Apart from the question as to who would win the stage it was interesting to see how Indurains competitors would react to the brutal ride yesterday. Most of all, would Alex Zuelle crack today? He is the last rider in G.C to have a chance of challenging Indurain and invested a lot of strength in his win. Would Indurain attack again?
But the first sensations of the day came before the serious racing started. Mario Cippolini (exhaustion) and Olaf Ludwig (after time limit) did not start the stage at all and Fondriest quit with Maurelon at the feeding station. They were also joined by none other than Berzin, who quit the tour at the same point. He'd looked weak yesterday and may have decided to concentrate on the rest of the season rather than to struggle to Paris.
Up until the feed station the pace had been very easy with no attacks at all. However Rochard (Festina) soon launched the first attack with some 75km to go to the finish. This action was the first of many in the bunch as one rider after another jumped away from the field. Banesto didn't worry about these attacks unduly and was happy to ride their own pace. However, as the dust settled there was a good sized bunch (15) with over 20" and riding well. Among the leaders were four Festina riders and four Once riders (including Virenque and Jalabert)! Escartin (Mapei) seems to have permission to ride for himself today and joins the leaders (this says something about Romingers form I think).
Banesto ride further without raising the pace a lot, obviously Indurain was happy just controlling the gap. He used his team well again today, not extending them more than was needed. Escartin and Gotti join the leaders on the start of the next class 1 climb and they now have 1'35 over the field. At the front Laurent Dufaux is doing a lot of work for Virenque - who won the first mountain points of the day and looks good for the next ones too. Bruyneel also joins the break and they extend the lead to 1'45". The field gets smaller on the climb and is now down to about 35 riders. Mejia jumps away, chases and catches the front riders still in the climb.
With 60km to go the lead is 1'50" and Banesto reacts, raising the pace so that the bunch is whittled down to about 15 riders. Tony Rominger is 150m behind them but the other top riders, Zuelle, Pantani, Lafranchi etc are still in there. The others are in the front bunch. The higher pace shows some results and the gap is brought down to 1'30", and Rominger is able to work his way back on again. It was interesting that a helper, Gonzales, didn't wait for Rominger when he went off the back but went back when he saw Rominger catching up again. Rominger may have felt the lack of form before the stage and given his riders free reign today (see Escartin).
At the top of the climb Virenque takes the points in front of Munoz and Dufaux. It looks like he'll win the spotted jersey again this year. As the field nears the summit it's interesting to note that Indurain does not look as comfortable today as he did yesterday. Perhaps the effort is making itself felt? He's often out of the saddle - something unusual for him and something we hardly saw once yesterday. The field is 1'30" down at the top.
2 Banesto riders lead the downhill and Indurain still has Rue tucked away on his wheel so the chances of catching the leaders look good. The front riders, however, ride with more commitment and, despite the lead getting down to 1'17 at one point, it is kept at 1'35". Several dropped riders can get back on in the descent and both groups grow in size. Gonzales-Arietta did all the work for Banesto up the hill and lead all the way down the other side as well, only dropping back 35km before the finish. As the flat is reached again the lead is still 1 1/2 minutes - it's only as Beat Zberg (Carrera) comes to the front to help chase that it starts to get below that.
Zberg looks to be preparing the way for an attack from either Pantani or Chiappuci, either way Indurain has pokered well again. The leaders are reachable but he has not used up his team to keep the gap down. This needed some nerves with Gotti, Jalabert, Virenque and Escartin at the front.
As Allement is reached, 10km before the final climb, the leaders are working well together - almost like a team time trial. However as the climb nears they start to get nervous and only 5 of them are leading. Vona and Elli (GB) use this caution before the climb, as Elli slips off the front cleverly covered by Vona. As the climb up to the Alp d'Heuz starts Virenque, Dufaux and Gotti set about the chasing Elli.
The field starts the climb still led by several Banesto riders but the pace is still controlled. At one point Rue has to tell a teammate to keep it slow, once again wakening concerns about Indurains strength. Suddenly Marco Pantani attacks and leaves the bunch standing - only Madouas reacts but he too thinks better of it. Elli is caught again by the leaders.
