Stage 9 - The First Mountain Stage

by Peter McNairney

The stage led from Le Grand Borrand to La Plagne over three class 1 climbs, a distance of 160km. The weather was, again, very warm.

The stage was dominated by the performance of two riders: Alex Zuelle and Miguel Indurain. Zuelle, especially, showed enormous amounts of class in a race that saw most of the favorites melt in the summer heat.

He broke away on the first class 1 climb of the day with the TVM rider Bo Hamburger. The duo chased Munoz, who was first to the top, and caught him in the long descent. The field, led by Banesto obviously, didn't spend much effort chasing the three riders as there was still some 90km to go to the finish. By the time the front three had reached the valley again they had a lead of 1'20" over the field and 30" over a chasing Lance Armstrong. As they hit the flats they worked commitedly and even though the gap was not great, Armstrong was not able to catch them. At the feed station the gap was still 30" but the field had slipped to 2'00".

As the next climb is reached Zuelle sets the pace and the others fade, Hamburger hangs on to his wheel but Munoz drops back to Armstrong. The field, meanwhile, is riding along at a comfortable pace. Either Indurain doesn't want to use up his helpers too early on a chase, or he doesn't take Zuelle's attack all that seriously. Whatever the reason, the pace remains low and the gap widens - it's now a little over 3 minutes. There are two Banesto helpers leading the field now, which is down to about 40 riders including most of the favorites, Bugno is conspicuously abscent.

In the second half of this climb come further surprises. Berzin suddenly has a 20m gap between himself and the field, at first it seems he had a mechanical defect, but despite help from Cenghialta the gap widens. Soon, he loses contact completly. At about the same time Munoz and Armstrong are caught again. The field shrinks further and by the time they reach a hydro lake near the summit there's only 25 of them left. Zuelle leads by 3'35" and Berzin falls back 50".

The temperature has all of them working with the exception of Indurain who sweats, and bares his teeth occasionaly but otherwise looks relativly comfortable. Rominger, on the other hand, doesn't look good at all. As the field climbs up, away from the lake, the last of the leading Banesto helpers fades. Once again its Gerard Rue who comes to the front for his captain, but the pace is still not all that high. This allows Zuelle to extend his lead even more, and now has 4 minutes. Rue leads for a while but tires near the top and falls back quickly, leaving Indurain with only one more rider for support.

As the field passes the summit Zuelle has streched the lead to 5 minutes. The swiss rider is turning on one of the best rides of his life and is now the virtual tour leader. Perhaps Indurain was expecting Zuelle to collapse on the final climb to La Plagne but 'till this point he'd made no signs of weakening.

In the descent Indurain leads the field personally, but at very slow speed. He only freewheels down the mountain and as a result Zuelle's lead grows to 5'20". It seems as though Indurain is not willing to use his last helper (Aparicio) to lead all the way to the finish. The slow speed allows Rue to catch the field again, and immediatly the frenchman takes the lead again with Indurain behind him. As the flat is reached again Zuelle's lead is still over 5 minutes.

On the flat it's a long-distance pursuit race between Zuelle and Rue - one that ended in a draw. As the final climb is reached Zuelle still has just under 5 minutes advantage. After only a few hundred meters of the climb Rue quits and falls back to ride the last 15km by himself. Indurain must now use his last help and Apricio goes to the front. Tonkov attacks and comes clear without the slightest reaction from the field. Indurain looks somewhat exposed now, with only the one helper, but the remaining riders doen't seem to have any interest in an attack at all.

Zuelle still has 4 1/2 minutes (over Tonkov, 5 min. on the field) as Aparicio tires and Indurain must take over the lead himself. It's still enough for him (Zuelle) to be dangerous to Indurain in G.C even though it seems he won't get the yellow jersey. He's starting to fight now, but is still riding fast.

As Indurain takes the lead riders start to go off the back. Rominger doesn't look good and there is only 12 other riders in the group now. Suddenly Indurain raises the pace. The group is immediatly stretched to breaking point. One rider after another sprints onto Indurains wheel, realizes what a speed the Spaniard is riding, sits back in the saddle, and falls back to ride his own tempo up the mountain. Within minutes the field is destroyed and Indurain is alone chasing Tonkov and Zuelle. Pantani builds a first group with Gotti and Lafranchi. Rominger is further back and Riis can't be seen.

