Cycling: Zabel sprints home by thinnest margin

TOUR DE FRANCE
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The Independent Online
The sprinters yesterday ruled the eighth stage with a grand finale in Pau that saw four riders hit the finish like a chorus line. Erik Zabel's stronger kick earned him the photo-finish verdict by little more than the thickness of a tyre for his third victory in six days that have been packed with drama, controversy, crashes, and casualties.

His disqualification from Friday's victory at Marennes spoiled an otherwise impressive run. That is the life of a sprinter, but with the Pyrenees rising agonisingly in the misty distance, the fast finishers step aside for the serious contenders today. Zabel's success cut the overall lead of the Frenchman Cedric Vasseur to 1min 21sec, but from today the Tour pack will be severely shuffled.

A week after relinquishing the leader's yellow jersey, Chris Boardman is facing his big moment of truth. Months of preparation will be on trial in nine days of hardship. "I have tried to get to this point in the best possible shape," Boardman said. "I am very pleased with the way I am riding. It is better than I have been before, and I have been consistent each day. I have not used a lot of energy and I have made no mistakes, so there has been nothing to hit my morale.

"I am not banking everything on the first day. It is going to explode and many riders will get through it with fairly fresh legs," Boardman said of the race over the 2,114 metres Tourmalet, one of the day's four climbing tests.

Day two, the 10th stage, however, will see if his Pyrenean training camp pays off. It takes the Tour 252 kilometres into Andorra, finishing at the sixth mountain summit of the day. The finish comes after the 1,990m Col d'Ordino and the 2,407m Port d'Envalira, all packed within the last 100km.

"That is going to be really hard because of the length of the stage and the number of climbs. They are not extremely severe but between 30 and 40km long. I have done what I thought best to get ready for this. It certainly helps to know these climbs. I study my notes on them each evening to refresh my memory."

A rest day follows three days in the Pyrenees, then there is a mountain time trial at St Etienne, followed by a decisive spell through the Alps. The day to dread is a week away. "The crucial stage finishes in Morzine, and it is the worst of the Tour because there are some nasty climbs," Boardman said. He needs to be consistent in the mountains to become a real contender.

Bjarne Riis, Denmark's first Tour victor last year, has been honing his mountain edge. "I have been focussing more on improving in the mountains, and I am definitely stronger. I fear the time trials most, but they will not decide the Tour." Neither will the sprinters, but Zabel hopes to wear the green jersey of top points-scorer on the Paris podium for a second year side by side with his team-mate Riis. "Riis and the others were going so fast into Pau no one else could live with us," Zabel said. "Yet even that was not insurance for a victory."

The finishing photo showed a German front wheel just clear of the Italian Nicola Minali and the Dutchman Jeroen Blijlevens, who had thrust their bikes forward to no avail, with Boardman's teammate Frederic Moncassin in the line, but a wheel short of contention.

The flatlands of the Landes encouraged escapees, including Max Sciandri. Britain's Olympic bronze medallist figured in an early attack which came to nothing, but proved that his tendinitis has responded to treatment - just in time for the mountains.

TOUR DE FRANCE Seventh stage (Saturday; 194km, Marennes to Bordeaux): 1 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 4hr 11min 15sec; 2 J Kirsipuu (Est) Casino; 3 J Blijlevens (Neth) TVM; 4 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank; 5 M Strazzer (It) Roslotto; 6 F Simon (Fr) GAN; 7 H Vogels (Aus) GAN; 8 F Moncassin (Fr) GAN; 9 N Jalabert (Fr) Cofidis; 10 M Traversoni (It) Mercatone Uno; 11 G Fraser (Can) La Mutuelle; 12 N Minali (It) Batik; 13 A Tchmil (Ukr) Lotto; 14 F Baldato (It) MG Technogym; 15 D Etxebarria (Sp) ONCE; 16 M Jemison (US) US Postal; 17 T Hamilton (US) US Postal; 18 V Djavanian (Rus) Roslotto; 19 C Vasseur (Fr) GAN; 20 C Moreau (Fr) Festina all same time. GB: 34 C Boardman (GB) GAN s/t; 175 M Sciandri La Francaise des Jeux +4min 14sec. Eighth stage (161.5km, Sauternes to Pau): 1 Zabel 3hr 22min 42sec; 2 Minali; 3 Blijlevens; 4 Moncassin; 5 L Aus (Est) Casino; 6 G Matteo Fagnini (It) Saeco; 7 Tchmil; 8 Strazzer; 9 Jalabert; 10 A Baffi (It) US Postal Service; 11 G Lombardi (It) Telekom; 12 F Simon (Fr) GAN; 13 Traversoni; 14 McEwen; 15 H Vogels (Aus) GAN; 16 G Bortolami (It) Festina; 17 N Loda (It) MG- Technogym; 18 T Gouvenou (Fr) Big Mat; 19 P Van Hyfte (Bel); 20 R Aldag (Ger) Telekom all same time. GB: 25 Sciandri; 23 A Olano (Sp) Banesto; 35 B Riis (Den) Telekom; 33 R Virenque (Fr) Festina; 43 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE; 62 Boardman all s/t.

Overall standings: 1 Vasseur 41hr 46min 41sec; 2 Zabel +1min 21sec; 3 Boardman +2:54; 4 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom +2:56; 5 S O'Grady (Aus) GAN +2:59; 6 Moncassin +3:04; 7 Olano +3:04; 8 L Jalabert +3:06; 9 O Camenzind (Swit) Mapei +3:22; 10 D Rebellin (It) La Francaise des Jeux +3:24; 11 F Andreu (US) Cofidis +3:38; 12 Etxebarria +3:42; 13 F Vandenbroucke (Bel) Mapei +3:50; 14 Riis +3:59; 15 P Lino (Fr) Big Mat +4:09; 16 B Hamburger (Den) TVM +4:11; 17 P Luttenberger (Aut) Rabobank +4:13; 18 Minali +4:14; 19 V Ekimov (Rus) US Postal Service +4:17; 20 Traversoni +4:21. Selected: 24 Virenque +4:26; 89 Sciandri +9:53.

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