By Andrew Hood
Richard Virenque of Quick Step-Davitamon left behind a shaky past – not to mention the rest of the Tour de France peloton – to experience a dream day in the 2003 Tour’s first big mountain stage.
The Frenchman, disgraced after his role in the Festina scandal at the 1998 Tour, rebounded in Saturday’s hot, steamy mountains opener in the French Alps to win the stage, grab the King of the Mountains jersey and take the overall lead.
“Something magical happened to me today,” said Virenque, who finished 2:29 ahead of Rolf Aldag (Telekom) after a 190km-long break. “I was going for the King of the Mountains jersey, but I won the stage, took the polka-dot jersey and the maillot jaune. It’s incredible.”
Glaring heat and the Tour’s first serious climbs lay ahead of the 194 riders in Lyon for the Tour’s longest stage. Before the start, the Saeco riders got themselves into trouble by wearing all-white jerseys with “Legalize my Cannondale” emblazoned on the side. Tour officials warned them not to wear them and promised big fines.
Some six hours later, those fines paled in significance as team leader Gilberto Simoni was dropped on the day’s major mountain and slipped another six minutes off of Armstrong’s pace. So, too, was Telekom’s Santiago Botero. They’re still in the race, but seven men did drop out Saturday.
Four-time defending champion Lance Armstrong rode the vapors of a blistering pace set by his U.S. Postal-Berry Floor teammates José Luis “Chechu” Rubiera and Manuel “Triki” Beltran to remain in second place overall. Even so, a group of about 40 riders made it over the day’s main obstacle, the Cat. 1 Col de la Ramaz, 22km from the finish. While some weren’t strong enough to keep the pace, the overall favorites were safely tucked into the bunch.
Virenque takes KoM in long break
The Tour’s longest stage didn’t prove daunting to the peloton and there were attacks barely out of the neutral start in Lyon. Rolf Aldag (Telekom), Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Médéric Clain (Cofidis) and Benoît Poilvet (Crédit Agricole) were the riders in this opening break.
Virenque and Kelme’s Jesus Manzano gave chase but Manzano crashed on a short descent partway up the day’s first obstacle, the Cat. 2 Col de Portes at 56km. Points leader and four-stage winner Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) was in no mood for suffering and abandoned the race, to leave his green jersey to Aussie Baden Cooke of fdjeux.com.
Clain then dropped off the pace and Virenque bridged up to him and caught the Bettini group on the descent. The resulting quartet worked together over the Cat. 2 Côte du Mont des Princes and the Cat. 3 Côte de Cruseilles, with Virenque collecting the points along the way to move into the polka-dot best climber’s jersey. With 46km to go, the four had a 9:10 lead on the main bunch.
Up the Ramaz
Bettini and Virenque dropped Aldag and Poilvet on the lower flanks of the Ramaz., and with 12km to go, the Quick Step pair were chugging along nicely. By the time the main bunch made the sharp left turn to start the climb, Bettini and Virenque had a 7:10 gap.
If there was any doubt at all that Postal was in control, overnight leader Victor Hugo Peña put his yellow jersey at the front, to set the pace for Armstrong on the lower flanks. All day long, Peña was fetching water bottles and doing his job to protect Armstrong, and when Peña dropped back George Hincapie came through to set a fast pace up the Ramaz.
“It was a long hard day for everybody,” Hincapie said. “I had good legs today. I wanted to pull a little longer at the bottom but there were some strong head winds at the bottom part of the climb.”
Remarkably, Aldag fought back to catch Virenque and Bettini when Virenque put down an acceleration and left Bettini, who was happy to see his French teammate head for the expected victory. Aldag still had something in the tank though and the tall German even chugged ahead of Virenque with 10km to go to the summit.
Tens of thousands of fans lined the course, any of them in polka-dot T-shirts, while a huge, 60-foot polka-dot jersey stuck to the side of an overlooking cliff was part of the same promotion by the local ski resort of Praz de Lys.
With 8km still to ride the summit, Virenque and Aldag’s lead was down to 5:55 when Telekom’s Alexandre Vinokourov shot ahead from the pack, coming around the left shoulder of Postal’s Rubiera. Vinokourov came to the Tour fresh off his victory at the Tour of Switzerland and he has vowed to finish no less than third at the Tour. While Simoni and Telekom’s Santiago Botero were having difficult off the back, losing contact with the Armstrong group, Virenque accelerated to drop Aldag and push on alone.
