Tour de France: FOUR RIDERS TO FOLLOW

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The Independent Online
BJARNE RIIS (Den)

Deutsche Telekom. Born: 3.4.1964

Years working for the benefit of star teammates gave Bjarne Riis a valuable insight into the Tour and its demands. Last year he combined that knowledge with his superior strength to give Denmark their first Tour triumph, seven years after his Tour debut. Most of his career was spent in the service of twice Tour winner Laurent Fignon and Russia's Yevgeny Berzin. "I had top team managers, but never the support of a team. I knew that if I had that I could win a Tour." He reinforced his claim with a third (1995) and a fifth (1993), and last year aided by two mountain stage victories and second place in a crucial time trial Riis spent 13 days in the leader's colours.

ABRAHAM OLANO (Sp)

Banesto. 22.1.1970

Spain turned to Abraham Olano when Miguel Indurain retired. The Spanish duo dominated the world road championships in Colombia two years ago when Olano won the road race title with Indurain second, reversing the result of the time trial championship four days earlier. With his world medals and second place in the Vuelta a Espana, Olano made up for missing the Tour de France because of a broken collarbone. After finishing third in last year's Giro d'Italia Olano was seen as Indurain's successor, but on the day the Tour rode into Pamplona the Spanish pair suffered in the mountains, Olano slipping from second to ninth overall.

RICHARD VIRENQUE (Fr)

Festina. 19.11.1969.

There is a weighty burden on the shoulders of Richard Virenque. France hungers for a Tour victory. Their last came from Bernard Hinault in 1985, and Virenque is the latest in a long line of pretenders to the Tour throne. His third placing last year was coupled with a hat-trick of red polka dot jerseys as the best mountain rider, and this year the pressure is on him for the yellow jersey. That third position was the closest France had come since Laurent Fignon's last-day defeat by American Greg LeMond in 1989. The time trials, so often crucial to the Tour triumphs of Indurain, LeMond, and Hinault, are Virenque's weak spot. Having felt the warmth of the yellow jersey if only for a day in 1992, the Casablanca-born racer shares the same ambition as French cycling.

LAURENT JALABERT (Fr)

ONCE. 30.11.1968.

For many Tour watchers the most vivid memory of Laurent Jalabert was the crunching spill at the Armentieres finish in 1994, but there is more to Ja-Ja, so often depicted by cartoonists as a panda because of his bushy eyebrows. As the world No 1 Jalabert's consistency was never in doubt, and supported by excellent teamwork and a master strategist in manager Manolo Saiz he has every opportunity. After a fourth in the 1995 Tour he went on to take overall victory in the Vuelta plus winning the mountains and points jerseys. He had also underlined his all-round talents in the Tour with his second winning of the green jersey for consistently high daily placings. If Alex Zulle is fit then ONCE have two aces to play. The Swiss has fitting talents, and used them well to win the 1996 Vuelta and the world time trial title.

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