Epic ride on the slopes of pain

John Wilcockson sees the Tour riders face up to their most demanding challenge
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The Independent Online
MARCO PANTANI, the little Italian who spent last Wednesday conquering l'Alpe d'Huez, the most extreme examination of strength and raw courage the Tour de France has to offer, knows the secret. "You're only a great champion if you know how to suffer," he says.

Even if it went nowhere near the Alps and the Pyrenees, the Tour would still be one of the most gruelling challenges sport has to offer. As it is, they have a say in the fate of every rider. On Tuesday, for example, they will be required to climb 17,588ft over the 15th stage's 128 miles from Saint Girons to Cauterets.

On the winding slopes to l'Alpe d'Huez last week, the 8st 8lb Pantani made short, out-of-the-saddle surges to catch and then drop the riders who had gone past him earlier in the day. It was the first Tour stage win for the 25-year-old, who raced between the tens of thousands of fans who roared fanatical support. "I couldn't believe how steep it was," said the American Lance Armstrong who was a debutant on the Tour's archetypal ascent, "but I guess that's how it got its reputation."

Everyone has to ride hard in the mountains. The favourites have to make sure they stay in contention; the domestiques, the fetchers and carriers whose function is to assist their team leader and whose individual success is measured simply in terms of whether they make it to Paris, have to battle against the time limit. Last Tuesday, one such was the New Zealander Stephen Swart, who finished 129th at La Plagne, 30 minutes after the stage winner, Alex Zulle. "When they're going so fast in front," Swart said. "You don't know how hard you really have to go to make the time limit."

At about 3pm today the 130 or so competitors who have survived the first two weeks will reach the lower slopes of the 5,000ft-high mountain pass in the Pyrenees, the Port de Lers.

It is the first of 16 climbs they will tackle before emerging from the mountains on Wednesday afternoon. By that time, the outcome of the three- week race will almost certainly be known. The probable winner, for the fifth successive year, is Miguel Indurain.

The man from Navarre is an anomaly, because, despite his impressive physique (6ft 2in and more than 12 stone), he revels in the long mountain climbs. He proved that again last week on the two Alpine stages, finishing second at both La Plagne and l'Alpe d'Huez.

On the climb to La Plagne it was Zulle who brought out the best in Indurain, taking the field by surprise with a solo move 93km and three mountains from the finish. Racing through Alpine meadows and past cascading torrents, Zulle seemed inspired by his surroundings and by the banner-waving fans who lined the upper slopes of the Roselend pass.

By reaching the summit five minutes ahead of the other race favourites, he forced Indurain to call on his Banesto team to race to their limit on the Roselend's long, torturous descent. But even so, they cut Zulle's lead by only a few seconds before the start of the final, brutal climb.

Zulle faltered on the early slopes of La Plagne, but regained his rhythm for the second half of the 17km climb. With the zipper pulled down on his bright pink team jersey, baring his sweat-glistened chest on a day of 38C heat, Zulle gained time on all his rivals - except for Indurain, the Spaniard closing to within two minutes by the finish, preserving his race leader's yellow jersey.

The enormity of Zulle's epic ride was emphasised by the looks of disillusionment on the faces of his rivals. His more favoured compatriot, Tony Rominger, reached the 6,500ft-high finish six minutes behind, and then refused to speak to reporters before riding away to his hotel. More than seven minutes back, the Danish challenger Bjarne Riis crossed the line in a final, desperate lunge as a pyrotechnic thunderstorm erupted. The vaunted Russian challenger Evgeni Berzin, on his first Tour, arrived over 17 minutes behind, his hopes washed away.

The next day on l'Alpe d'Huez, 11 men did not make that stage's cut- off time of 45 minutes behind the winner, and another five gave up. Next day, seven more riders retired, including the Frenchman Jacky Durand, winner of the prologue time trial. He slid on a bend at 80kph, lost control and fell heavily. Knocked unconscious, Durand lay for what he called "an eternity". With 17 stitches and a hairline scaphoid fracture, he got back on his bike and continued the descent before climbing into an ambulance.

A crash is now probably the only thing that stands between Indurain and the yellow jersey in Paris. More likely is a stage win, maybe today on his 31st birthday. If so, it will be the latest chapter in the legend of the mountains.