Cycling / Tour de France: Pantani heralds a new era: Indurain's lead cut as younger riders put on show of strength in formidable Alps

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MIGUEL INDURAIN remains on course to win his fourth successive Tour de France, but the formidable climb yesterday to one of the race's most famous finishes at l'Alpe d'Huez provided further confirmation that a new era of riders are challenging the Spaniard's supremacy.

The stage was won by Roberto Conti, who is well down in the overall classification, but the day's most significant performances were those of his fellow Italian, Marco Pantani, and the Frenchman, Richard Virenque, who gained 2min 14sec and 35sec respectively on Indurain. Virenque cut Indurain's overall advantage to 7min 21sec, while Pantani moved up a place to fifth, gaining time on all the leaders.

As Conti climbed towards his first victory in eight years as a professional, behind him the scattered remains of an original breakaway group of 14 were being drawn in as Indurain began to limit the damage done by Virenque, who had launched his own attack on the daunting 13- kilometre climb to l'Alpe d'Huez, which snakes skywards through 21 hairpin bends.

The Frenchman in his red polka dot jersey of best climber was a constant worry to Indurain. The Spaniard, seeking to become only the third man to win the race four times in a row, finished the stage in 12th position, one place behind Virenque.

Virenque took his cue from Pantani's earlier rapid attack. Pantani has become Virenque's biggest rival for the King of the Mountains jersey, despite being 120 points behind, and today offers more scoring opportunities. The stage features three major Alpine passes, the Col du Glandon, the Col de la Madeleine and, to finish, the biggest of the three, the 2,275- metre Val Thorens.

Italian fans were probably repainting their banners last night in readiness for today's stage. With the established Italian riders Claudio Chiappucci and Gianni Bugno failing to shine, it is now 'Forza Pantani' as the balding mountaineer from the Adriatic coast continues to play a central role in this year's action in the mountains. He is now only 25sec behind the fourth-placed Frenchman, Armand de las Cuevas.

Pantani made the tifosi aware of his talents with stage wins in the Tour of Italy, but twice this week the fans have been caught cold by unknown riders. First the tall Eros Poli came out of the pack for a great solo performance over the Ventoux mountain on Monday and yesterday Conti broke his professional duck.

The road to l'Alpe d'Huez was packed with bodies and painted with slogans, while flags of all nations flew throughout its length. Inspiration enough for anyone and Conti, the Lampre rider, loved it as he escaped from the breakaway group shortly before the final ascent. Conti finished more than two minutes ahead of a pursuing Colombian, Hernan Buenahora, and 7min 56sec clear of Indurain.

'In other years when I have climbed this mountain with the main field I have cracked after the first three kilometres,' Conti said. 'This time I decided to try it alone at my own pace. I felt like making the others work to come and get me.'

Today at the start in Bourg d'Oisans Conti will be presented with a miner's lamp by local pitmen and their union committee for the region's unemployed.

It may be smart public relations for their cause, but the union's attempts to draw attention to the unemployed's plight by painting slogans on the route were quickly erased by Tour workers before the race and - more particularly - the TV cameras arrived. There was a good reason for this whitewash: a rival union is part of the Tour publicity caravan.

With five days remaining before the Paris finale, the Tour still has 128 men on the road. Seven more departed yesterday, with complaints ranging from toothache to dead legs.

The Spaniard Arsenio Gonzalez and the German Olaf Ludwig were each fined 50 Swiss francs yesterday ( pounds 25) for relieving themselves in public on yesterday's stage. Ludwig also received a 10-second penalty for leaning on one of his Telekom team cars.

(Photograph and maps omitted)