Cycling / Tour de France: Race aces prepare to sweep up Lino - Nevens finds success after 12 years while Heppner applies some German bite to the favourites

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JAN NEVENS had waited 12 years as a professional for the moment, and yesterday the Belgian rider finally found his day of glory. Once he had been tipped to be the next Lucien van Impe, the Belgian famed for his mountain riding, but the tiny Nevens failed to hit the heights until his seventh Tour.

While Belgium and Nevens, now 33, had their victory, for the German fans lining the roads from the Dutch border to Koblenz Jens Heppner was their man.

A late lone chase gave the German 10th place, but more importantly a time gap of 1min 46sec on the pack containing the top rankers. It lifted him from seventh overnight to second overall, 2min 51sec behind the race leader, Pascal Lino of France.

It was the flourish the home fans had wanted as the Tour visited its fifth country in seven days, but today in Luxembourg, nation No 6 on the itinerary, the moment of truth should arrive in the 65-kilometre time trial.

It has been billed as the day Miguel Indurain could become El Toro by charging closer to the yellow jersey, or the matadors, Gianni Bugno and Greg LeMond, produce the kill.

Although they currently trail Lino by more than four minutes, the key statistics are the time differences between LeMond, Bugno and Indurain, currently 10th, 11th and 12th overall. As they enter the time trial, LeMond leads Bugno by 35 seconds and Indurain by 64 seconds.

Lino lost more than six minutes to the leaders in each of the time trials last year. 'We will all see everything clearer tomorrow night in Luxembourg,' the Frenchman said yesterday.

In fact Lino was prepared for today's abdication within minutes of first taking the leader's colours six days ago, but even with the anticipated shuffle of the aces into the top slots it will not be the end of the road for his like.

The supporting cast has been acting the shorts off the stars since the start, with the exception of the Claudio Chiappucci and LeMond double act in Brussels.

Yesterday was as busy as any, with the first hour of racing producing an average speed of 45kph as they swept into Euskirchen, along its Basingstoke Ring, passing a florist's shop whose title, Blumen Ecke, also had a faintly English ring.

Through the panorama of the Rhineland attacks were frequent and countered by the pack. Then six riders, including Nevens, found themselves building a lead that was to be decisive. As they entered Koblenz Nevens appeared to be struggling until he saw the red flag marking the final kilometre fluttering ahead. He was gone before his co-leaders, Jesper Skibby, Massimo Ghirotto, and Alberto Leanizbarrutia, realised.

'They probably thought I had cut my own throat, and would falter. I was tired, but this was going to be my greatest day,' Nevens said.

Another veteran, Fabio Parra, never saw Koblenz. Third in 1988, the Colombian, 33, failed to recapture that promise, and yesterday he suffered a painful coincidence. He broke ribs last year when he crashed on the eighth day. This time he made it to day nine before falling, and again has possible rib fractures.

The Tour has already claimed 19 victims. The 19th was the American Andy Bishop, who failed to beat the elimination deadline by more than 90 seconds yesterday.

Several went via crashes, some fell through illness and fatigue or, in the case of the petulant Mario Cipollini, homesickness. His race ended on Saturday with the Italian sprinter's need for home enforced by the lack of success he, and Italy, had believed his first Tour would bring.

The fast finishers have been out in the cold because countless attacks have ruined the chance of the mass finish they relish.

Cipollini's thoughts could be moving in another direction, too. 'I love the beautiful things in life, and women are beautiful things,' he told a French newspaper. Goodbye, Mr Cipollini.

TOUR DE FRANCE Stage eight (206.5km, Valkenburg, Neth, to Koblenz, Ger): 1 J Nevens (Lotto, Bel) 4hr 45min 23sec; 2 J Skibby (TVM, Den) +3sec; 3 M Ghirotto (Carrera, It); 4 A Leanizbarrutia (CLAS, Sp) both same time; 5 F Vanzella (GB-MG, It) +56; 6 Y Ledanois (Castorama, Fr) s/t; 7 A Zulle (ONCE, Swit) +2min 26sec; 8 O Ludwig (Panasonic, Ger) +2:30; 9 F Maassen (Buckler, Neth) s/t; 10 J Heppner (Telekom, Ger) +2:32; 11 L Jalabert (ONCE, Fr) +4:18; 12 A Van der Poel (Tulip, Neth) 13 J Museeuw (Lotto, Bel); 14 G Fidanza (Gatorade, It); 15 M De Clercq (Lotto, Bel) all s/t. Selected: 21 S Kelly (Festina, Irl) +4:18; 27 C Chiappucci (Carrera, It); 29 G Bugno (Gatorade, It); 36 S Roche (Carrera, Irl); 43 M Indurain (Banesto, Sp); 48 R Millar (TVM, GB); 70 G LeMond (Z, US); 109 M Earley (PDM, Irl); 110 S Yates (Motorola, GB) all s/t.

Overall: 1 P Lino (RMO, Fr) 35hr 35min 26sec; 2 Heppner +2min 51sec; 3 Skibby +2:54; 4 S Bauer (Motorola, Can) +3:11; 5 Ledanois +3:23; 6 Chiappucci +3:34; 7 Roche +4:11; 8 R Virenque (RMO, Fr) +4:15; 9 Leanizbarrutia +4:24; 10 LeMond +4:29; 11 Bugno +5:04; 12 Indurain +5:33; 13 G Perini (Carrera, It) +5:35; 14 E Bouwmans (Panasonic, Neth) +5:40; 15 L Fignon (Gatorade, Fr) +5:49. Selected: 24 Millar +6:47; 39 Kelly +9:33; 79 Earley +22:35; 101 Yates +28:29.

(Photograph and map omitted)