Zulle off the pace

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Alex Zulle, the leader of the Tour of Spain, showed signs of vulnerability after struggling to stay with his rivals in the mountain finish of yesterday's 17th stage from Sabinanigo to Cerler.

Zulle had to be helped from his bike after failing to match the searing pace set by his team mate Oliverio Rincon, who raced away to victory in impressive style.

Zulle was left several seconds adrift by his team-mate, Laurent Jalabert, and fellow Swiss rider Laurent Dufaux, who both picked up bonus time after following Rincon home.

Jalabert gained a provisional 18 seconds in the overall classification, leaving him 1min 10 sec behind Zulle, while Dufaux is still over four minutes further back after gaining nine seconds on the leader.

Zulle was still short of breath five minutes after finishing the climb, which ended at nearly 2,000 metres. "It's not over until Madrid," said Zulle, who had looked in complete control in previous mountain finishes.

As in the previous stages, most of the leading riders arrived at the final climb together, but were split as Rincon made his move five kilometres from home.

With Zulle wilting, Jalabert protected his team's interests by sticking close to a dangerous-looking Dufaux. "I preferred to keep my strength for later, a few seconds now doesn't mean very much. I still have to fight off people like Rominger for my place on the winner's podium," Dufaux said.