Cycling: Zabel puts bumpy ride behind him

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Erik Zabel bounced back from the disgrace of disqualification to snatch his second victory of the Tour de France yesterday. The German left nothing to chance in another mass finish to the seventh stage on the banks of the Garonne. He sprinted clear of the Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu and Dutchman Jeroen Blijlevens after a 46kph race from the oyster beds of Marennes through the vineyards of Bordeaux.

Zabel's victory earned a winner's time deduction of 20 seconds, which reduced the overall lead of the Frenchman Cedric Vasseur to 1 min 49 sec, with only a day left for sprint specialists to make their mark before the Pyrenees.

Zabel's tenancy of the green jersey as top points scorer was strengthened not only by this success, but also the defection of Italy's Mario Cipollini, his main challenger, with a knee injury. The German was resigned to his previous disqualification, but said: "I would still like to have coffee with the officials to talk it over and explain my point of view."

Blijlevens was awarded victory at Marennes on Friday after Zabel had been relegated for "irregular" sprinting, but the enfant terrible of the sprinters that day was Tom Steels, the Belgian champion, who was expelled from his first Tour for throwing a plastic drinking bottle at Frederic Moncassin, the fast finisher in Boardman's squad.

Even more controversy attended the Marennes result, in which Djamolidine Abdoujaparov finished third, when the Uzbek sprinter provided a positive doping result. His expulsion from his ninth Tour blotted his record of ten stage wins and three victories as the top points scorer.

After the team-helper who had given him "something" was sacked by Jean Luc Vandenbroucke, the team-manager, Abdoujaparov claimed, "It was not my fault. I am a victim."

Ivan Gotti and Cipollini, the double-act who took last month's Giro d'Italia by storm, were the latest notables to quit. Gotti, Italy's first Giro victor since 1991, injured his neck and did not start yesterday. Then, 25 kilometres after the start at Marennes, his team-mate Cipollini's injured left knee became too painful.

The tall Tuscan had been a principal player throughout the first Tour week, with two stage successes and four days in the yellow jersey. This followed on from winning five Giro stages, the points category, and a spell in the leader's pink jersey.

He also will be remembered for paying a daily fine of 200 Swiss francs, the currency of world cycling, for wearing shorts of various colours, including stars and stripes one day in recognition of his bike's US sponsor. Regulation black shorts did not suit Cipollini's style. He crashed on Friday, wearing red.

His departure will have eased pressure on the wallet of his team manager, Antonio Salutini, who faced a daily fine of 1,000 francs for not ordering Cipollini to wear correct shorts. But Cipollini's withdrawal lifted Chris Boardman to third overall, 2:54 behind his team-mate Vasseur, a week after the Briton donned the yellow jersey for a day.

Crashes during the first week, often on narrow roads, did not discriminate. Switzerland's Tony Rominger and the Russian Yevgeny Berzin, past winners of the Giro, broke collarbones, while Spaniard Vicente Garcia broke his when he and Fabio Fontanelli collided with a spectator. Alex Zuelle, already with 12 pins in a collarbone fracture, quit to save himself further anxiety.

Frenchman Gilles Talmant was the first victim of the packed shunts, breaking his forearm a week ago when Chris Boardman wore the yellow jersey to Forges- les-Eaux.

Yesterday was no different. After reeling in Italians Flavio Vanzella, Adriano Baffi, and Marco Saligari, who had led for 177 kilometres, the fast- moving pack tangled with plastic course-markers without any serious injury.

It set back the Frenchmen Richard Virenque and Luc Leblanc, together with the Italian Marco Pantani, by 50 seconds, adding to the deficit they will have to reduce when tomorrow's leg takes the Tour over four Pyrennean climbs.

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