Cycling / Tour de France: Poli beats the Bald Mountain: Italian's courage pays off as Indurain reinforces his lead

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THE lofty Italian, Eros Poli, produced a performance to match his stature as the Tour de France took on another giant, the 1,910-metre Ventoux mountain yesterday.

It was the appropriate backdrop for courage and the tallest rider in the race at 6ft 5in was full of that quality in his 171- km solo run that gave this gentleman from Verona his greatest victory since his amateur days of Olympic and World Championship gold.

He toiled under the hot sun to build a lead of 24 minutes by the foot of the Ventoux. There the 231-km race blew apart, leaving some to finish nearly 30 minutes behind.

As Miguel Indurain scrapped with the climbers on the parched mountain road, Poli's lead was shrivelling, but he reached the Carpentras finish with more than three and a half minutes in hand - time enough to throw his cap into the crowd and make a stage- type bow with arms extended before falling weeping into the arms of a team helper.

Poli, the team workhorse, with just a win in Australia to his professional credit, was released from his chores because of the loss of key team-mates.

'This is my first tour win and I dedicate it to my family and all those riders who have had to quit,' he said. Yesterday that list grew longer and the world champion Lance Armstrong was the latest notable addition, joining Greg LeMond, Claudio Chiappucci, Gianni Bugno and Tony Rominger. All these former contenders have been beaten by illness or fatigue but Armstrong has quit to concentrate on his build-up to the defence of his world road-race title in Sicily next month.

Yesterday Ventoux was the challenge, and Poli bravely took on its 17km of climbing that rose above the tree line to the rocky moonscape that has earned it the title of the Bald Mountain.

Marco Pantani, the balding Italian, felt it was appropriate to show the mountain talents that have given him two stages in the Tour of Italy and made him a man to watch. Indurain felt that way about the rider the Italians call the Featherless Bird of the Mountains and he clipped his wings 11-km from the finish, leaving Poli to enjoy his glory in security.

Indurain had his first real sweat yesterday when, in a 70kph chase down the mountain, his rear wheel skidded on softened tar, sending him across the road close to the edge of a drop. He fought to bring the bike under control, putting a foot to the ground to steady himself. Otherwise he was totally in control, making Richard Virenque, his nearest rival in the overall standings, work hard to hang on.

TOUR DE FRANCE 15th stage (231km, 144 miles, Montpellier to Carpentras): 1 E Poli (It) Mercatone Uno 6hr 31min 59sec; 2 A Elli (It) GB-MG +3min 39sec; 3 P Lino (Fr) Festina same time; 4 R Conti (It) Lampre +3:41; 5 R Virenque (Fr) Festina +4:00; 6 A de las Cuevas (Fr); 7 P Ugrumov (Lat) Gewiss-Ballan; 8 A Zulle (Swit) ONCE; 9 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto; 10 M Pantani (It) Carrera; 11 V Poulnikov (Ukr) Carrera; 12 L Leblanc (Fr) Festina all s/t; 13 U Bolts (Ger) Telekom +5:42; 14 B Cenghialta (It) Gewiss-Ballan; 15 H Buenahora (Col) Kelme all s/t; 16 G Bortolami (It) Mapei-Clas +7:46; 17 C Mottet (Fr) Novemail; 18 E Caritoux (Fr) Chazal; 19 B Hamburger (Den) TVM; 20 P Herve (Fr) Festina all s/t. Selected: 110 S Yates (GB) Motorola +23:00. Overall standings: 1 Indurain 75hr 11min 35sec; 2 Virenque +7min 56sec; 3 De las Cuevas +8:02; 4 L Leblanc (Fr) Festina +8:35; 5 V Poulnikov (Ukr) Carrera +11:30; 6 M Pantani (It) Carrera +11:55; 7 P Ugrumov (Lat) Gewiss-Ballan +13:37; 8 T Davy (Fr) Castorama +16:12; 9 Zulle +16:13; 10 A Olano (Sp) Kelme +17:51; 11 Conti +17:53; 12 P Lino (Fr) Festina +17:55; 13 A Elli (It) GB-MG +18:04; 14 J-F Bernard (Fr) +20:00; 15 Bortolami +21:24; 16 Herve +21:40; 17 O Pellicioli (It) Polti +22:28; 18 N Rodriguez (Col) ZG-Mobili +22:43; 19 Bolts +22:47; 20 B Riis (Den) Gewiss-Ballan +23:33. Selected: 58 Yates +59:10.

(Maps omitted)