TOUR DE FRANCE: Virenque's assault in vain

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Richard Virenque bore the hopes of France as the second day of the Alpine onslaught saw the Tour de France again ripped apart by a titanic duel over three mountains. He won the battle with Jan Ullrich to the 2004-metre summit of Courchevel, but lost the war of the yellow jersey to the German.

"This was our last chance to win the Tour, and we went out to do all we could," Virenque said after racing home with Ullrich on his tail. Virenque is heading for a fourth triumph as No 1 in the mountains, for which he wears a red polka-dot jersey, but he, and the rest of France, wanted the yellow jersey of ultimate victory.

His win did nothing for his overall time gap on Ullrich. It remains at 6min 22sec. "It looked good at one time when there were four of us more than one and a half minutes ahead of Ullrich. But he has a powerful team, and he is so strong. Once the chance was gone I was happy to have the stage victory."

Virenque has the qualities that France has needed to break their 12 years without a Tour triumph, but like the Chateauneuf du Pape of the same name he needs a little longer on the maturing rack. Certainly his Festina team put everyone else on the rack as they attacked in force on the descent from the Col du Glandon to open a lead of 1min 55sec.

The response from Ullrich's Deutsche Telekom squad was fired by last year's Tour winner, Bjarne Riis. "I had my best day in this Tour," Riis said. "It was not our intention to chase Virenque, just to control him."

As the Frenchman's teammates fell back from the lead, he was isolated, but drove on alone to be caught by the Riis-Ullrich hunt before the 21- kilometre climb to Courchevel. The severity of the 148 kilometres left the field in tatters, and when officials did their sums at the end of the day they had to make a hasty adjustment to their time deadline.

Their original cut-off for eliminating riders - 32min 55sec after the winner- would have taken out more than 100 of the 169 riders. They stretched the limit to 38:24, and today 156 can line up for another Alpine drubbing. Six were eliminated on time and nine others threw in the towel.

Saturday's race was the end of the road for Chris Boardman, and the return to the heights for Italian Marco Pantani. Four days after toppling into a ditch on the descent of the Col du Soulor in the Pyrenees, Boardman dismounted some 154km from the finish at l'Alpe d'Huez.

"I just could not cope with the pain any more. It was worse than it had been before," he said after suffering torn muscles and cartilage in his neck following the displacement of two vertebrae.

"I was worried about crashing again, because the injury affected my handling. I knew it was over on that first climb, the Col de la Republique. As I rode the climb there were lots of Brits at the roadside. That was painful."

He had started in St Etienne knowing that he could not stand up on his pedals to push harder, that constant sitting in the saddle caused cramp, and that it was the first day in the Alps.

For the second time injury has foiled his Tour ambitions. In 1995 a fractured wrist and ankle put him out on the first day. Yet Boardman has worn the yellow jersey for four days over two Tours. He has won two Tour prologue time trials, is an Olympic and world gold medallist, and holds the world hour record: the achievements of several careers wrapped in one that he began in 1994. To expect more is almost asking too much of a rider who has already given Britain a lot to be proud of.

Pantani has come back from a hospital bed and thoughts of retirement to triumph again in the headiness of l'Alpe d'Huez. He tore the race apart on Saturday, leaving the major contenders to fight it out among themselves as he sped to the top through the fervent ranks of several nations, crowding the mountain road.

"My victory was a most beautiful experience, and a great gift for all those friends and fans who said that the old Pantani would return. It was more than a rebirth. It is a recovery of all the time lost," the Italian said after repeating his 1994 victory.

Pantani was sidelined for 16 months after shattering his left shin in a collision with a car, and then in May was brought down again. He raced the 21 hairpin bends of the snaking l'Alpe d'Huez climb, covering 14.5km in 37min 35sec. That broke his record ascent of 38:04 when he was first to the summit in 1995.

"I saw Italians crying at the roadside," he said. "It was like I could never imagine."

Unfortunately, the Italian was considering retirement last night because of a bad throat that was giving him breathing problems.


