Cycling: Tour de France: Rominger at home in Alps

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THE last time the Alpine resort of Serre Chevalier hailed a victor in the Tour de France was 1975 when the Frenchman Bernard Thevenet checked the drive of Eddy Merckx for a record sixth victory. The great Belgian had seemed invincible after five victories in five outings, just as Miguel Indurain does these days, but two days in the Alps showed that all is possible, and still is.

Merckx was the leader going into the Alps, and Thevenet wiped out his advantage with two successive stage wins, helped by a malevolent spectator who punched Merckx in the back.

Today Serre Chevalier is on the Tour map again, and Indurain is in the yellow jersey. There are a handful who could play the role of Thevenet, notably the Italians Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci, and particularly Tony Rominger of Switzerland.

Twice a winner of the Tour of Spain, Rominger has come back from the depths of the Tour de France to shape up as a real challenger. Apart from his moral fibre he has talent and ambition. He lost more than three minutes in the team time trial, and was then penalised a further minute because he and four team-mates had given each other a helping hand.

In Monday's time trial Rominger stormed back, but it was never easy. He fought through a blinding hailstorm, rain and violent winds, got to within a kilometre of the finish, and had to have a wheel changed because of a puncture. The Swiss still managed the fourth fastest time, putting him 5min 44sec behind Indurain.

Insurmountable? Not in the Alps. In his winning ride to Sestriere last year, Chiappucci had put five minutes between himself and Indurain at one point. 'If I am with the best in the Alps, then I believe that I can be on the victory podium in Paris,' Rominger said.

Chiappucci has been sobered by his five-minute beating in the time trial, and has lowered his sights, talking instead of a hat-trick of red polka dot jerseys, the colours of the best climber, rather than an all-out assault on Fortress Indurain.

His compatriot, Gianni Bugno, was, however, heartened by his time trial performance. In Luxembourg last year he lost 3:41 on Indurain. At Lac de Madine on Monday it was 2:11.

Another Italian, Davide Cassani, took the Tour's second most important jersey on gentler slopes. He can expect his 60 points gleaned over the first week to be quickly overshadowed as today's three climbs offer greater scoring chances, particularly the 2,645m (8,677ft) Galibier, where the winner gets 40 points, and the stragglers lose half an hour and more.

TOUR DE FRANCE Overall: 1 M Indurain (Sp, Banesto) 35hr 29min 25sec; 2 E Breukink (Neth, Once) +1min 35sec; 3 J Bruyneel (Bel, Once) +2:30; 4 G Bugno (It, Gatorade) +2:32.

King of the Mountains: 1 D Cassani (It, Ariostea) 60pts; 2 B Riis (Den, Ariostea) 52; 3 F Simon (Fr, Castorama) 26; 4 L Desbiens (Fr, Castorama) 15; 5 A Mejia (Col, Motorola) 13; 6 T Rominger (Swit, Clas) 11.

(Photograph omitted)