Virenque peaks in Pyrenees

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with the Tour de France

On a day overshadowed by the death of Fabio Casartelli, Richard Virenque crowned himself King of the Pyrenees yesterday with a peak performance over six mountains on the most testing day of the Tour.

Virenque was first to the summit of each mountain, and reached the 2,114- metre Tourmalet, the highest of this Tour, with 48 seconds separating him from Italy's Claudio Chiappucci, the Colombian Hernan Buenahora, and Spain's Fernando Escartin. In his red polka dot jersey of King of the Mountains, the Frenchman broke clear on his own before the third climb, the Peyresourde, 121 kilometres from the finish.

The crowds screamed for their man, unaware, in their crowded outposts on the mountain tops, of the tragedy on the descent from the Col de Portet d'Aspet.

Virenque, more than 17 minutes behind the Tour leader Miguel Indurain, built a lead of more than 230pts in the fight for the polka dot jersey over Switzerland's Alex Zulle by taking maximum points on each summit.

Last year he won impressively in the Pyrenees, beating the Italian "mountain goat", Marco Pantani, by four and a half minutes to take the jersey.

Yesterday he was remarkable. Chased all the way by Chiappucci - who is not averse to an inspirational ride when the mood is right - and Buenahora, who was seeking to maintain Colombia's climbing tradition.

They got within half a minute of him at one point but Virenque was fired up, and finished 1min 17sec ahead of Chiappucci, with the main contenders between two and four and a half minutes in his wake.

Indurain, unperturbed, was two and a half minutes behind with his overall lead of 2min 46sec intact, but the day's biggest loser was Virenque's compatriot, Laurent Jalabert.

Jalabert has been fighting hard to bring France a second honour, the green jersey of most consistent finisher, but yesterday he lost ground as the Dane, Bjarne Riis, leapfrogged over him in the standings.

Reputations have been made and lost in the Pyrenees. It is 43 years since the Frenchman Octave Lapize became a pioneer as the first Tour rider to climb the mountain tracks here.

He marked the occasion by winning both Pyrenean stages, but Gustave Garrigou was the only man that year to ride the formidable Tourmalet mountain without dismounting. For that achievement he was awarded 100 francs. When Virenque hit the summit yesterday it was worth 5,000 francs.