SATURDAY: 13th stage (203.5km, St Etienne to L'Alpe d'Huez): 1 M Pantani (It) Mercatone Uno 5hr 2min 42sec; 2 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom +47sec; 3 R Virenque (Fr) Festina +1min 27sec; 4 F Casagrande (It) Saeco +2:27; 5 B Riis (Den) Telekom +2:28; 6 B Zberg (Swit) Mercatone Uno +2:59; 7 U Bolts (Ger) Telekom; 8 R Conti (It) Mercatone Uno; 9 L Madouas (Fr) Lotto all same time; 10 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE +3:22; 11 M Fincato (It) Roslotto s/t; 12 A Olano (Sp) Banesto +3:25; 13 O Rodrigues (Por) Banesto +3:30; 14 M Beltran (Sp) Banesto +3:46; 15 F Escartin (Sp) 4:14; 16 D Rebellin (It) La Francaise des Jeux +4:25; 17 P Jonker (Aus) Rabobank +4:27; 18 J-C Robin (Fr) US Postal; 19 J Jimenez (Sp) Banesto; 20 P Luttenberger (Aut) Rabobank all s/t. GB: 116 M Sciandri, La Francaise des Jeux +12:29. Abandoned: C Boardman (GB) GAN.

YESTERDAY: 14th stage (148km, Bourg d'Oisans to Courchevel): 1 Virenque 4hr 34min 16sec; 2 Ullrich same time; 3 Escartin +47; 4 L Dufaux (Swit) Festina + 1:19; 5 Riis +1: 24; 6 Pantani +3:06; 7 Casagrande +3:36; 8 Jimenez +3:50; 9 Olano +3:50; 10 Conti +4:41; 11 Luttenberger (Aut) Rabobank +7:13; 12 P Lino (Fr) Big Mat +8:01; 13 H Buenhora (Col) Kelme +10:25; 14 Zberg +10:58; 15 Bolts +10:58 16 O Camenzind (Swit) Mapei +11:10; 17 Fincato +12:14; 18 B Julich (US) COF +12:14; 19 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +12:57; 20 C Moreau (Fr) Festina +12:57. Other: 123 M Sciandri (GB) FDJ +36:56. Four to follow: 1 Virenque; 5 Riis; 9 Olano; 91 L Jalabert +36:56.

Overall standings: 1 Ullrich 71hr 0min 26sec; 2 Virenque +6:22; 3 Riis +11:06; 4 Pantani +11:30; 5 Olano +14:28; 6 Escartin +15:23; 7 Casagrande +16:32; 8 Dufaux +20:05; 9 Jimenez +18:32; 10 Conti +25:29; 11 Luttenberger +27:00; 12 Camenzind +28:09; 13 Zberg +30:57; 14 Fincato +38:22; 15 Lino +39:36. Four to follow: 2 Virenque; 3 Riis; 5 Olano; 37 L Jalabert + 1hr 11min 25sec.

Points standings: 1 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 282; 2 F Moncassin (Fr) GAN 195; 3 J Blijlevens (Neth) TVM 168; 4 M Traversoni (It) Mercatone Uno 126; 5 N Minali (It) Batik 121; 6 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank 119; 7 Ullrich 117; 8 Virenque 112; 9 F Simon (Fr) GAN 106; 10 A Baffi (It) US Postal Service 96. King of the mountains: 1 Virenque 399pts; 2 Ullrich 272; 3 Brochard 218; 4 Pantani 202; 5 Casagrande 188; 6 Dufaux 160; 7 P Herve (Fr) Festina 124; 8 Riis 117; 9 Jimenez 101; 10 Escartin 95. Teams: 1 Telekom 213hr 46min 49sec; 2 Festina +09:50; 3 Mercatone Uno +13:22; 4 Banesto +23:31; 5 Kelme +1hr 11min 53sec; 6 Mapei +1:28:26; 7 Rabobank +1:35:45; 8 Big Mat Auber +2:21:47sec; 9 US Postal Service +2:25:22; 10 Lotto +2:27:22.