Tour de France: Virenque storms in on Bastille day

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It may have been nine years coming but French cycling fans finally had a local winner again on Bastille Day as Richard Virenque soloed to the line at the end of his finest mountain break.

Virenque's seventh Tour stage in a 14-year career had all the ingredients for a cycling epic, based as it was on an attack that was to last 200 kilometres (124.27 miles) and cross nine classified climbs in the process.

He shook off the only rider to go with him, Belgian Axel Merckx, on the steepest section of the hardest ascent, the Pas de Peyrol and then added a generous wallop of what the French call a coup de panache by riding alone for the next 70km to the finish.

The 34-year-old then made two victory dedications, mouthing the name of his friend and former masseur from the Festina team, Joel Chabiron - who died two days ago from cancer - as he crossed the line and then adding that his win was also for his grandmother, who died in June.

"I had severe cramps in the last hour, and thinking about [Chabiron and my grandmother] gave me strength," he said, before breaking into tears in front of the TV cameras.

But for some, Virenque's jour de gloire - a French first on 14 July since Laurent Jalabert made a solo challenge of five-times winner Miguel Indurain en route to Mende, just half an hour's drive away from here - will have tarnished edges, given that it brings back memories of the Festina scandal in 1998.

Six Julys ago Virenque also cried in front of the cameras, but that was when the Frenchman heard that his entire team was to be ejected from the Tour for organised doping.

His subsequent fervent denials of illegal drug consumption climaxed with the publication of a book entitled Ma Verite [My Truth], describing how he kept his head firmly buried in the sand whilst all around him his team-mates took everything from EPO to Pot Belge, a lethal cocktail of heroin, cocaine and amphetamines.

When put on trial he finally cracked, serving a nine-month ban before making a spectacular comeback in the Paris-Tours World Cup race in 2001.

Victory there came thanks to another magnificent 200km break, his only regret being - so Virenque, never one to miss a publicity coup, said afterwards - that George Bush had decided to start bombing Afghanistan on the same day, reducing the impact of his win in the French media.

Leading Tour contender Lance Armstrong did not prove as inconsiderate as his fellow-Texan yesterday, when, after an hour's racing, Virenque bounded away in the company of 10 other riders.

Already trailing Armstrong by 11 minutes, the Frenchman was no threat and he admitted that his real objective yesterday was to amass points in his bid for a record-breaking seventh King of the Mountains title.

Quickly whittling down the group to just himself and Merckx, 100km further on, the Belgian slid backwards on the 12 per cent slopes of the Pas de Peyrol and Virenque was out there on his own.

The uplands of the Massif Central provided a spectacular background to the Frenchman's lanky figure as he steadily pedalled towards the mountain-top finish town of Saint-Flour for a further 90 minutes.

He eventually crossed the line with a five-minute advantage over the peloton, 68 points in the mountains competition to the good, and the polka-dot jersey on his back once more. Not to mention the French swooning in patriotic fervour.

Disappointingly, the climbs on yesterday's stage were too far from the finish to make an all-out attack worthwhile for the favourites, for all that Jan Ullrich and T-Mobile set the pace on the same climb that had pole-axed Merckx.

More intriguing was Armstrong's swift response to a late attack in Saint-Flour by Spaniard Francisco Mancebo, stretching the line to the point where only Ullrich and Basque Iban Mayo avoided losing seven seconds.

A pointed reminder that as far as Armstrong is concerned the French were welcome to have their jour de fete yesterday, but come the Pyrenees tomorrow, he fully intends Virenque's success to be a mere sideshow in comparison.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly


TOUR DE FRANCE 10th stage (237km, Limoges to St-Flour) Leading results: 1 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step-Davitamon 6hr 00min 24sec; 2 A Klöden (Ger) T-Mobile +5min 19sec; 3 E Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile; 4 F Mancebo (Sp) Illes Balears; 5 T Voeckler (Fr) Brioches La Boulangère; 6 L Armstrong (US) US Postal; 7 G Totschnig (Aut) Gerolsteiner; 8 K Kirchen (Lux) Fassa Bartolo; 9 M Scarponi (It) Domina Vacanze; 10 P Caucchioli (It) Alessio-Bianchi; 11 I Mayo (Sp) Euskaltel; 12 M Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank; 13 I Basso (It) Team CSC; 14 C Sastre (Sp) Team CSC; 15 J Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile all same time. Leading overall standings (yellow jersey): 1 Voeckler 42hr 42min 14sec; 2 S O'Grady (Aus) Cofidis +3min 00sec; 3 S Casar (Fr) +4:13; 4 Virenque +6:52; 5 J Piil (Den) Team CSC +7:31. Selected: 6 Armstrong +9:35; 7 Zabel +9:58. King of the mountains standings (polkadot jersey): 1 Virenque 73pts; 2 A Merckx (Bel) Lotto-Domo 57; 3 P Bettini (It) Quick Step-Davitamon 36. Leading overall points standings (green jersey): 1 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto-Domo 195pts; 2 Zabel 185; 3 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 177. Team standings: 1 Team CSC 126hr 01min 13sec; 2 Alessio-Bianchi +2min 23sec; 3 Brioches La Boulangère +4:04.