Pantani's profit, Boardman's loss

By Robin Nicholl with the Tour de France
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The Independent Online
Tiny Marco Pantani KO'd the heavyweights of the Tour de France yesterday on the feared "serpent-like" climb of l'Alpe d'Huez. Weighing in at 56kg - 14 fewer than the reigning King of the Tour, Bjarne Riis, and his crown prince, Jan Ullrich - the shaven-headed Italian raced to his second triumph on the 13.8-kilometre climb to the ski resort.

Four accelerations flicked the favourites off his back wheel. The last to go was Ullrich, with Richard Virenque and Riis losing time to the whippet- like climber. Pantani finished 47 seconds clear of Ullrich, who started the 203.5km 13th leg of the Tour over nine minutes ahead of the Italian. Virenque, Ullrich's main challenger, was 1min 27sec in arrears, while Riis raced home with Francesco Casagrande 2min 28sec after the winner arrived.

It was a repeat of Pantani's 1995 victory on this mountain when he beat Miguel Indurain, the five-times Tour winner, by 1min 24sec. Crashes have interrupted Pantani's progress since. He was out for 16 months after that Tour, needing four pins to repair his left shin, shattered when he hit a car during a race. In May a cat brought him down during the Giro d'Italia - although it put him out of the race he escaped with only muscle damage.

As Pantani raced higher through the 21 hairpin bends of this tortuous stage he ran the gauntlet of thousands of fans. The clowns were out on the mountain with first a fan dressed as the devil, complete with fork, running dangerously close to riders, followed by an American Indian chief, then a Dutch fan painted orange from head to foot. Some Danes had spent the night painting their national flag on the road.

Chris Boardman missed it all. His fourth Tour finished 1,526km short of his Paris target when, four days after crashing into a roadside ditch on fog-bound Col du Soulor, he stopped racing 54km after leaving St Etienne yesterday.

In agony with torn muscles and cartilage in his neck after displacing two vertebrae, Boardman was not for giving up, declaring: "I am dead set on getting to Paris." But he could not stand up on his pedals to push harder and constant sitting in the saddle caused cramp.

Facing four days in the Alps, Boardman, close to tears, stepped into the voiture balai - the minibus that picks up retiring riders. He said: "I just could not cope with the pain any more. I knew it was over on the first climb. I was worried about crashing again, because the injury affected my handling of the bike. As I came over the Col de la Republique climb there were a lot of Brits at the roadside. That was painful."

His Tour record has a thread of misery running through those yellow-jersey days. It was never intended he should finish his first Tour in 1994. After making a yellow-jersey debut he pulled out after 11 days, having got the feel of his first major tour.

The next year ended in disaster with a crash that fractured an ankle and a wrist only minutes into his ride on the first day in Brittany. For 1996 his plan was to go the full distance, which he achieved, arriving in Paris 39th, over an hour and 27 minutes behind the winner, Bjarne Riis.

Boardman's aim for this Tour was to strengthen his mountain racing. Now he is asking himself whether the Tour is beyond him.