Cycling: Virenque the renaissance man

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The Independent Online

France finally had something to celebrate in the centenary Tour when the veteran climber Richard Virenque took a fine Alpine stage win alone, which propelled the 33-year-old into the race lead for the first time in more than a decade.

The Quick Step-Davitamon rider shook off the last of his fellow breakaways on the final major climb of the day, the Col de la Ramaz, and then made a breakneck descent to the ski station at Morzine to keep an impressive four-minute margin on the race favourite, Lance Armstrong, and a group of 40 contenders when he crossed the line, his left hand raised in his typical "smoking gun" salute.

Never one to underrate his own achievements, Virenque said: "I don't have much chance of maintaining the yellow jersey against Armstrong, but it's still a great day for me, for France and for cycling."

Tactically, Virenque's win was a masterpiece, with team-mate Paolo Bettini moving ahead in an early break of four on the huge (230km) stage, and the Frenchman joining him an hour later. Having worked hard for Virenque on the flat, the Italian national champion rapidly lost contact when the road rose, and while the German Rolf Aldag proved trickier to get rid of, the Frenchman laid down a ferocious acceleration on the steepest middle section to reach the summit with two-and-a-half minutes on his closest pursuer.

His jersey flapping wide open, and head shaking after this major effort, Virenque barely seemed to notice the one brief climb to Les Gets, the only obstacle left between the Frenchman and what is arguably the most spectacular of his six Tour stage wins.

Victorious ahead of Armstrong on the Ventoux last year, Virenque's last spell in yellow came rather earlier in his career. Back in 1992, as a callow 22-year-old, he held the Tour lead for one day before losing it to a more experienced team-mate, Pascal Lino.

Between the two was one of the more murky periods of his, and cycling's, career. At the centre of the Festina scandal which almost stopped the Tour in 1998, Virenque was thrown out of the race as evidence of organised doping mounted against him.

Banned for nine months, he made a spectacular come-back in the Paris-Tours World Cup race in 2001 with a 260km lone break, his only regret being that George Bush had decided to start bombing Afghanistan on the same day, thereby reducing the impact of his win somewhat.

Armstrong was not so inconsiderate as his fellow-Texan George W yesterday, although he did begin the process of shedding his rivals on the same slopes where Virenque had taken off alone.

The US Postal leader put two of his three top mountain team-workers ­ the Spaniards Manolo Beltran and Jose Luis Rubiera ­ on the front from the foot of the Ramaz, piling on such pressure that rather than lone riders being squeezed out the back, as usually happens, they fell behind in clumps of anything up to 40 at a time.

Some significant names were among them: Gilberto Simoni, the double Giro winner who had proudly announced he would make Armstrong's life difficult in the mountains, suffered terribly in the heat and immediately afterwards threw himself into his hotel swimming pool, while the Colombian star Santiago Botero began lurching sideways rather than up the road with eight kilometres left to climb.

Third in the blue-clad line of Postal workers, Armstrong himself seemed impervious under his blue hard-shell helmet, starkly expressionless as lesser mortals trailed in the wake of the American team.

Not all suffered as badly as Simoni and Botero: despite nursing a broken collarbone since Monday, the Massachusetts-born Tyler Hamilton, a favourite for the race, clung on to the main group of four-dozen riders. And Britain's David Millar, despite suffering slightly close to the summit after neglecting to eat, managed to return to the Postal lead péloton on the drop to Morzine.

Lying 23rd overall, four-and-a-half minutes down on Virenque and ­ more importantly ­ just two minutes adrift of Armstrong, today's far more daunting Alpine menu is a crucial test for the Scot. Millar's only previous visit to L'Alpe d'Huez, the last climb of the day and cycling's most mythical ascent, was in a team car after abandoning the race in 2001, but he is optimistic about his chances. "I won't be trying to win, so maybe it's better I don't know what it's like," he reflected.

For Virenque, though, faced with defending his yellow jersey against Armstrong, the winner at L'Alpe d'Huez two years ago and almost certain to go on the rampage again, this may well be the second time a Texan wrecks his chances of maximum publicity.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'