Zabel the green keeper

Tour de France: Champion stays in control while consistent German takes stage as he chases Kelly record

It was a sparkling day in the Champagne country, but Fran-çois Simon's quest to start the family corks popping failed two kilometres from his home- town finish.

It was a sparkling day in the Champagne country, but Fran-çois Simon's quest to start the family corks popping failed two kilometres from his home- town finish.

Instead it was Erik Zabel's turn to celebrate as he ended a three-year wait for his eighth Tour stage win at Troyes. The Berliner heads for the Champs Elysées finale today assured of a record fifth green jersey as the most consistent finisher, beating the Irishman Sean Kelly's record of four set in 1989.

It was a fight to the finish as Zabel held off the Australian Robbie McEwen with Dutchman Jeroen Blijlevens third after the longest stage of the Tour, over 254 kilometres from Belfort.

"I must thank my team, who did a great job. Tomorrow, the Champs Elysées will be a great parade, and if I'm a little bit lucky, I might win again," said Zabel, who has become famous for lifting his young son on to his shoulders each year on the podium.

The Tour leader, Lance Armstrong, was not rattled when three riders set off on a breakaway that was to last 116 kilometres, but the sprinters, particularly Zabel, were intent on foiling it. Zabel has had two second placings and three thirds in this Tour, and was running out of opportunities.

Simon, however, was also out to break through after three second placings in three Tours, and with Poland's Gregory Gwiazdowski and Frenchman Sebastian Hinault built a lead of more than four minutes. Once the serious chase started the race was heading for a nail-biting finish, until the pack hunted down the lone Simon two kilometres from the finish.

So he will not be joining his brothers - Pascal, Jerome, and Regis - as a Tour stage-winner. They earned their days of glory in the Eighties, but François has to wait another year.

Armstrong, who admits: "I am not a champagne man," is again in a cork-popping situation with party time today on the Champs Elysées as the "Star Spangled Banner" rings out for a second year to signal his invincibility in the Tour. The American has worn the leader's yellow jersey for the past 11 days, and it will go home with him.

Only once did it look in peril, and that was his own fault. He regrets provoking Marco Pantani five days ago on an Alpine stage. "It almost cost me the Tour," he said of the day he arrived at the Morzine finish more than one-and-a-half minutes after his chief rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany.

Britain's David Millar too is anticipating a big welcome when he completes his Tour debut with 3,630 kilometres in his legs and many lessons learned over the past three weeks. Five schoolfriends are flying in from Hong Kong, where Millar was raised, to join his mother, Avril, father, Gordon, and sister, Frances, plus other family and friends tocelebrate his arrival.

All will be wearing the "It's Millar Time" T-shirts that were first aired when three weeks ago the 23-year-old Scot startled the Tour by winning on the opening day, and wearing the yellow jersey for three days.

That is not the only thing he has in common with Armstrong. They were once in the same team, Cofidis, and both have criticised the long stages that have punctuated an already tough Tour. Today the final act starts in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, after the riders have taken an early-morning train ride on the original Orient Express from Troyes.