Like the wines he collects, Bjarne Riis has been in the cellars of the Tour de France awaiting maturity. Full-bodied and lively, he presented a grand cru performance to become the first Dane to win the Tour, and the connoisseurs nodded approvingly.
Seven years ago, Riis pedalled along the Champs-Elysees to complete his first Tour in 95th position, while Miguel Indurain rode the same route warmed by his first stage win.
Both are now 32. Indurain is one of four riders who have achieved five Tour victories. Two of those four, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, retired from racing at 32. Indurain set out this year to top them all with a sixth triumph, but Riis was too powerful in the mountains.
Riis climbed on the Paris podium yesterday in the yellow jersey, watched by his wife, Mette, and his sons, Jesper and Thomas, wearing mini yellow jerseys, and acclaimed by thousands of flag-waving Danes.
His patience had been rewarded. For years Riis served the cause of other riders, particularly Laurent Fignon, Moreno Argentin, and Yevgeny Berzin, before being uncorked.
His faithfulness as a lieutenant is remembered by Fignon, twice winner of the Tour. "He was strong enough to join an attack in the Tour of Italy, but would not leave me," Fignon said. "I told him to take his chance, and he won the stage."
The Frenchman had spotted the strengths of Riis when they had contested the 1988 Tour de l'Avenir. A year later, the Dane was in Fignon's Super- U squad after a tough apprenticeship in a small team where he had to prepare his own food, seldom had a daily massage, and was paid FF4,000 (pounds 500) a month.
"I had a blank year in 1988 and I thought my career was over before it had really started. I have had top team managers, but never a team at my service. With team support, I thought I could win a Tour," Riis said after fifth place in 1993 and third in last year's Tour.
The man who unleashed his potential, Walter Godefroot, was asked by Riis: "I know I can win - will the team work for me?" "If you behave like a leader, then you will gain their support," Godefroot said. Having been a good worker for team leaders, Riis recognises devotion, and he repaid the work of Jan Ullrich by helping him into the runner-up spot.
Riis lives at Steinsel in Luxembourg, where he settled as an amateur in 1985 to follow in the tracks of other leading Danes, particularly Kim Andersen, the first from his country to wear the Tour's yellow jersey 13 years ago.
Beneath his home is a cellar housing 600 bottles of red wine. Some of these could soon be opened because apart from Riis's triumph, his team Deutsche Telekom also took the green jersey for consistent high finishing with German sprinter Erik Zabel.
He also won two stages, but the icing on Godefroot's gateau was Ullrich. The 22-year-old German finished second overall, one minute and 41 seconds behind Riis, won Saturday's time trial stage at Saint Emilion, beating Riis and Indurain, considered the supremo of against-the-clock racing, and took the best young rider prize - all in his first Tour.
Godefroot is convinced that with the right preparation he has another Tour winner, "because Jan has all the necessary talents." Completing a Tour on your debut is achievement enough. Indurain quit his first two, and it took three more before he even won a stage.
So Chris Boardman can reflect with pride that in three years he has had a win, worn the yellow jersey, and this year completed the 3,765 kilometres for the first time. Going the distance was his goal, and a wiser Boardman arrived in the Champs-Elysees yesterday, 39th overall and 1hr 27min behind Riis.
"Making mistakes is one thing, so long as you learn from them," said the Briton. "Hopefully, I have. I have already started working on next year. So far this season I have not reached a peak, and that is frustrating.
"In 1997 I will start my serious racing later, possibly May, but it is down to my manager, Roger Legeay. My biggest concern from this Tour is that he might have lost confidence in me."
On his appliance of sports science to his racing, he admitted: "It is an excellent way to prepare for specific objectives but trying to do it all year destroys your body."
At the finish line yesterday, there were 129 bodies in various stages of destruction after 25 mountains, rain, snow, and searing heat, and with an average of 39.236kph, the second fastest of 83 Tours.
The final stage over 147km from Palaiseau fell to Italian Fabio Baldato, who foiled a French victory charge by Frederic Moncassin, the winner of the first stage in the Netherlands who wore first the yellow then the green jersey in the first week.
FINAL TOUR DE FRANCE DETAILS
FINAL OVERALL STANDINGS
1 B Riis (Den) Deutsche Telekom 95hr 57min 16sec
2 J Ullrich (Ger) Deutsche Telekom +1min 41sec
3 R Virenque (Fr) Festina +4:37
4 L Dufaux (Swit) Festina +5:53
5 P Luttenberger (Aut) Carrera +7:07
6 L Leblanc (Fr) Polti +10:03
7 P Ugrumov (Lat) Roslotto +10:04
8 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme +10:26
9 A Olano (Sp) Mapei +11:00
10 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei +11:53
11 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto +14:14
12 P Jonker (Aus) ONCE +18:58
13 B Hamburger (Den) TVM +22:19
14 U Bolts (Ger) Deutsche Telekom +25:56
15 A Elli (It) MG Technogym +26:18
16 MF Gines (Sp) Mapei +26:28
17 L Piepoli (It) Refin +27:36
18 L Brochard (Fr) Festina +32:11
19 M Bartoli (It) MG Technogym +37:18
20 Y Berzin (Rus) Gewiss +38:00
GB: 39 C Boardman GAN +1hr 27min 44sec
LEADING PLACINGS 21st stage, Palaiseau to Paris (147km)
1 F Baldato (It) MG Technogym +3hr 30min 44sec
2 F Moncassin (Fr) GAN same time
3 J Blijlevens (Neth) TVM same time
4 D Abdoujaparov (Uzb) Refin same time
5 E Zabel (Ger) Deutsche Telekom same time
6 R Sorensen (Den) Rabobank same time
7 A Tchmil (Ukr) Lotto same time
8 M Piccoli (It) Brescialat same time
9 D Nelissen (Neth) Rabobank same time
10 F Andreu (US) Motorola same time
11 T Gouvenou (Fr) Aubervilliers same time
12 M Fondriest (It) Roslotto same time
GB: 77 C Boardman GAN same time
Points classification (green jersey): E Zabel (Germany) Deutsche Telekom
King of the mountains (red polka-dot jersey): Virenque
Best young rider: Ullrich
Best team: Festina
Total distance: 3,746.5km
Number of starters: 198
Number of finishers: 129
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies