It was clear early on that this was to be no ordinary day. Only five kilometres into the stage, the riders were blocked by firemen in their overalls, protesting working conditions. "Angry Firemen!" said one banner, a gesture as superfluous as it would have been for the teams to have raised one saying "Angry cyclists" when the riders were obliged to start the race again.
That was not the end of the drama as in the last three kilometres half a dozen riders suddenly found their eyes stinging and had to stop with tears streaming down their cheeks. According to the organisers, someone had sprayed the riders with an unidentified substance that might have been pepper. However, the Tour doctor, Gerard Porte, said the riders' symptoms were consistent with their having encountered tear gas fumes. He said six riders were treated for irritation of the eyes, mouth, and lungs.
Laurent Madouas, a french rider, said: "It was very painful. I could hardly breathe and I needed five minutes to recover."
Up ahead Steels was busy stealing a march on his sprint rivals and upsetting the plans of his fellow Belgian, Walter Godefroot, who heads the Deutsche Telekom squad. He had scored three victories on these roads 25 years ago, and he had constructed a scheme to help Erik Zabel to complete a treble of Bordeaux victories, after triumphs here in 1995 and 1997. But Zabel made his move too soon and the German sprinter had already shot his bolt by the time Steels made his decisive strike, thrusting his front wheel across the line just ahead of the Australian Robbie McEwen with Zabel third.
Steels has had to wait two weeks to complete his treble. In Maubeuge, days after his back-to-back wins at St Nazaire and Laval, he was first across the line again but he was then relegated to last place for employing dangerous tactics in the finishing sprint.
He still harbours ambitions of a fourth success. "I will not try again on Friday because my team deserve a rest after all their hard work, but I want them ready for Sunday in Paris, the most beautiful sprint finish in the world," he said, revealing visions of a triumphant finale on the Champ-Elysees.
Zabel conceded defeat graciously. "He is too explosive for me," he said. "It is going to be hard to win a stage."
The German had the consolation of not losing ground in his pursuit of the green jersey for the leading points scorer. His nearest rival, Stuart O'Grady, missed the sprint finish when he crashed less than two kilometres from the finish. At least he missed the "tear gas attack", but then a Tour de France without tears is unheard of. On Sunday it could be the French fans reaching for the tissues as this could be the first time in 73 years that the hosts will go without a stage win.
It is not for want of trying. After the firemen's peaceful intervention in Mourenx, two French riders were prominent in a group of eight riders who tried to set the stage alight with an escape after 45km. They spent 55km together building a lead of 7min 55sec only to have it destroyed by the sprinters' teams.
The Swiss rider Rolf Huser, realising the dangerous threat from behind, made a lone attack and was joined by a Frenchman, Carlos da Cruz, but 14km from the riverside finish the race was in the clutches of the fast finishers and their associates.
It was immaterial to the Tour leader, Armstrong, who finished eight seconds behind Steels, but with his overall advantage of 6min 15sec intact with three days to go.
Of more concern to him was his war of words with Le Monde, the French newspaper that revealed that a dope test on the American had shown traces of corticoid, an anti-inflammatory drug banned except for medical purposes. As the Tour organisers and Armstrong explained, though, they are also constituents of the cream he was using to combat a skin allergy.
That revelation drew a grudging acknowledgement from Le Monde in an editorial yesterday that "For the time being, there's no proof that Armstrong has taken banned substances." And it added: "The suspicions weighing on the Tour evidently can't focus solely on Armstrong." But if he wins, it asked: "Will his superiority lead to doubts being cast over his performance and hint at possible drug abuse?" By Le Monde, perhaps?
TOUR DE FRANCE RESULTS
STAGE 17 (Mourenx to Bordeaux, 200km, 124 miles) Leading positions: 1 T Steels (Bel) Mapei 4hr 22min 29sec; 2 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank; 3 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 4 G Hincapie (US) US Postal; 5 S Martinello (It) Polti; 6 L Michaelsen (Den) La Francaise de Jeux; 7 P Chanteur (Fr) Casino; 8 G Mondini (It) Cantina Tollo; 9 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat; 10 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Casino; 11 E Aggiano (It) Vitalicio Seguros; 12 J Durand (Fr) Lotto; 13 L Brochard (Fr) Festina; 14 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole; 15 F Guesdon (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux; 16 F Sacchi (It) Polti; 17 P Wuyts (Bel) Lotto; 18 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 19 L Auger (Fr) Big Mat; 20 J Voigt (Ger) Credit Agricole all s/t. Selected: 36 A Olano (Sp) ONCE s/t; 55 R Virenque (Fr) Polti +08sec; 56 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank s/t; 94 C Boardman (GB) Credit Agricole +08.
Leading overall standings: 1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal 82hr 25min 30sec; 2 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme +6min 15sec; 3 A Zulle (Swit) Banesto +7:28; 4 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco +10:30; 5 Virenque +11:40; 6 D Nardello (It) Mapei +13:27; 7 A Casero (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +13:34; 8 Olano +14:29; 9 W Belli (It) Festina +15:14; 10 K van de Wouwer (Bel) Lotto +18:35; 11 D Etxebarria (Sp) ONCE +19:31; 12 A Peron (It) ONCE +20:17; 13 B Salmon (Fr) Casino +22:55; 14 R Meier (Swit) Cofidis +23:37; 15 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux +24:15; 16 T Hamilton (US) US Postal +25:24; 17 P Lanfranchi (It) Mapei +26:03; 18 C Contreras (Col) Kelme +26:46; 19 A Elli (It) Telekom +28:06; 20 G Totschnig (Aut) Telekom +31:58. Selected: 54 Boogerd +1:34:19; 128 Boardman 2:44:19.
Points standings: 1 Zabel 276pts; 2 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole 236; 3 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat 175; 4 Steels 170; 5 Hincapie 163.
Mountains: 1 Virenque 273; 2 Elli 226; 3 M Piccoli (It) Lampre 201; 4 Escartin 194; 5 Armstrong 193.
Teams: 1 Banesto 247hr 38min 53sec; 2 ONCE +6min 11sec; 3 Festina +13:01; 4 Mapei +13:15; 5 Kelme +13:44.Reuse content