Cycling / Tour de France: Museeuw advances Belgian enterprise

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The Independent Online
THROUGH the picture postcard vistas of the champagne countryside, no one was in the mood for a photo-finish to the seventh stage of the Tour de France but they got that and more at Chalons-sur- Marne yesterday.

Bjarne Riis gave Denmark their second stage win in three days, and Johan Museeuw became the second Belgian to take the yellow jersey of Tour leader from Italy's Mario Cipollini.

As if that was not drama enough to round off the first week of the 3,720-kilometre race, Riis's Italian team-mate, Bruno Cenghialta, was brought down by a motor-cycle as seven riders battled out the final 500 metres.

The Ariostea rider still finished ahead of the main pack, containing the aces. They arrived 2min 29sec after Riis and Museeuw, and did not even see Cenghialta running the final few hundred metres with his mangled bike so that he could take seventh place, and receive the same finishing time as the tail-end of the leading group.

Riis had already inspired Danish euphoria by taking the red polka-dotted jersey of the King of the Mountains leader from his Italian team-mate, Davide Cassani, who had beaten him at the first climb of the 199km leg from Peronne.

Riis fired off the move that was to bring him victory as he mopped up the four remaining climbs. His attack on the descent from the first hill inspired others.

Riis was joined by Cenghialta, Leonardo Sierra, of Venezuela, and the triple threat of Australia's Phil Anderson, Colombia's Alvaro Mejia, and the Italian, Max Sciandri, all from Motorola.

Museeuw, who started the day in 10th place, 1min 22sec behind the Italian, said: 'I knew Riis and Sciandri were very fast. I've been trying to get in breakaway groups for days and this was the right one, at last. I wanted the yellow jersey today because it might be the only time in my career that I get the chance.'

As their lead grew, Museeuw became the new Belgian hope to follow Wilfried Nelissen, who had spent the week in and out of the yellow jersey.

The day started with Cipollini 12 seconds clear of Nelissen in the overall standings, and it finished with the feuding pair out of the yellow-jersey picture. Both are well over a minute in arrears.

Riis made a late lunge at victory yesterday to edge out Sciandri and Museeuw on the stage but the latter was triumphant with an overall Tour lead of 39 seconds.

'Museeuw is very strong but I felt that I could do it,' Riis, who has twice won stages in the Tour of Italy, said afterwards. 'I didn't go to the front at all during the last five kilometres to conserve myself. I took it from third place 100 metres out. It's the perfect place to be. The leader runs out of steam in a long sprint and the one behind him has to attack from too far out. I was quite happy where I was.'

The hotels of Riis and Museeuw were not the only places to be celebrating last night. The Motorola HQ was bubbling in spite of their three-pronged attack failing to take the stage.

Anderson and Sciandri had won 160 bottles of champagne for being the first of the leaders through the village of Fleury-la-Riviere. Then Mejia made it 260, another 100 bottles being his reward for being the first rider to pass through Ay. Motorola could at least celebrate the climb of Mejia into second overall.

Tomorrow brings the first of two major time trials, and after a week of fussy grabbing of seconds by Nelissen and Cipollini in their tussle for the lead, everyone is anticipating a spectacular showing by the defending champion, Miguel Indurain.

After his 49kph plus performance in the short, sharp opening time trial in the Vendee, Tour followers are anticipating another high-speed show around Lake Madine where the 59km circuit will suit the big Basque even better.

He has to wipe out a deficit of 3:17 but last year he demolished an even bigger target, 5:33, with another 49kph ride. That brought him to within 1:27 of the leader's yellow jersey after the Luxembourg time trial over 65km.

There is a day's rest on Tuesday as the riders fly to Grenoble in readiness for the Alps, and that is where Indurain will need all the team support he can muster to counter the Italian threat of Claudio Chiappucci and Gianni Bugno.

(Maps omitted)