Pantani flys up the hill and soon catches the first stragglers from the front bunch. Behind him, the 'field' is now down to 8 riders and Indurain is without helpers. Pantani nears the leaders but doesn't pass them immediatly. He pauses about 30m back to catch his breath, but is seen by Gotti who attacks and drops the others. As Pantani catches and overtakes the others Gotti still has 50m advantage, but the Italian shows patience. He catches Gotti, changes up a gear and rides away from the Gewiss rider - he is now in the lead. His advantage over the chasers is 43" and has 1'30" over the group with Indurain.
Aparicio leads Indurain for a short while but soon he is also gone and Indurain is alone. Riis takes this chance and attacks, opening up a small gap. Indurain dosn't counter. Madouas goes with Riis and soon they've caught and overtaken the remnants of the front group. Jalabert and Virenque go with them but Escartin seems to struggle. Gotti is also caught.
Behind them Indurain has taken up the chase in earnest and only the surprising Alex Zuelle can follow his wheel. Pantani now has 1'10" on the first chasers and 1'30" on Indurain. Among the chasers Gotti attacks, only to be followed by Riis (a strange tactic with them both being in the same team). The whole thing is watched by Berzin in the team car. With 5km to go Indurain and Zuelle near the chasers and soon catch them. Indurain leads the group and immediatly Jalabert, Gotti and Virenque start to struggle. Madouas is also rolled up by Indurain who is giving it everything now.
With 3km to go the gap to Pantani is still the same but only Riis and Zuelle are still with the yellow jersey. The others are riding to the top in their own pace. Any doubts about a weaker Indurain seem to have been laid to rest.
Pantani reaches the last kilometer still looking good. But as the final bend is reached disaster almost strikes - he almost goes the wrong way! Luckily he realizes at the last momemt and heads for home, crossing the line with a big smile on his face. Behind him Indurain leads out from the corner and prevents Zuelle or Riis from overtaking to claim the second spot. Zuelle is third in front of Riis.
As Ivan Gotti approaches the last corner with Jalabert he either rolls a tire or slides out. Either way he's on the floor and time is ticking. A tire is off the rim, but he gets going again quickly and arrives 25" after Jalabert in 8th place. The crash costs him 4th place in G.C.
All in all a great stage despite the slow start. Pantani showed he's back in form with his first tour win, and the race for the overall lead still has some excitement in it. Another fine ride was shown by Zuelle, holding onto a hard riding Indurain despite yesterdays 100km solo win. Quite an effort. The riders will now look forward to a couple of easier days before reaching the Pyranees next week. There's still a lot of riding to be done in this tour - they only reached the halfway point today.
The Spanish ONCE squad launched their attacks early in the day with Mariano Rojas followed by Alex Zuelle. Zuelle went alone on the second major climb of the day the 2000 Cormet de Roseland. Lance Armstrong tried to make contact with the leader but after closing to thirty seconds was eventually swept up by the Indurain group.
When Zuelle's lead topped five minutes he became a direct threat to the Spaniard's yellow jersey of leadership. Indurian's team mates chased to the foot of the La Plagne. Once on the side of the mountain Indurain raised his tempo to a level that no one could follow. He then set off on a lone chase, reducing his deficit to just over two minutes on the line. The major damage had been done in his wake.
Berzin trailed in over seventeen minutes back now totally out of the running. Rominger and Chiappucci came to the line four minutes after the Spaniard, both shocked by the time loss. Alvaro Mejia crossed the line in fourteenth seven minutes back.
The next day it was the turn of the Festina squad of Richard Virenque to attack the Spanish leader. Virenque joined his team mates Dufaux, Brochard and Jeker. They were formed a group of fifteen leaders on the Col de Croix de Fer, which also included Laurent Jalabert, the leader of the points competition.
The Banesto team did an incredible job of limiting the time gap of the leaders and the yellow jersey started the final climb of the Alpe d'Huez with a one minute deficit. As the Italian climber Marco Pantani flew to his first Tour de France victory Indurain pegged back all his other rivals.
At the finish line only Alex Zulle and Bjarne Riis could remained in the slipstream of the Spanish champion. Alvaro Mejia who had been in the breakaway finished in seventeenth place climbing to fifteenth in the overall standings. The man expected to challenge Indurain, Evgine Berzin retired at the first feeding station.
