Cycling / Tour de France: Roche returns to best form

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The Independent Online
THE RETURN of Stephen Roche to the triumphant peaks of 1987 gained a new foothold yesterday as the Tour de France headed into The Netherlands with the Dubliner racing like the man whose treble five years ago had world cycling buzzing.

Yesterday in Valkenburg, Roche lost the sprint for the line to another man making a comeback, the Frenchman Gilles Delion who is recovering from a blood disorder, but was more than content with the outcome.

He was eighth overnight, 5min 28sec in arrears, in the push for the yellow jersey of Tour leader. Second place in the seventh leg from Brussels raised Roche to fourth, above the leading contenders Greg LeMond and Gianni Bugno.

He is four minutes, 11 seconds behind the Tour leader, Pascal Lino of France. However, Roche's pleasure is tinged with apprehension because he is riding with a ruptured spinal disc, and he knows that the pain will torture him at crucial times, for instance in tomorrow's time-trial and during the Alpine days.

'I don't feel good and I am a bit worried, but I have to accept the situation. It is a big problem, but apart from that I have not been in such form since 1987,' Roche said.

That year he crowned victories in the Tours of France and Italy with the world professional road race title. Only Eddy Merckx, a legend in his cycling time, had previously achieved that treble.

Then Roche fell heavily by the wayside. Persistent injury and wrangles with sponsors made the next four years the hardest of a career which at that point had been steeped in glory.

When the Tour began its four- countries-in-four-days route with a race to Brussels on Friday, Roche's Italian team-mate Claudio Chiappucci had, with a big hand from LeMond, unsettled the other favourites.

It moved them into the top five, and at yesterday's start Chiappucci had joked with Roche: 'It's your turn today.'

Certainly the likes of Miguel Indurain, last year's winner, and his Italian 'shadow' Bugno were not laughing in Valkenburg last night.

As they bide their time for tomorrow's time trial reputations have been made, and a few dented. Lino wears the leader's jersey after his team-mate, Richard Virenque, took it from Alex Zuelle, of Switzerland, who had in turn taken it it from Indurain's shoulders.

Such cheek will not go unpunished, but meanwhile the Tour continues at a furious pace with little respect for the prestige of the favourites.

Yesterday was no exception. It started with a frustrated sprinter, Italy's Mario Cipollini, racing away from the start, building a lead of more than four and a half minutes, getting caught, and promptly quitting the Tour.

All that happened in the first 120km (75 miles). Cipollini had had no chance to show his potent finishing sprint because of this highly active Tour. Now the only sprinting he is doing is for home.

His compatriot Chiappucci was active again, but Indurain's forces were vigilant especially after Friday. As fast as one move collapsed, another was mounted as the race swept through the Meuse valley and over the frontier.

Eight men including Roche broke clear 46km (29 miles) from the finish, and the Irishman led the charge over the hills. Rolf Jaermann, of Germany, attacked before the last kilometre and Roche chased hard to overhaul him, only for Delion to swoop in the finishing straight.' I saw Tebaldi get away and Roche caught him, then I decided to get back on terms, but I really never thought it was possible I would actually win the stage muyself,' he said afterwards.

TOUR DE FRANCE Seventh stage (196.5km, 122.8 miles, Brussels to Valkenburg): 1 G Delion (Helvetia, Fr) 4hr 21min 47sec; 2 S Roche (Carrera, Irl) s/t; 3 R Jaermann (Ariostea, Swit) +4sec; 4 V Tebaldi (Gatorade ,It) +8; 5 M Ghirotto (Carrera, It) +1:00; 6 D Konishev (TVM, CIS); 7 B Holm (Tulip, Den); 8 G-J Theunisse (TVM, Neth) all s/t; 9 O Ludwig (Panasonic, Ger) +1:05; 10 L Jalabert (ONCE, Fr); 11 J Durand (Castorama, Fr); 12 S Kelly (Festina, Irl); 13 J Museeuw (Lotto, Bel); 14 M Fondriest (Panasonic, It); 15 J Skibby (TVM, Den) all s/t. Selected: 16 C Chiapucci (Carrera, It) +1:05; 24 G LeMond (Z, US); 30 M Indurain (Banesto, Sp); 37 G Bugno (Gatorade, It); 60 R Millar (TVM, GB) all s/t; 86 M Earley (PDM, Irl) +1:34; 151 S Yates (Motorola, GB) +3:03.

Overall: 1 P Lino (RMO, Fr) 30hr 45min 45sec; 2 S Bauer (Motorola, Can) +3:11; 3 Chiappucci +3:34; 4 Roche +4:11; 5 R Virenque (RMO, Fr) +4:15; 6 LeMond +4:29; 7 J Heppner (Telekom, Ger) +4:37; 8 Tebaldi +4:51; 9 Bugno +5:06; 10 Indurain +5:33; 11 G Perini (Carrera, It) +5:35; 12 E Bouwmans (Panasonic, Neth) +5:40; 13 L Fignon (Gatorade, Fr) +5:49; 14 E Boyer (Z, Fr) +6:24; 15 P Delgado (Banesto, Sp) +6:25. Selected: 21 Millar +6:47; 39 Kelly +9:33; 82 Earley +22:35; 114 Yates +28:29.

(Photograph omitted)