Indurain catches Tonkov and is now 4'03" down on Zuelle. Tonkov hangs on for a while but Indurain is not holdable today. He powers into, and out of, the corners. He doesn't even get out of the saddle. Tonkov soon quits this pace and rides on alone. He'd hung on to Indurain for almost 2 1/2 minutes - longer than anyone else. Zuelle now had 3'50".

The race order was now: Zuelle, Indurain, Tonkov, Pantani - Gotti - Lafranchi, Rominger - Chaippuci - Dufaux - Virenque - Escartin. Escartin was giving it all he could to keep Rominger in the race.

With 5km to go Zuelle is giving it all he's got. He's fighting but still riding fantasticly. Even with the speed that Indurain was riding he wasn't going to catch the Once rider today. He still had 3'09" and the win looked safe, the only remaining question was how close would he get to Indurain in G.C. Indurain keeps up the pace and reaches the red flag at about the same time Zuelle crosses the line. He finishes 2'02" later. Tonkov arrives another 2 minutes later, followed by Pantani and Gotti. Romingers group arrives 6'00" after Zuelle.

The times show that, despite a 70km break over 2 passes, Zuelle was still able to put time on almost all the other riders in the last climb. A truly fantastic effort. Whether he can recover from this enormous effort and challenge Indurain for the overall lead remains to be seen. One must hope that he can because he is now the sole remaining challenger to Indurains record equalling 5th tour win.

Tomorrow is another day, but if the weather remains hot then the opponents of Indurain had better resign themselves to another hard day. Indurain is riding as never before and it's time for him to win a stage other than a time trial. He was beaten on Saturday but tomorrow the Alp d'Huez could be what he's looking for.


Alex Zulle of Switzerland, who broke away from the pack after the Col des Saisies, won the stage between Le Grand-Bornand and La Plagne. He finished the 160 km stage in 4 hr 41 min 18 sec. Spaniard Miguel Indurain, who stepped up the pace on the sharp climb towards the 6,000-foot-high summit, came in 2 min 2 sec behind. Russian Pavel Tonkov was third. Indurain retains the leader's yellow jersey. Zulle, who was in ninth place, is now second in the overall standings.


Alex Zulle of Switzerland approached the finish with more than a 2 min advance on Miguel Indurain of Spain. The Spanish champ launched an attack at the beginning of the climb up the final peak at La Plagne, more than 6,000 feet high. Zulle is 4 min 29 sec down from Indurain in the overall standings.


Approaching the finish, Spaniard Miguel Indurain continued to close the lead of Alex Zulle of Switzerland. There is now about a 3 min gap between the two, compared to 5 min about 40 km earlier.

4:50 PM - Spaniard Determined not to Lose Jersey

Miguel Indurain of Spain stepped up the pace, trying vigorously to close the lead held by Swiss rider Alex Zulle. He is closing the gap, but Zulle still could take the leader's yellow jersey at La Plagne. The Swiss rider has a 4 min 3 sec advance on Indurain.

4:39 PM - Church Bells Ring

Church bells rang out as Spaniard Miguel Indurain passed through the tiny Alpine village of Macot, 16 km before the finish at La Plagne. Alex Zulle of Switzerland is still out in front. Russian Pavel Tonkov follows, at 4 min 25, and Indurain lags 4 min 49 sec behind Zulle. The Swiss rider is 4 min 29 sec behind the Spaniard in the overall standings.

4:33 PM - Indurain Tries to Close Gap

Spaniard Miguel Indurain, led by a teammate, was in hot pursuit of Swiss rider Alex Zulle. Indurain lags less than 5 min behind Zulle, as the riders pump up the steep climb towards the finish in La Plagne, almost 6,000 feet high.

4:25 PM - Zulle Starts Ascent

A lone rider in pink, Alex Zulle of Switzerland, started the 20 km climb to the finish in La Plagne, almost 6,000 feet high. Spanish leader Miguel Indurain and several other riders lagged 5 min 11 sec behind.

4:17 PM - The Pack is over the Summit

The pack just crossed the towering Cormet de Roselend, almost 5,000 feet high. At the top, the riders started munching candy bars and slurping on their red drink bottles. Alex Zulle of Switzerland is still out in front, with a 5 min lead on Spaniard Miguel Indurain. The Spanish leader has two other teammates with him.

4:05 PM - Zulle Could Take Jerseys

Alex Zulle of Switzerland passed first over the Cormet de Roselend, almost 5,000 feet high, more than 5 min in front of the pack. If he maintains his lead, he could take the yellow jersey from Spaniard Miguel Indurain, and the red polka dot jersey of the best climber off the back of Frenchman Richard Virenque.

