Riis takes centre stage in Yorkshire

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Bjarne Riis wore the spotted jersey of premier mountain climber for one day in the Tour de France, he was jokingly tagged "the Eagle".

Last month, when his 1.87 metre frame bore the yellow jersey of Tour victor to the Paris podium, he was the great Dane - and his rivals knew it was no joke. He had waited in the wings for years, serving the cause of others but, after toppling the mighty Miguel Indurain from his Tour perch, Riis arrives in Leeds this weekend at centre stage.

He has had few chances to enjoy his new fame. After the Tour he went to the Olympics, and now faces the build-up to the World Road Championships in Lugano in October. Tall and bald, he is a respected figure among his racing contemporaries. Yet, eight years ago, Riis was concerned that he would not make the professional grade.

"A blank year in 1988 had me thinking that it was over before it had really started," he said, after taking the gamble of basing himself in Luxembourg to be closer to the "fast lane" of professional racing.

However his strengths had been recognised by Laurent Fignon, who twice won the Tour for France. Riis was taken on by Fignon's Super U team after a hard time in a small team earning 4,000 francs a month.

The Dane repaid Fignon's faith with devoted teamwork that attracted other offers, and Riis's developing talents eventually paid off for Italy's Moreno Argentin, a classics specialist, and Russian Yevgeny Berzin, the 1994 Tour of Italy winner. "I have had top team managers, but never the support of a team until now," Riis said, after upsetting Indurain's plans to set a record of six consecutive Tour wins.

The 232 kilometres of tomorrow's Leeds Classic offers climbs of Holme Moss and Woodhead that Riis will take in his lengthy stride but, having made his season with his Tour success, this could be just another victory parade.

Otherwise, it will be a scenic Yorkshire moorland tour for the 126 riders on a route that has been rated as testing as the best of Europe's long- established classics. British fans seldom get the chance to see the yellow- jersey incumbent so soon after the Tour, and have been starved of high- level racing since the Milk Race and the Kellogg's Tour failed to find new sponsors.

The real focus, however, is on the tussle for the World Cup, of which the Classic is the seventh of an 11-round series. Johan Museeuw wants to keep the Cup in Belgium for a second year and, after failing to score points in last week's round in San Sebastian, will be seeking all he can muster from Sunday's race.

Especially so, after a fruitless attempt for Olympic success. He used the Tour de France as training for Atlanta, and when that quest foundered, Museeuw had enough points in the World Cup bank to further that ambition. The Spanish round, however, was a disaster. He failed to take any points.

Museeuw leaves The Headrow start tomorrow at 9am, with a lead of 24 points, facing six hours in the saddle, and a sinking feeling that the Yorkshire terrain will not suit the man who bounced to victory over the infamous cobbled route of the Paris-Roubaix classic in April.

Although his main rival, Italy's Stefano Zanini, is not contesting the Leeds round, Museeuw will be watchful for Ukraine's Alex Gontchenkov and the Italian, Fabio Baldato.

If one of those grabs the victory maximum of 50 points, and Museeuw has another pointless ride, the Cup scrap could be tense until the end of October when the final round is raced in Japan.

Museeuw can only hope that Max Sciandri, last year's winner, is still feeling ambitious after winning an Olympic road race bronze for Britain. The Derby-born Italian is no Cup threat but could take vital points away from Museeuw's rivals. So, too, could Sciandri's American team-mate, Lance Armstrong who also specialises in single-day races.

Britain's other Olympic bronze, Chris Boardman, turns out for GAN to give the British crowds someone else to shout about. Holme Moss and Woodhead, where most fans will be crammed, are far removed from his recent training ground on the wooden surface of Manchester velodrome. Boardman's sights are, however, fixed on the World Track Championships which open there on 28 August.

The Cup series is limited usually to the top 25 European teams, but the Union Cycliste Internationale has agreed to allow the British team of Ambrosia to compete, which brings the start list to 16 teams.

With Ambrosia's six plus Sciandri, Boardman, and Sean Yates, the host nation has its biggest representation yet in its only world-class road race.