Cycling: Tour de France: Riders made to pay for wasting too much effort: Robin Nicholl says a lack of self- discipline has made the Tour harder

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The Independent Online
SEVENTY riders will be relaxing at home as the Tour de France completes 3,970 kilometres on the Champs Elysees tomorrow after a race that has left the remaining 119 competitors 'worn out and fed up'.

For the past three weeks the Tour's riders have been cooked and battered by temperatures of 39C and average speeds of more than 40kph. Depleted by fatigue, sickness and crashes, the race will be remembered as the one that wiped out most of the contenders, freeing Miguel Indurain to claim his fourth Tour win in a row.

From the crunching crash that gave Laurent Jalabert a broken jaw to the sapping heat that indirectly accounted for Tony Rominger and Claudio Chiappucci, it has been an exhausting Tour for all.

It was the riders themselves who decided how tough things were going to be. For the first two weeks, and through the Pyrenees, the average speed did not fall below 40kph, with plenty of wasted energy.

Ronan Pensec, who wore the yellow jersey four years ago, yearns for the days when Bernard Hinault was the shop steward of the Tour, quick to discipline anyone who tried a foolish attack.

'He was the real boss of the pack,' Pensec said. 'He used to shout at us for rash moves, but Indurain doesn't give a damn for us. It's hell. I just want to go home. We are worn out and fed up, and it's not over yet.'

Hinault had the experience, discipline and understanding to save riders from self-inflicted disaster, but the easy-going Indurain lets it all happen if it is no danger to himself.

'It is a very hard Tour. More so than any others I have ridden,' Johan Museeuw said. The Belgian and his GB MG teammates had to defend his yellow jersey for two days before Indurain stepped in.

'It's too hard for me. Two weeks would be enough. From the beginning, everyone has been racing hard. With that, the heat and the transfers between stages, particularly to and from England, we come to the mountains and everyone is tired.'

Stephen Hodge is a team worker for Richard Virenque, Luc Leblanc and Pascal Lino, who are in the top 10. He came to the start three weeks ago having recently recovered from shingles.

'In this last week we are waking up feeling tired and with sore legs. I got in a winning move but had to be content with third place because I am not in a good enough state to win after being ill,' he said.

'Then the other day I was nursing Pascal Herve to the finish so that he did not get eliminated by falling too far behind the race.'

The Tour doctor, Gerard Porte, put the high casualty rate down to three factors: the high racing speeds, the heat and digestion problems. He said: 'Riders are drinking a lot of water that is too cold for their systems. When it is very hot they don't sleep well so they don't recuperate sufficiently from one day to the next. The fatigue just builds up. There is not much anyone can do about it.'

It has beaten many, including Amsterdam-born Pat Jonker, a Tour rookie. He said: 'When I am not riding I am in bed, and getting out of it in the morning is pretty difficult. I knew the Tour was hard but it is harder than I thought. It is very important to keep eating.' However, the heat affects appetites. Jonker pulled out lighter than when he started on a day when the race lost 18 riders.

Chris Boardman had instant success with a stage win and three days as the Tour leader, but, more importantly, learned a lot for the future. 'Racing away to grab 10 seconds at the finish may seem useful but the cost physically over a number of days is immense,' he said. He returned from the Tour after 11 days, two kilogrammes lighter.

Britain's other yellow-jersey wearer, Sean Yates, has the background of 12 Tours behind him. 'Conserving energy is the key,' he said. 'I took it easy on the big mountains to guard as much as I could in case I need it another day. Yet guys were driving past me, giving it everything, just to grab a couple of minutes. What is the point if you are not in contention?

'It is hard enough when you are 100 per cent. The thought of becoming ill in the mountains always stresses me in the Tour. It has happened to me, and it's hell. You just hang on and pray that no one starts attacking.'

Bjarne Riis fought through the stomach trouble that finished off several riders to become a useful ally to his teammate, Piotr Ugrumov, in a decisive move. He is still there as the Tour de sufferance heads for Paris.