Lance Armstrong rode well over the first mountains but was knocked off by an unruly spectator on the final climb, hurting the arm which he had crashed on in the first week.
Zuelle gave his best display of aggressive riding since he came close to beating Tony Rominger in the 1993 Tour of Spain. Often touted as the natural successor to Indurain he had a relatively poor 1994 season but yesterday he reaffirmed the class that many knew he had. He attacked the main group on the climb of the Col des Saisses, some 60 kms into the stage, and by the summit he was close to 1 minute clear, just behind Kelme's Federico Munoz, and with TVM's Bo Hamburger for company. These three came together on the descent and continued to build a lead. The big loser on the Saises was Evgeni Berzin who is dropped from the lead group and is destined to lose 17 minutes to Zuelle by the end of the day.
On the climb of the Cormet de Roselend Zuelle goes clear of his breakaway companions and begins to build a big lead. The main group, led by Banesto, and containing all of the big-hitters bar Berzin, climb steadily behind and at the summit they are over 5 minutes behind Zuelle. So far today ONCE's tactics have been perfect - they have sent one of their top riders up the road forcing Banesto to chase for the final 100 kms of the stage. Jalabert, Mauri, Breukink and Rojas all remain in the main group, awaiting there chance to attack should Zuelle be caught.
At the foot of the climb to La Plagne Zuelle has a 5 minute lead and Indurain is beginning to look isolated as Rue swings off of the front leaving just Aparicio to set the pace. He does his job well, setting a good tempo that discourages attacks - at 26 years of age could this rider be Banesto's successor to Indurain? After 7 kilometres of the climb he is spent and pulls over to one side to allow his team leader to set the pace. In the Channel 4 commentary box Liggett and Sherwen are beside themselves pointing out how isolated Indurain is. Pavel Tonkov attacks and begins to set off in pursuit of Zuelle, who is still well ahead.
Then pandemonium breaks loose in the Indurain group as he gradually ups his tempo, almost imperceptibly at first, but the effect on the group is plain to see as Riis, Jalabert, Rominger, Chiappucci, Pantani and Virenque all lose ground. Only Paolo Lanfranchi of the Brescialat team can stay with him but he soon gives up and lets the yellow clad Indurain power on ahead. Indurain soon catches Tonkov who battles valiantly with him for close on 3 minutes before he, too, has to concede defeat and settles into his own tempo.
Indurain is rapidly pulling away from those behind and he is reducing Zuelle's lead at a frightening rate but it looks like Zuelle has enough of a gap to secure his first Tour de France stage win. As Zuelle passes the 2 km to go banner Indurain goes under the 3 km to go banner so Zuelle has about 2 minutes 30 seconds advantage. He loses some of this towards the end but comes up to take a brilliant stage victory - he has been on the attack for the best part of 100kms. Two minutes later Indurain crosses the line to strengthen his grip on this Tour.
The pretenders to his crown, given a hard lesson in reality today, arrive at the finish in groups of twos and threes. Tonkov loses 2 minutes, Pantani loses 2 and a half whilst Rominger, Virenque and Chiappucci all lose close to 4 minutes to Indurain.
* "It's a huge satisfaction because this is a stage which is won only by great champions," stage winner Pantani said. "What makes me especially proud is that I did it on my own without seeking help from anyone."
* Pantani made a solo attack from the bottom of l'Alpe d'Huez, chased down a break that began on the Col de la Croix de Fer and then rode soloed to victory. "I wasn't thinking of attacking when I reached the bottom of the climb," Pantini said. "Part of me was telling me to wait but another part told me I could win, so I went. It was more panache than my legs which did it for me today."
* Regarding his teammate Claudio Chiappucci: "Two roosters can't live in the same hen-house. I believed they could at first but that was naive of me. Claudio spoiled it all by making rash statements about being team leader. He never thinks before he speaks but he's made a lot of enemies and now the others in the team prefer me."
* With his professional career coming first, Pantani admits having little time for anything else and that he does not have a girlfriend. "But it's harder to win the Tour de France than to find a wife," he said. "There will be time for that later."
* "If I continue to improve, anything is possible in the next few stages in the mountains," Pantani said. "Last year I came to win a stage and finished on the podium (third). This year I came to finish on the podium and have already won a stage."
* In the past four stages, Indurain has finished second, first, second and second.