Prologue Report

Its raining and no end is in sight

There are dark clouds around Den Bosch right now (10.35) after a strong downpour early this morning. It could easily rain again at any time. Today's high is expected to reach 61 F and right now winds are from the northwest at 17 mph. The grim forecast doesn't show any sign of improving by race time

After the Prologue News

Chris Boardman, who broke his ankle in the Tour de France prologue last year, came within two seconds of taking the leader's yellow jersey in the world's most famous cycling race here on Saturday. Alex Zulle of Switzerland, second overall last year, deprived Britain's Olympic pursuit champion of a glorious comeback.

It is the second time that the 28-year-old Zulle has worn the yellow jersey, he had it for a day in 1992. Zulle, 28 and winner of this month's Tour of Catalonia, was surprised. "I didn't think I would win at one point because of the slippery surface, but I am absolutely delighted," said Zulle, whose mother is Dutch.

Boardman, who won the prologue time-trial in Lille in 1994, posted the fastest time after two Spaniards Melchior Mauri, sixth overall last year, and then World Champion Abraham Olano had set daunting targets. The 27-year-old Briton rode a brave race as the conditions were similar to those he crashed in last year, rain making the surface slippery and dangerous on the corners, although the course was milder.

Boardman said: "I'm disappointed at losing by two seconds, but I have noticed how Zulle has been improving over the past month. However, its not a bad result as I decided not to take any risks like last year."

The prologue differed markedly from past years when it has usually been won by the lesser lights of the peloton. This time all the contenders immediately made their mark and set up what could turn out to be one of the most attacking Tour's in years.

Miguel Indurain, going for his sixth consecutive Tour victory, was 12 seconds behind in seventh place. He had beaten Zulle by two seconds in the 1992 version. The Spaniard though was more worried about his safety on the course. "I took a thousand precautions going in to the corners. I am not worried about the result as the time differences are not great," he said.

Laurent Jalabert, attempting to be the first Frenchman to win the Tour in 11 years, was 15 seconds adrift.

More Reportage

Swiss Alex Zuelle, tired of being the eternal hopeful of world cycling, won Saturday's Tour de France prologue ahead of Briton Chris Boardman.

Zuelle, who came second behind Miguel Indurain in last year's Tour and is widely regarded as the man most capable of depriving the Spaniard of a record sixth win this year, clocked a winning time of 10 minutes and 53 seconds at an average speed of 51.822 kph on a rain-soaked, 9-4 km circuit in the Dutch city of Den Bosch.

Boardman, eager to erase painful memories of last year's prologue, in which he crashed and broke three bones in similar, wet conditions, had the fastest intermediate time but had to be content with second place two seconds behind the winner.

``Last year was in my mind most of the time but the weather was not so bad so I was able to push harder,'' said the Olympic pursuit Olympic champion, who won the prologue of his first Tour in 1994 at a record average speed of 55.152 kph.

``I was surprised to do so well as I took the corners like a cyclo-tourist,'' added Boardman, whose goal this year is to finish the race after retiring in 1994 just before the Pyrenees.

Former Giro winner Yevgeny Berzin of Russia completed a podium of time-trial specialists by setting the third time in 10:56 while world champion Abraham Olano of Spain and veteran Swiss Tony Rominger hinted they would be riders to watch by ending the stage in fourth and fifth position respectively.

Indurain, who was sound asleep in his hotel room when the first rider, Pole Marek Lesniewski, took the start under driving rain, had a cautious ride on narrow, slippery roads and ended seventh 12 seconds behind the winner.

Zuelle, a team mate of Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, who came eighth in the stage, in the powerful ONCE stable, said he would try to hold on to the coveted yellow jersey in the next few days.

``Psychologically, it was important to win today,'' he said. ``It's only the prologue but it's already a test.

``I didn't take many risks and I think it was my speed in the straight lines which allowed me to win. It's funny because when I got on the bike, I wasn't feeling too good.''

Boardman, who said he was hoping for a top 20 overall placing when the race ends on July 21 in Paris, said he had expected Zuelle to fare well.

``I'm not surprised because he's well prepared and in great form but I am a bit disappointed,'' he said.

The tall, bespectacled Zuelle, who will turn 28 on July 5, will rely on his ONCE team in Sunday's first stage, an undemanding, 206-km ride around Den Bosch which could well end in a massive sprint.

``I know this win doesn't mean much,'' he said. ``Indurain has won the Tour five times already and 12 seconds is nothing in a race which lasts three weeks.''

The 27-year-old Frenchman was happy with his performance, saying: "Olano is more of a time-trial specialist and he only beat me by eight seconds. Its too early to come to any conclusions about the race."

Switzerland's Tony Rominger, at 35 making his last serious attempt at winning the Tour, was three seconds behind teammate Olano, and 10 seconds off the pace.

Jalabert and Zulle will have been greatly encouraged by the overall performance of their Once team. Mauri showed that he will be up there again leading the attacks for the two leaders. Australians Patrick Jonker, second in the Tour of Catalonia, and veteran Neil Stephens, in his fifth Tour de France, also gave Jalabert a boost.

The ONCE TEAM's ambitions are confirmed

The ONCE team's Alex Zulle and Laurent Jalabert contained five-time winner Miguel Indurain in the rainy streets of 's-Hertogenbosch.

Zulle, starting next to last, will wear this Tour's first yellow jersey, thus interrupting Miguel Indurain's streak. He finished the 9.4-km stage in 10 minutes and 53 seconds, twelve seconds faster than Indurain, who is seventh, just three seconds ahead of Laurent Jalabert.

The ONCE team's tactics paid off. They started their leader, Jalabert, before Zulle, who's also one of the race's favorites. This must be a way for the two riders to share the pressure and put some more on Indurain, making him realize he has to fight not one rider, but two. Indurain actually recognized his most dangerous adversary will certainly be Zulle.

The stage started rather slowly, with ONCE's Melchor Mauri holding a 11'14 lead for a long time. world champion Abraham Olano was to change that, astonishing the crowd a first time by running in 11 minutes sharp. Berzin, another time trial specialist, beat this time by four seconds a little while later, only to be dethroned by the French team GAN's English rider Chris Boardman (one second faster), who was very keen on taking his revenge on last year's preliminary stage fall.

Only Zulle and Indurain were left, and Zulle took chances, left Boardman two seconds behind and got a well-deserved victory.

Indurain seemed at first to do what five-time winner Bernard Hinault said he would do if he was him, not to "try and win the Tour today" and to lose as little time as possible, but then again, he had a smooth ride and finished strongly, staying close to the lead.

Ex-world champion Lance Armstrong finished the stage in 11'17. Denmark's Bjarne Riis, in third place last year, just behind Zulle, got sixth place today with 11'04. And Rominger, in his last effort to win the Tour, finished in 11'03, which gives him fifth place. The only surprise was Richard Virenque's good performance. The FESTINA rider, still wearing last year's best climber's jersey, fared well, finishing in 11'20. He explained his good time - for a climber - by saying he had a good feel, even if he was a little scared of sliding in the turns.