Cycling: Zulle plans a clean getaway

Swiss rider puts last year's traumas behind him and targets a Tour that favours sprinters.
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ALEX ZULLE wants to replace his well-worn title of fall-guy with a new one. "Winner of the Tour de France" would do nicely, he says.

Yet his last three appearances in the Tour do not augur well for Swiss fortunes as he prepares for today's start at Le Puy du Fou, a chateau deep in the Vendee countryside.

Three years ago he was on the brink of taking over ownership of the leader's yellow jersey when two crashes on one crucial day in the Alps wiped away that dream. A year later he bit back the pain of a collarbone fracture, defied doctor's orders, and started the Tour, but four nervous days were enough. He quit.

Last year was the most painful as Zulle and his Festina team-mates were booted out following drugs revelations by their manager. Zulle confessed and was suspended for seven months for using the forbidden blood-enhancing EPO (erythropoietin).

Now he is back, and driven by memories of the 1995 race, when he finished second to Miguel Indurain as the Spaniard was building a run of five Tour triumphs. Because of his ban Zulle's season only started in May, and he rode the first two weeks of the Giro d'Italia to build up for a new assault on the Tour.

"I will not be in such good shape in the first week, but after that I am hopeful. The mountains are not so tough as usual, so I could be among the favourites," Zulle said, but there was a setback.

He had to quit last month's Tour of Catalonia and spent two days in hospital because of a stomach virus, plus a further four days on antibiotics before he could resume training.

Bolstering the confidence of many contenders is the absence of the last three winners of the Tour - Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, and Bjarne Riis. It is a fact uppermost in the mind of Zulle who, like Indurain, is a specialist in time trials. That is how the Spanish rider won his Tours.

Zulle, who by his own admission is always short on confidence, has believed since 1995 that there was an outside chance that he could be the first Swiss since Hugo Koblet in 1951 to wear the yellow victor's jersey on the podium in Paris.

There have been plenty of crashes and false signals. He has worn the leader's jersey in the big three Tours - France, Italy, and Spain. He has also lived up to his fall-guy reputation in all of them.

The honours might have been his in the 1993 Vuelta a Espana but Zulle crashed the day before the final time trial and that, he maintains, was enough to relegate him to second.

Mentally and physically he had to keep picking himself up, but the 1995 Tour performance helped to spur him on. It also did wonders for his confidence.

"People said the reason I kept crashing was because I was short-sighted, and I wore spectacles. That was not so," he said. "It was my nervousness and bad luck each time. Then I would lose control of the situation.

"In the 1996 Tour I was removing my rain jacket with both hands when my front wheel hit the wheel of another rider, and I crashed. Earlier I had tangled with another racer. I am convinced those incidents cost me the Tour. I tried to forget the falls and bad luck and I did not lose my self-control, but my legs could not make a further challenge."

He found a new edge as autumn approached and finally conquered a big tour, winning the Vuelta, and weeks later became the world time-trials champion in his own country. A year later the Vuelta again fell to Zulle, who believed a new era was upon him.

Then the 1998 Tour dawned, and his world crumbled. "I have had good results without doping," he said, claiming that pressure from sponsors pushed him. "It was, however, a personal decision. I have many regrets for my fans who I have disappointed."

Now it is time to make amends, and if he needs a confidence-booster he can recall that last year, Oscar Camenzind became Switzerland's first world professional road race champion since 1951, when Ferdi Kubler triumphed.

That was a good year for Swiss cycling. Koblet won the Tour, too. Zulle will be hoping that 1999 is also a good year for Switzerland. And himself.