Steady and patient work by Beltran and Rubiera brought back Vinokourov, and the Postal pair then set the pace up the remainder of the climb.
“We helped each other set the pace and taking turns,” Rubiera said. “It’s the first important mountain stage and you can’t hide when the road gets difficult. After so many days of riding big gears, you want to cause as much damage as you can to your rivals. It was surprising to see Simoni and Botero, but you cannot forget them because they can come back.”
Virenque topped the Ramaz, much to the delight of thousands of the French fans, 1:32 ahead of Aldag, 3:20 ahead of Poilvet and 3:50 ahead of the Armstrong group.
The run to Morzine
Armstrong had some bad memories to work through Saturday. In June’s Dauphiné Libéré race he suffered going up the Ramaz, crashed going down the back side of the Cat. 3 rise out of Les Gets the next day and suffered his worst bonk over the nearby Joux Plane in the 2000 Tour on a stage that also ended in Morzine.
But things worked like a charm for Armstrong, who’s still in second place, but now 2:29 behind Virenque.
“It was a perfect day for the team,” Armstrong said after finishing 15th, in the main pack, 4:06 back. “In the Dauphiné I suffered on the Ramaz, but today was a lot easier because of the team.”
Armstrong said he expects Virenque to work to protect the race leader’s jersey in Sunday’s stage, something he says plays perfectly into his hands. “Now we’re in the best position. The fact that Virenque has the yellow jersey is best for us. I’m sure he’ll defend it,” Armstrong said. “Today was the first real good day. I feel stronger than I did in the team time trial.”
Tyler Hamilton (CSC) surprised many when he stayed with the lead group over the Ramaz. Hamilton fractured his right clavicle in a spill nearly a week ago and vows to fight through Sunday’s climb to Alpe d’Huez. “I was a little bit surprised and glad that I was able to hang on,” said Hamilton, who finished 25th in the same time as Armstrong. “To me it was good that the speed was steady, even though it was high. I made sure to have only minimum of pressure on my collarbone. I was able to sit and relax and just use my legs.”
Hamilton said with his cracked collarbone, he loses about 50 percent of his strength in his right upper body, something he says will cost him some of his speed at Alpe d’Huez.
“I said before the stage that if I lost a lot of time to the best I would be going home tonight, but I didn’t so I’ll still be here tomorrow,” Hamilton said. “Tomorrow will be the big test. I am not going to make some crazy prediction that I’m going to attack at Alpe d’Huez. I am realistic.”
Jan Ullrich (Bianchi), Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola), Vinokourov (Telekom), Francisco Mancebo (ibanesto.com), Joseba Beloki (ONCE-Eroski), Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo) and David Millar (Cofidis) were the favorites who made it safely in with the lead group on Saturday.
The day’s victims included Botero and Simoni (74th and 77th, respectively, both at 10:21), Bianchi’s Angel Casero (63rd at 8:38) and Fassa Bortolo’s Aitor Gonzalez (60th at 8:38).
Virenque received a hero’s welcome when roared into Morzine, the same ski town where he won a stage in the 2000 Tour. Virenque has won the KoM jersey five times and is trying to make it a record-tying sixth jersey. Federico Bahamontes and Lucien Van Impe each won it six times.
Virenque says he won’t make a run for overall victory despite finishing on the Tour podium two times. “It will be special to climb Alpe d’Huez wearing the yellow jersey,” Virenque said, who appeared at his post-race press conference with his young daughters. “I have to be realistic about my chances. I know what I can and cannot do. I know I can lose five minutes in the time trials.”
Virenque is back in the yellow jersey after holding it 11 years ago, when he was France’s great Tour hope for the 1990s. Then came the Festina scandal and his fall from grace. Despite winning two Tour stages since 1998, Virenque remains one of cycling’s more controversial figures.
On Saturday, atop the podium with his two sons in his arms, he forgot all those woes and enjoyed his moment in the French sun.
“Eleven years after wearing the yellow jersey, now I can stop my career without regret,” Virenque said. “I will fight to win the polka-dot jersey. I know I will pay a price for my efforts today. I spent a lot of energy, but it was worth it.”
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