Cycling: Ullrich in home straight

Spain win Tour stage but German stays on the yellow brick road
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The Independent Online
Jan Ullrich lost the final time trial of the Tour de France yesterday but boosted his overall advantage to more than nine minutes over his arch- rival Richard Virenque.

Abraham Olano, silver medallist in the Atlanta Olympics time trial, snatched Spain's first victory of this Tour, covering the 63 kilometres through the Marne valley in 1hr 15min 57sec.

He was 45sec too fast for the German in the yellow jersey, but Ullrich was content just to extend his overnight lead of 6:22 at the Disneyland venue.

Bjarne Riis, last year's winner, continued a nightmare final week. After a pain-killing tablet upset his stomach and nearly put him out of the race, his troubles continued yesterday.

After changing his rear wheel because of a puncture, his chain jammed as he tried to get going again. Angrily he threw the specialised bike onto the verge. He switched to a different bike, but finished almost 10 minutes behind Olano.

For Philippe Gaumont, the last of the 139 riders in the overall standings, there was a slice of glory yesterday when he finished third fastest, 1:12 behind Olano.

With the Paris finale due today, Ullrich is 150km from being the first German to win the Tour, and in the eyes of experts, including the five- times winner Miguel Indurain, he is going to be regular visitor to the podium.

"He is sure to win a Tour, perhaps several," said the gentle Spaniard last year. He knows what it takes, and already comparisons are being drawn between Ullrich and Indurain.

Neither likes fuss and crowds. Yet they create them as soon as they emerge from a hotel door. One difference is that Indurain won his first Tour in 1991 when he was 27 while Virenque has to content himself with a fourth year as the winner of the red polka dot jersey for the best mountain climber, and his victory at Courchevel, one of four that fell to his Festina team.

The French are still waiting for the breakthrough. Not since 1989 have they come as close as Virenque's second overall placing, and that day eight years ago provided the cycling shock of the decade.

Not Laurent Fignon's second place, but his last-day defeat by American Greg LeMond. There was only eight seconds between them, the Tour's smallest victory margin. Bernard Hinault's fifth triumph in 1985 is too distant for comfort, especially with Ullrich firmly in control.

It has been a damaging Tour. A pack of 60 laced with quality aces have gone home, either through injury, illness, fatigue, or bad behaviour. Frenchman Benoit Salmon held on to his team car at 60kph and Belgian champion Tom Steels threw a plastic bottle at a rival. World champion and the World Cup holder, Johan Museeuw, was felled by gastro-enteritis, and Riis. A tablet taken to ease a painful wrist upset his stomach, but the Dane recovered.

Ninety four riders were threatened with elimination when officials got their sums wrong in the Alps. Their severe time deadline for finishing at Courchevel meant the elimination of all but 62 riders.

Paris was then a week away, and the thought of such a small number riding 10 laps up and down the Champs Elysees today soon produced a revised cut- off, restoring the field to 156.

More riders have quit over the last five years, but time losses have not been so large since 1979 when the 16th finisher, Mariano Martinez, was more than an hour behind the winner.

Christophe Moreau is 19th, 1hr 37sec slower than Ullrich, and his French compatriot Philippe Gaumont in last position has lost more than 4hr 25min. It is 24 years since such a huge deficit. Jacques Hochart, also French, was 4hr 51min off the pace when 87 finished in Paris.

There is no dishonour in being the lanterne rouge (the red light at the back of the Tour). A rider makes sacrifices for his team leader, fetches bottles of water and food, gives up his bike when a higher placed teammate is in trouble, and generally works hard for the team.

For completing the distance Gaumont gets 2,500 francs. That works out at 63 centimes per kilometre. Anyone for tennis?