Monsieur Heulot says goodbye

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The Independent Online
The sight of Miguel Indurain trailing on a mountain pass summed up an extraordinary day on the Tour de France. The Spanish giant, winner of five Tours, faded less than four kilometres from the finish of the seventh stage at the Alpine resort of Les Arcs, where Luc Leblanc was the salvation of France. The former world champion raced in 47 seconds clear of Switzerland's Tony Rominger, with Indurain remarkably four minutes in arrears, a setback blamed on hunger pangs which reduce the body's sugar level.

Yevgeny Berzin finished 56 seconds behind Leblanc to become the first Russian to slip on the yellow jersey of Tour leader, after the colours had been surrendered some 37 kilometres from Les Arcs, on the 200-kilometre stage from Chambery, by the Frenchman Stephane Heulot, who 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 yellow jersey.

Berzin, who had beaten Indurain in the Tour of Italy two years ago, is bracing himself for Indurain's fightback. The Russian said: "I know I beat him in the Giro, but my goal is to win and not to make him lose. The Tour is not over yet, and he can still recover."

After a first week of rain, strong winds, and countless crashes, there was still no respite on this first mountainous stage. 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. Rominger also fell, while the most remarkable escape was that of the Belgian Johan Bruyneel, who plunged out of sight from a mountain descent, but emerged to race on. All three escaped with heavy grazing.

Bruyneel, who finished 20th, just over seven minutes behind the winner, said: "I am thankful to be alive. I thought I was going to die. I ran out of road and braked too late, and I felt as though I was flying. Fortunately, I fell into a tree."

Paris or bust is Chris Boardman's primary target in his third Tour and these alarms must have made him recall that dull evening in Brittany last year when he crashed out in the first few minutes of the prologue to last year's race. Losing his team-mate Heulot has hit the GAN team, which three days ago was jubilant at having the yellow jersey, the green points jersey (which was claimed by Frederic Moncassin), and the team race lead. Boardman, who finished nearly 29 minutes after Leblanc, said: "I will be speaking with our manager, Roger Legeay, and I think I will be changing my tactics. It has been my most difficult day of the Tour, and I suffered from the knock [hunger pangs] and I had to stay with Prudencio Indurain, Miguel's brother, to finish the stage. I was surprised Heulot quit. He was doing so well. For me, it's all over. That's the Tour de France, but I'll try to reach Paris."

To cap a miserable time, Boardman reached his hotel room to find he had been robbed of his wallet, gold watch, and signet ring. He reached his hotel room to find someone had rifled through his bag. The key was in the door as is the usual practice of team workers, so that tired riders do not have the fuss of checking in.It was that kind of day and today Boardman faces a 30km time trial up a mountain road to Val d'Isere. Racing against the clock is his speciality.

It is also Indurain's speciality and he will be particularly motivated to make up ground after a poor showing, compounded when he was fined 200 Swiss francs and had 20 seconds added to his total time for accepting a drinks bottle outside the authorised area.

Heulot was not the only leader to retire yesterday. The Dutchman Leon van Bon forsook his spotted jersey of mountains No1 before the first real mountain.