He led the Tour out of Spain via a narrow mountain road, and kept going all the way to the finish in Pau to take over the lead from the Swiss Zuelle.
The Casablanca-born professional led for all but 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) of the 255km (159 miles) from San Sebastian, showing the same nagging determination that had got him a place in the Tour. He had insisted that he was ready to tackle the 4,000km (2,500 miles), but manager Jacques Michaud was not sure until a week before Saturday's start.
Yesterday Michaud was proud to admit: 'I think we have discovered a rider of talent with a great future.'
For Michaud, Virenque and the rest of the R M O team yesterday's gamble might attract a co- sponsor. Their sponsor, a nationwide company providing temps for all types of work, are feeling the pinch of the recession. However, their boss, Marc Braillon, is ready to put Fr10m ( pounds 1.05m) into the team next year, provided a co- sponsor can match his cash.
Others fearing for their livelihood were also making themselves known on the Tour with banner-carrying farmers delaying the noisy, garish publicity caravan for 10 minutes.
It was definitely a day for those out to save something. Earlier the publicity vehicles were halted by ecologists promoting a campaign to save the bears of the Pyrenees. A motorway planned between Pau and Zaragossa will pass through the valley where the rarely seen beasts live. When the race threaded through the area yesterday Virenque and his co-leaders, his French team-mate Dante Rezze and Spain's Javier Murguialday, were being pursued by the 'bears' of the Tour.
Race favourite Miguel Indurain led a chase comprising the top four finishers in the last Tour, Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, and Charly Mottet. They caught Rezze, but Murguialday stayed to help Virenque into the yellow jersey and himself to a stage victory by three seconds.
Their drive for Pau left the overnight leader, Zuelle, struggling more than 12 minutes in arrears, and from yesterday's podium glory he plunged to insignificance.
He and Virenque are the new boys of the Tour, but an old boy, Greg LeMond, also suffered as the 195 riders became scattered, some finishing more than 36 minutes behind Murguialday whose victory kept Spanish hopes high.
Punctures can happen to the best, and the American with three Tour wins found himself stranded after two flats. LeMond has been a fighter throughout his professional career, and showed it by limiting his losses to 32 seconds on Indurain.
The Spanish racer is Virenque's main challenger with a deficit of four minutes and 34 seconds, but patience and timing are great virtues on the Tour. There are still more than 3,000km (1,875 miles) in which to strike.
Rolf Sorensen went out of the 1991 Tour with a broken shoulder bearing the yellow jersey in the fifth day. This year the Dane lasted two days before being put outby overnight sickness and fever.
As the race toured through the misty hills of Navarra, Indurain's birthplace, all the signs of unrest were around. Slogans calling for independence and amnesty for Basques, mixed uneasily with banners proclaiming support for their favourite sporting son.
Just as civil guards cradling sub- machine-guns seemed at odds with nuns wearing Coca-Cola hats. But after all this is the Tour de France.
TOUR DE FRANCE Second stage (San Sebastian to Pau, 255km, 159 miles): 1 J Murguialday (Sp) 6hr 41min 56sec (ave speed 38.066kph, 23.791mph); 2 R Virenque (Fr) +3; 3 G Bugno (It) +5.05sec; 4 C Chiappucci (It); 5 C Mottet (Fr); 6 M Indurain (Sp); 7 D Rezze (Fr) all s/t; 8 M Fondriest (It) +5.21; 9 S Bauer (Can); 10 J Skibby (Den) all s/t; 11 S Kelly (Irl) +5.23; 12 V Tebaldi (It); 13 S Roche (Irl); 14 L Fignon (Fr); 15 A da Silva (Port); 16 M Sciandri (It); 17 A Leanizbarrutia (Sp); 18 L Roosen (Bel); 19 P Lino (Fr); 20 G-J Theunisse (Neth) all s/t. Selected: 35 G LeMond (US) +5.23; 42 R Millar (GB) s/t; 115 S Yates (GB) +17.53.
Overall standings: 1 Virenque 11:29.28; 2 Indurain +4:34.0; 3 Bugno +4.36; 4 D Arnould (Fr) +4.50; 5 R Alcala (Mex) +5.04; 6 Chiappucci s/t; 7 Mottet +5.05; 8 E Breukink (Neth) +5.06; 9 Lino; 10 G LeMond all s/t; 11 Sciandri +5.11; 12 S Roche +5.12; 13 Skibby s/t; 14 Bauer +5.15; 15 Leanizbarrutia s/t; 16 Leblanc +5.16; 17 Y Ledanois (Fr) s/t; 18 G Perini (It) +5.19; 19 Fignon s/t; 20 A Elli (It) +5.20.
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