Riis finds another gear

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The Independent Online
Bjarne Riis yesterday survived the first major challenge to his yellow jersey, and finished a ferocious day in the Auvergne hills with a lead bigger than he had started with that morning.

"I was the strongest there, and what happened was nothing too serious. I knew that some time an attack would come," said Riis after he came out of the conflict well in command, finishing in a group just in behind the stage winner, his Danish compatriot Rolf Sorensen. But there were casualties, notably the Russian Yevgeny Berzin and Switzerland's Tony Rominger, who both slipped down the rankings. The world champion, Abraham Olano of Spain, leap-frogged them in the overall stan- dings to become the chief challenger, 56sec behind Riis. The Telekom rider had started yesterday's 177km from Le Puy-en-Velay with an advantage of 40sec over Berzin.

Sorensen sent the Danish fans into delirium by snatching victory at the lakeside winter resort of SuperBesse after a series of dogfights that also saw Britain's Chris Boardman back in the frame. Tests have shown an intestinal infection had reduced his absorption of carbohydrates, which accounts for his loss of form earlier in the Tour. "It takes some time to clear, but the good news is that I now know what the trouble was," he said. "I am feeling more stable, especially after the day I was in trouble on the first climb of the stage."

Yesterday he was in a breakaway group of 14 that eventually splintered under the weight of individual attacks. "I am not having a great Tour, but I was able to race with the others," Boardman said after finishing seventh, some 23sec behind Soren- sen.

Sorensen was an original member of Boardman's group, but the battle for the yellow jersey wiped out a few ambitions as the French pairing of Luc Leblanc and Richard Virenque took on Riis, Rominger, Berzin, and Miguel Indurain.

It was not a one-sided fight as it might have looked on paper. Indurain and his men had been stepping up the pace to shake out the weaker elements of the main field when the Spanish champion had a puncture. A team car could not get through the narrow roads quickly to the stranded hero to hand over a spare wheel, so Indurain's brother Prudencio, of similar loftiness, gave Miguel his bike, and the battle resumed.

At the front of the race, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov was alone hunting for points at the intermediate sprint then, having gained them, rode like a man looking for company, unaware of the gathering storm at his back. The Uzbekistani sprinter could only watch as the tide swept past, leaving him to roll in alone once more, 2min 23sec after Sorensen.

Leblanc fired attack after attack and Virenque, with a yellow jersey to gain, countered each challenge to claim third. His reward for the effort was a trimming of 23sec from his Tour time. He is still 3min 16sec off the pace, but has widened the gap between himself and Indurain, who remains 4min 38sec behind Riis and has to be thankful that brotherly sacrifice saved his day.

Riis and his Deutsche Telekom team's pursuit of Leblanc and Virenque kept Indurain in touch. It was a nervous day for the man who is seeking a record sixth Tour triumph but, just to show he is not to be trifled with, he outsprinted Boardman for sixth place in the stage.

Sorensen's victory made up for two missed opportunities in other stages. He was caught by the chasing pack 500 metres from the finish at Gap, and on Friday his compatriot Jesper Skibby dallied in the finishing sprint and lost out to the Swiss rider Pascal Richard.

Sorensen fought off Orlando Rodrigues, the Portuguese teammate of Indurain, and said afterwards: "I was afraid of him in the sprint. He kept saying that he was tired, and I had to do most of the work. Fortunately I was the stronger."