3:46 PM - Russian Struggles in Mountains

Russian favorite Evgueni Berzin, who looked like a potential winner of the Tour a few days ago, has lost 5 min 52 sec on the man who's out in front, Alex Zulle of Switzerland. Berzin is more than 2 min behind the pack, led by a teammate of Spaniard Miguel Indurain.

3:43 PM - Another Drops Out

Roberto Petito, an Italian with Mercatone, joined other riders on Tuesday in dropping out. Spaniard Miguel Indurain's Banesto teammates are suffering as well. At about 2:30 p.m. local time, he had three of his teammates with him. Now he only has the support of one, and he lags 4 min behind Alex Zulle of Switzerland, who's out in front.

3:31 PM - Armstrong Fails to Catch Up

U.S. rider Lance Armstrong has failed to join Alex Zulle of Switzerland. At one point Armstrong looked as if he would catch the Swiss rider, who was accompanied by Bo Hamburger of Denmark. Now Zulle is out in front, followed by the Dane, 35 sec back. Armstrong and Federico Munoz of Colombia are lagging behind more than 2 min, with about a one minute advance on the pack. Jelle Njidam of the Netherlands has dropped out.

3:14 PM - Zulle Maintains Attack

Alex Zulle of Switzerland, a potential winner of the race, is leading the Tour as the riders climp the Cormet de Roselend. Zulle is in ninth place overall, 4 min 29 sec behind Spaniard Indurain. He's followed by Bo Hamburger of Denmark, with Colombian Federico Munoz and U.S. rider lagging behind. The pack is more than 2 min back.

3:02 PM - Armstrong Launches Attack

U.S. rider Lance Armstrong is in hot pursuit of three other riders who are out in front: Alex Zulle of Switzerland, Colombian Federico Munez and Bo Hamburger of Denmark. The three riders who crossed first over the Col des Saisies and have a 1 min 40 sec lead on the pack. Spaniard Miguel Indurain's teammates are staying out in front. Several riders are lagging behind, and Italian Silvio Martinello has abandoned.

2:46 PM - Near the Summit

About 4 km before the summit of Col des Saisies, which is almost 5,000 feet high, Colombian Federico Munoz has a 32 sec lead on Danish rider Bo Hamburger and Alex Zulle of Switzerland. Zulle is now in ninth place overall, 4 min 29 sec behind leader Miguel Indurain of Spain. The two riders are followed by another group, and the pack lags behind.

2:17 PM - The Big Challenge

The first riders just hit the Col des Saisies, which is almost 5,000 feet high. Spaniard Mariano Rojas of the ONCE team is out in front. He's tailed by a number of other riders. The pack, led by the leader Miguel Indurain, is 20 sec behind. There's a 16-km climb to the summit.

1:47 PM - A Sprint Relief

After a speedy descent down the 3rd category slope at Col de l'Epine, the riders hit their first sprint of the day at the 39 km mark. Uzbek Djamolidine Aboujaparov finished first, tailed by Frenchman Laurent Jalabert. Another Frenchman Thierry Laurent was third. The riders now face the 3,090-foot-high peak at Col de Hery.

1:35 PM - The Peaks get Steeper

Just over 26 km after the start at Le Grand-Bornand, the pack crossed the 3rd category slope at Col de l'Epine, with Frenchman Richard Virenque still out in front. He's wearing the best climber's polka dot jersey. His compatriot Francois Simon was second, followed by Australian Stephen Hodge.

1:14 PM - The Pack Crosses first Slope

The pack just whizzed over the 4th category slope at Col du Marais, 16 km after the start at Le Grand-Bornand. Frenchman Richard Virenque, sporting the best climber's red polka dot jersey, was first at the summit. Stephen Hodge of Australia, who also races for Festina, was second. Italian Massimo Podenzana of Brescialat was third.

12:53 AM - They Hit the Alps

The pack set off just after mid-day on Tuesday from Le Grand-Bornand in the Alps, heading 160 km towards the ski station at La Plagne. The mountains get increasingly steep, with riders hitting their first 1st category peak at the Col des Saisies, 73 km after the start. The weather augurs tough times ahead: meteorologists are predicting thunderstorms.

10:38 AM - Rominger Expresses Doubts

Swiss cyclist Tony Rominger of Mapei said Monday that he was not happy with his form and cast doubt on his ability to challenge Tour leader Miguel Indurain. Rominger, winner of this year's Tour of Italy, is in fifth place overall, 2 minutes and 32 seconds behind Indurain.