Indurain in command

Bruyneel draws home comfort for Belgium while reigning champion strengthens his claim on fifth straight title
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The Independent Online
JOHAN BRUYNEEL delighted his home fans by winning the seventh stage of the Tour de France in Belgium yesterday, but the day belonged to Miguel Indurain as the Spaniard stepped up his attempt on a fifth consecutive victory.

The 30-year-old Bruyneel, who rides for the Spanish team ONCE, took over from the Dane Bjarne Riis as new race leader by winning the bumpy 203km run from Charleroi to Liege. "For me, it's a child's dream come true," Bruyneel said. "To have the yellow jersey, especially here, in Belgium, is simply incredible."

Indurain, though, came in second to move up eight places to second overall. Indurain has often been criticised for his lack of panache, conservatively protecting leads gained in time trials, but on this Tour he has been much more attentive to events at the front, even threatening breakaways himself at times, and yesterday he escaped the peloton with Bruyneel after the day's last climb, around 22km from the finish.

Nobody could follow the pair as they powered their way to Liege, Indurain doing all the work before letting Bruyneel give the huge Belgian crowd reasons to be cheerful.

"My team were in control when the race was at its most difficult," Indurain said. "When I went to the head of the field I just kept riding, and when I looked around I realised that there was nobody there. I said to myself, 'It's now or never to strike a blow at my rivals' morale.' "

The Dane Jesper Skibby won a mass sprint for third place as a helpless pack, featuring Indurain's most dangerous opponents, arrived 50 seconds later.

Indurain, now comfortably ahead of his two principal rivals, Switzerland's Tony Rominger and Russia's Yevgeny Berzin, looks ready to take control in today's individual time trial, over 54km from Huy to Seraing.

"He is ever so strong," said Bruyneel after managing to follow the formidable pace set by the Spaniard. "I just couldn't move in front, but anyway, he did not need my help." Indurain's Banesto team director Eusebio Unzue said the move had not been planned. "It was dictated by the circumstances of the race," he said.

Bruyneel's win damaged the chances of his team-mate the Frenchman Laurent Jalabert of regaining the yellow jersey he lost after crashing in Le Havre four days ago. Jalabert broke his jaw in a second-day crash last year, but bounced back this season, winning three big races, the Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo classic and the Criterium International.

Yesterday his resilience put him where he wanted to be, until the breakaway. "I was at the back of affairs when Indurain attacked," he said. "I could not close the gap. I got within 50 metres of Bruyneel but no closer."

With the first-day time trial placings used as a tie-break, Jalabert, eight seconds behind overnight, had deposed Riis 'on the road' and seemed assured of the lead again. Then Bruyneel became ambitious, and Jalabert was left at the back of the field, finishing the day 42 seconds behind in third place overall.

With his principal rivals left to play catch-up, Indurain could not have dreamed of a better scenario before the time trial, which will be followed by a rest day tomorrow before the tough mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees. "It's a great course for me, and there are going to be huge time gaps," he said of today's ride against the clock. A daunting prospect for anyone with an eye to deposing the king.