Marco Pantani, saddled with the nickname of Il Elefantino, made light work of the first Pyrenean challenge as the Tour de France entered its final week with a fifth win for an Italian.
It was the way his shaven head emphasises his ears that inspired the Italians to name Pantani so adoringly. Certainly it was not his slim frame - weighing in at 56 kilogrammes - but yesterday he again became a heavyweight threat to Miguel Indurain.
Now in his seventh day in the yellow jersey of Tour leader, Indurain is not being given an easy ride to Paris, although the results tend to show otherwise.
Il Elefantino, without a trace of Hannibal's leadership, had taken on the Alps last Wednesday to win at L'Alpe d'Huez, the shrine of Tour mountain- lovers, with Indurain chasing him all the way home. Then there was 1min 24sec between them in the fierce heat.
Yesterday, the rain and mist could not dampen Pantani's fire and although he rode cautiously on the slippery, winding mountain roads, he beat Indurain by more than two and a half minutes at Guzet Neige ski station.
It was an impressive solo ride of 10 kilometres that had brought him his triumph at L'Alpe d'Huez. Yesterday, displaying even more confidence, he shot away for 45km on the 14th leg from St Orens de Gameville, a small suburb of Toulouse.
Pantani, 12 minutes and 38 seconds slower than Indurain after 2,578km of racing, has an impossible task to cut back his deficit sufficiently to repeat his position in last year's Tour, where he finished third overall. He brought it down to 10min 7sec with yesterday's solo, and the resultant fruitless chases only piled on more agony for those clinging to the predatory Indurain.
All his rivals lost a little something on the Spanish racer. Tony Rominger, almost a forgotten challenger, fell more than five and a half minutes behind yesterday, and Pantani leap-frogged him in the overall standings, leaving the Swiss rider over 12 minutes in arrears. The majority of the 129 survivors, including the British winner, Max Sciandri, lost more than 28 minutes during yesterday's slog.
"I love the mountains," Pantani said, "but when I am riding at full speed on the passes, I hate it. Because I want to ease the pain as quickly as possible, I try to reach the finish as soon as I can."
More bad news followed for his rivals. "I was feeling great today, and I will be feeling even better on Tuesday. I always go better in the third week than I do in the first," he warned.
After all attempts to reel in Pantani had failed, a lone Frenchman, Laurent Madouas, persisted over the mountains to Guzet Neige, but he began to run out of steam, and was almost caught by Indurain on the finish line.
A final push sent Indurain into third place, and extended his lead by two seconds to 2min 46sec over Switzerland's Alex Zulle, who is nursing a thigh injury. However, he still managed to keep pace with Indurain when the hunting began on the tree-lined slopes.
As the riders take an official day off today, thoughts will turn to tomorrow and an even bigger test, when they tackle the giants of the Pyrenees, including the 2,114m high Tourmalet.
TOUR DE FRANCE Stage 14 (St Orens de Gameville to Guzet Neige, 164km, 102.5 miles): 1 M Pantani (It) Carrera 4hr 29min 8sec; 2 L Madouas (Fr) Castorama +2min 31sec; 3 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto same time; 4 A Zulle (Swit) ONCE +2:33; 5 I Gotti (It) Gewiss-Ballan +2:35; 6 B Riis (Den) Gewiss-Ballan same time; 7 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE +3:24; 8 R Virenque (Fr) Festina; 9 C Chiappucci (It) Carrera both same time; 10 P Lanfranchi (It) Brescialat +3:26; 11 B Hamburger (Den) TVM +3:28; 12 F Escartin (Sp) Mapei GB same time; 13 L Brochard (Fr) Festina +3:51; 14 G Colombo (It) Gewiss- Ballan +3:55; 15 M Mauri (Sp) ONCE +3:59; 16 H Buenahora (Col) Kelme same time; 17 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei GB +5:38; 18 V Aparicio (Sp) Banesto +6:14; 19 V Poulnikov (Ukr) Telekom-ZG +6:21; 20 M Lelli (It) Mercatone Uno same time. GB: 127 M Sciandri (GB) MG Technogym +28:05.
Leading overall standings: 1 Indurain 63hr 28min 29sec; 2 Zulle +2:46; 3 Jalabert +4:28; 4 Riis +6:04; 5 Gotti +9:01; 6 Mauri +9:24; 7 Pantani +10:07; 8 Rominger +12:03; 9 Escartin +15:17; 10 Buenahora +15:23; 11 Chiappucci +15:52; 12 Madouas +17:22; 13 Virenque +17:28; 14 Lanfranchi +21:03; 15 B Cenghialta (It) Carrera +23:50; 16 A Mejia (Col) Motorola +26:12; 17 Hamburger +27:21; 18 E Breukink (Neth) ONCE +27:24; 19 M Rojas (Sp) ONCE +32:22; 20 V Ekimov (Rus) Novell +35:22. GB: 52 Sciandri +1hr 24min 09sec.
Points classification: 1 Jalabert 260pts; 2 D Abdoujaparov (Uzb) Novell 202; 3 Indurain 154. King of the mountains: 1 Virenque 258pts; 2 Zulle 181; 3 Indurain 163. Leading overall team standings: 1 ONCE 190hr 34min 31sec; 2 Gewiss-Ballan +10min 27sec; 3 Mapei GB +47:57.Reuse content