Leblanc fills Heulot gap

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The Independent Online
Stephane Heulot and his leader's yellow jersey left the Tour de France in a car yesterday, as the drama heightened with each Alpine climb. Fate had no favourites in this thrilling race for the seventh stage to Les Arcs winter resort, as Yevgeny Berzin became the first Russian to wear the yellow jersey. But Miguel Indurain, with five Tour victories in a row, cracked to finish more than four minutes behind the day's winner, Frenchman Luc Leblanc.

Some 37 kilometres from the end of the first mountainous leg to Les Arcs, Heulot slowed to walking pace, and climbed from his bike in tears. He remounted in a brave attempt to race on, but stopped again and went into the Tour archives as only the 12th rider to quit while wearing the vaunted colour.

That misery followed the fade-out of Laurent Jalabert, the French favourite, on the first mountain, La Col de la Madeleine. Over the past three years he has restored the country's cycling pride with his performances, but before the climb of the Cormet de Roselend had slipped almost seven minutes behind the battle raging at the front between Indurain and his challengers.

After a first week of rain, strong winds and countless crashes, there was no respite yesterday. With Jalabert out of the front-line, the Spanish team of ONCE still had the Swiss ace Alex Zulle. Yet he had to fight back from two crashes on mountain descents to stay in the battle for the colours. The most remarkable escape was that of the Belgian Johan Bruyneel, who plunged out of sight on a mountain descent, but emerged to race on.

Indurain's failure was put down to hunger pangs, the fear of all riders in stage races because it causes a lowering of the sugar levels in the blood, and causes lightheadedness.

Paris or bust may be Chris Boardman's primary target in his third Tour, but yesterday's alarms must have made him recall that dull evening in Brittany last year when he crashed out in the first few minutes of the race.

Of the 197 starters, 31 had disappeared before the seventh stage, only five short of the total non-finishers in 1985 when stage four saw the withdrawal of a novice Indurain.

At this rate there could be a record fallout this year, with Paris still some 2,600 kilometres and two weeks away. The race has yet to tackle 25 mountains, tests that will expose weaknesses and weaken will power.

Richard Virenque, who has been the Tour's No 1 "mountaineer" for the last two years, warned: "Some of us are ill, and if this weather continues, we will get worse."

Boardman admits to not being at the top of his form, and today faces a 30- kilometre time trial, his speciality, to the summit of Val d'Isere mountain - not his speciality.

The loss of his team-mate Heulot will not help morale, but Boardman could help restore it with the right kind of performance. During the seventh stage he managed to stay with the Indurain group before slipping back, but then Boardman had always vowed to take the climbs at his own pace.

Sickness and crashes have sent home such notables as Mario Cipollini. The Italian who claims to be the fastest finisher in the world was just as rapid in reverse three days after his victory at Wasquehal.