Tour de France: Gonzalez bites back with tactical victory

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The days when Aitor Gonzalez boasted that he would "crush Lance Armstrong like a toad in the road" may be long since gone, but the 29-year-old showed a sound head for tactics when he sheered off the front of a 10-man move at Nîmes to take Spain's 100th-ever Tour stage victory.

It was a comeback of sorts, as well, for the 2002 Tour of Spain winner, who spent a good deal of the following winter making the headlines by predicting he would make mincemeat - or rather toadmeat - of the Texan.

However, 2003 could hardly have gone worse for "Termin-Aitor", as he was nicknamed by the ever-optimistic Spanish sports press, finishing a dispapointing 19th in the Giro d'Italia and then quitting both the Tours of France and Spain.

Gonzalez's Tour abandonment took place at the foot of the Alps, suffering from the same mysterious illness to do with badly cooked food which knocked out three of his Fassa Bortolo team-mates on the same day.

Still tipped as a dark horse for the overall classification at the start of this year's Tour, instead Gonzalez was sunk by Armstrong in the Pyrenees. He quickly realised he had no choice, in fact, but to start scrabbling for stage wins on flat, uncomplicated stages like yesterday's 192.5 kilometres from Carcassone to Nîmes.

Lowering his sights actually proved successful from the word go, as the Spaniard was one of 11 riders who finally shook themselves free of the peloton on stage 14 after 100 kilometres of high-speed racing.

Given that none of them were any threat overall, their advantage rose quickly to nearly a quarter of an hour. The scenery was perhaps not as spectacular as the Pyrenees, but the tens of thousands of holidaymakers who flocked in from the nearby Mediterranean coast to cheer on the bunch must have provided added motivation.

Ahead there was little mood for festivities as Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano - second in the 1999 Tour of Spain but, like Gonzalez, having fallen on harder times since then - opened up the hostilities close to Nîmes.

His brief dig proved unsuccessful but Gonzalez's sharper race strategy - switching sides of the road when he attacked and thereby making it harder for the nine others to get on his back wheel - quickly gained the Fassa Bortolo rider a few yards. A skilled time-triallist, the flat roads that followed proved ideal for Gonzalez to open up the gap still further, and whilst the remainder of the break hesitated for too long, he was nearly 25 seconds ahead at the line.

If Spain's chances in the Tour now seem reduced to such brief blazes of glory, stage 14 brought back bitter-sweet memories for British fans of Scot David Millar's victory from a very similar move in 2002 at Béziers - not a finish city in this year's race, but which was passed through by the Tour yesterday after an hour's racing.

Currently facing a ban of up to two years after he admitted using the illegal performance-enhancing drug EPO to French police, Millar is now due to meet with his team Cofidis on July 29th, where he faces almost certain expulsion from the squad.

A first meeting for the same purpose, planned for early July, was aborted after he said he failed to receive a letter sent by his team. Prior to the showdown in a week's time, tomorrow Millar will have a second interview with Richard Pallain, the French judge responsible for investigating allegations of doping in Cofidis.

On the same day, the Tour will begin the first of three stages in the Alps, where Lance Armstrong is widely expected to overtake Frenchman Thomas Voeckler en route to a record-breaking sixth Tour win. Gonzalez and most of the rest of the field will simply be glad to get through.

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