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Tour Flashback: A Kodak moment for Guerini

Telekom’s Giuseppe Guerini earned his team’s first stage win at this year’sTour de France as he soloed to victory in the final kilometers of the famousclimb to L'Alpe d'Huez. But the 29-year-old Italian’s moment in the sunwas almost … almost ended when an enthusiastic fan stepped into the roadwith hopes of recording the moment for posterity. Happily, Guerini emerged only shaken from his close encounter of the weirdest kind, to win the Tour’s most famous alpine stage. Finishing in fifth place, just 25 seconds behind the day’s winner, the U.S. Postal Service’s Lance Armstrong not only

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This report originally filed July 14, 1999

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Telekom’s Giuseppe Guerini earned his team’s first stage win at this year’sTour de France as he soloed to victory in the final kilometers of the famousclimb to L’Alpe d’Huez. But the 29-year-old Italian’s moment in the sunwas almost … almost ended when an enthusiastic fan stepped into the roadwith hopes of recording the moment for posterity.

Happily, Guerini emerged only shaken from his close encounter of the weirdest kind, to win the Tour’s most famous alpine stage. Finishing in fifth place, just 25 seconds behind the day’s winner, the U.S. Postal Service’s Lance Armstrong not only defended, but extended, his commanding lead in the overall standings.

Guerini emerged from an all-star group of climbers today to take a hard-earnedwin in this Tour’s 10th stage, a 220.5-kilometer grind that spanned threespectacular hors categorie ascents, including the stunningly beautifulCol de Croix de Fer, and ended at the ski village of L’Alpe d’Huez. Butfrom a long-term perspective, the big winner of the day was Armstrong,who managed to keep pace with the top climbers on the Tour’s most difficultday and finish well ahead of Abraham Olano, the ONCE team rider who startedthe day already six minutes behind the American. Armstrong now holds aseemingly insurmountable lead of 7:42 over the Spaniard, with Banesto’sAlex Zulle another five seconds behind.

Guerini, who joined the German team to serve as the mountains lieutenantfor Jan Ullrich, and then became his replacement when Ullrich was injured,made his winning move soon after a powerful chase group had ended StephaneHeulot’s (La Francaise des Jeux) hopes of earning a French victory on thismost sought-after stage on Bastille day. Heulot had initiated a potentiallywinning break with his good friend and countryman Thierry Bourguignon (BigMat-Auber’93) 150 kilometers earlier on the descent of Col du Mont Cenis, the firstof the day’s three major climbs. With two more hors categorie climbs togo, the day’s 167 starters had crested Mont Cenis largely together, losingonly a few stragglers on the way. But sensing an opportunity, the Frenchpair attacked on the twisting, wind-blown turns of the steep descent.

The duo worked to build a lead of more than 11 minutes over the following60 kilometers, a largely downhill stretch, leading to the foot of the Colde la Croix de Fer, a long 29-kilometer grind up a road that averages 4.7percent — but that includes a couple of descents between several steeperuphill sections. Indeed, the climb begins with a three-kilometer openinggrade of 10 percent and then twists and winds its way up a steady slope,well beyond treeline to an altitude of 2067 meters. As the two Frenchmenclimbed past thousands of their delighted countrymen, the field behindwas beginning to jetison its dead weight. And the climbers were beginningto emerge from the crowd.

All the while, Armstrong’s Postal contingent stood guard, leading thechase and making certain that the two leaders ahead would not get the benefitof additional help from an added companion. Halfway up the Croix de Fer,Cofidis’s Roland Meier – a strong climber, who last year worked in theshadow of his now absent team leader, Bobby Julich – charged to the front.

By the summit of the Croix de Fer, Heulot and Bourguignon still hada lead of six minutes over a dwindling field, led by the Postal Service’sTyler Hamilton, intent on riding with and for Armstrong as long as he could.In between the leaders and the main group, Meier, working to join the pairat the front and add a bit of fuel to their effort … and maybe earn a stagewin in the process. Meier’s effort was for naught…

By the time the leaders reached the valley town of Le Bourg d’Oisans,16 kilometers from the mountaintop finish, their lead had dwindled to 4:35.Turning on to the famed 21-switchback climb of the Alpe d’Huez, Bourguignonbegan to fade, losing 100 meters to his companion in the opening kilometer.Heulot was on his own and beginning to tire….

