vinokourov (Kazak) Casino; 4 M Piccoli (It) Lampre; 5 C Lamour (Fr) Cofidis; 6 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole; 7 S Garzelli (It) Mercatone Uno; 8 J Jaksche (Ger) Telekom; 9 E Aggiano (It) Vitalicio Seguros; 10 T Bourguignon (Fr) Big Mat; 11 C Solaun (Sp) Banesto; 12 Vi Garcia-Acosta (Sp) Banesto all same time; 13 F Bessy (France) Casino +14; 14 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank 3:07; 15 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 16 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole; 17 C da Cruz (Fr) Big Mat; 18 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat; 19 J Hernandez (Sp) Festina; 20 L Auger (Fr) Big Mat all same time. Selected: 43 A Olano (Sp) ONCE +3min 7sec; 51 R Virenque (Fr) Polti; 70 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank all same time.

Leading overall standings:1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal 86hr 46min 20sec; 2 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme +6min 15sec; 3 A Zuelle (Swit) Banesto +7:28; 4 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco +10:30; 5 R Virenque (Fr) Polti +11:40; 6 D Nardello (It) Mapei +13:27; 7 A Casero (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +13:34; 8 A Olano (Sp) ONCE +14:29; 9 W Belli (It) Festina +15:14; 10 K van de Wouwer (Bel) Lotto +18:35; 11 D Etxebarria (Sp) ONCE +19:31; 12 A Peron (It) ONCE +20:17; 13 B Salmon (Fr) Casino +22:55; 14 R Meier (Swit) Cofidis +23:37; 15 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux+24:15; 16 T Hamilton (Fr) US Postal +25:24; 17 P Lanfranchi (It) Mapei +26:03; 18 C Contreras (Col) Kelme +26:46; 19 A Elli (It) Telekom +28:06; 20 G Totschnig (Au) Telekom +31:58. Selected: 54 Boogerd +1:34:19.