Behind the potential French hero, a powerful chase group that was composedof Hamilton, Armstrong, Olano, Guerini, Zulle and Manuel Beltran, alsoof the Banesto squad. There, too, were Saeco-Cannondale’s Laurent Dufaux,Kelme’s Fernando Escartin and Carlos Contreras, climbing points leaderRichard Virenque (Polti), Lotto-Mobistar’s Kurt van de Wouwer, Casino’sBenoit Salmon, and his teammate Alex Vinikourov, the winner of this year’sDauphine. Also there were Mapei’s Pavel Tonkov, a former Giro d’Italiawinner who was getting help from his teammate Daniele Nardello.

Tonkov took the initiative and attacked. His move was quickly answeredby an ever-wary Armstrong. Then Zulle made his own attempt, passing Armstrongand Tonkov. Then Escartin led a charge that, too, triggered a responsefrom Armstrong, and left Zulle and Virenque chasing madly.

Ahead, Heulot was beginning to tire, and Bourguignon still driftingback to the chasers, was reeled in with seven kilometers to go.

Winding his way through the hundreds of thousands of fans lining the14-kilometer climb, Heulot held out hope. It was, after all, France’s nationalday and this was France’s national tour. What better time to earn France’sfirst stage win? But it was not to be. Nearing the ski area, atop the climb,Heulot began to wobble and the eight chasers behind him had the Frenchmanin their sights. At four kilometers to go, Heulot succumbed to the inevitable,and was caught and passed.

Two kilometers of jockeying, and Guerini made his move. The Italiancharged off the front, leaving behind him a group perhaps more concernedwith each other than the Telekom rider up the road. Guerini’s move wasbeginning to stick, his lead soon passing 30 seconds….

Passing beneath the one-kilometer-to-go banner, Guerini was alreadypreparing himself to take the last two turns to the finish line.

“I had it all worked out in my mind how it was going to be,” he laterrecalled. “It was turning into the greatest moment in my life… and it almostbecame the worst moment in my life.”

Nearing the 800-meter mark, Guerini looked up and saw an enthused fanstep into the road, planning just to snap a picture and jump back to theside. Guerini predicted the rogue photographer’s line and even adjustedhis to compensate. Nothing, not even an over-enthusiastic fan, would standin his way … or so he thought.

Lowering his camera, and seeing his perspective change, the fan panicked,hesitated and then stepped directly into Guerini’s path. The Italian crashedto the ground…

“And all I could think was, ‘Oh no, I am going to lose the stage,” heexplained. “I was very lucky because I could have broken my collarbonewith that idiot getting in my way. That is the great risk of these stages,but it could have cost me dearly.”

He remounted, ignored his now-embarrassed obstacle, and continued on,struggling to put his foot back in the pedal. But fortune smiled on Telekom’snewest recruit. In less than two kilometers, Guerini had built enough ofa margin that he could continue toward the end, negotiate the Alpe d’Huez’sfinal turn and finish, celebrating his victory right in front of DeutscheTelekom’s chairman, who had flown to France, just for the stage.

Tonkov charged across the line 21 seconds later, followed by Escartin,Zulle, Armstrong, Virenque, Dufaux and Van de Wouwer another four secondsbehind. Olano finished at 2:04, allowing Armstrong to build on his overalllead. At day’s end, Armstrong leads Olano by 7:42, with Zulle just anotherfive seconds back. Virenque, based on his performance early in today’sstage, has kept the climber’s jersey.

Race note: — For the first time since the opening dayof the Tour de France in Le Puy du Fou, the Union Cycliste Internationale’smedical team showed up at the race to take early-morning blood samplesfrom riders on 10 teams. Tests were conducted at team hotels in Sestriere.All riders on the Mapei, Cantina Tollo, Casino, Banesto, Vitalicio, ONCE,Mercatone Uno, Festina, Cofidis and Credit Agricole teams were tested andnone indicated hematocrit levels over 50 – the UCI’s maximum limit, establishedin 1996. The test and the limit are designed as a “safety” measure sinceno definitive test has been approved to detect possible use of the synthetichormone designed to promote red blood cell production.