More Stage 15 Reports

Last Chance for Miguel

Strenuous climbs and painful memories await Tour de France riders in the Pyrenees, where Miguel Indurain will have one last chance to force himself into a winning position.

The five-times winner, who had a rare off-day in the Alps, dropping to eighth place overall over four minutes behind surprise leader Bjarne Riis of Denmark, is looking forward to three stages in mountains he knows by heart, including one in his home region of Navarra.

But there will be a sad note as it was in the Pyrenees that Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli of Italy was killed last year in a crash coming down the Portet d'Aspet pass.

As the Tour nears Spain, where he would have loved to arrive with the yellow jersey on his shoulders, Indurain knows he it will be tough for him to earn another line in the record books.

``The guys in front of me look strong but I haven't lost, yet,'' he said. ``What happened to me in the Alps was because of all the rain and cold. Now it's sunny at last and I feel much better.''

The first of the three stages in the Pyrenees, which will take the riders to the resort of Hautacam on Tuesday, is fondly remembered by the Spaniard, who used the final, punishing climb to seal his fourth triumph two years ago.

All his pursuers had cracked but he had managed to stay just behind Frenchman Luc Leblanc, who won the stage and will be one to watch again on Tuesday.

But the stage in which Indurain dreams of shining is the next one on Wednesday which finishes in Pamplona, near Villava, where his parents have a farm.

That stage over 262 kms will be the longest of the 1996 Tour and one of the toughest with no fewer than seven passes including the awesome Puerto de Larrau, on the Spanish border.

When the Tour leaves the Pyrenees on Thursday to head for Hendaye, on the French Basque coast, Indurain will probably know whether he can still win the race.

``I know I have to attack and there will be opportunities in the stages to Hautacam and Pamplona, and even in the one to Hendaye,'' he said. ``But I will have to choose the right moment.''

The stages in the Pyrenees, which cross the Basque country, are anxiously awaited by the Tour organisers, who have received threats from ETA separatists.

``They said the Basque language should be used on those stages and it will be as we will have a speaker who will talk Basque at the start and the finish and during the stages,'' said Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc.

Indurain's goal is to reach a potentially decisive time-trial on Saturday, one day before the traditional finale on the Champs-Elysees, not too far behind Riis.

The Spaniard, who excels against the clock, can reasonably hope to gain some time on the Dane over 63.5 kms from Bordeaux to Saint-Emilion.

He has received encouragement from Charly Gaul of Luxemburg, who sent him a letter to remind him how he had won the 1958 Tour.

``When I won the Tour, I was 15 minutes behind three days before the end,'' wrote Gaul. ``In one single stage, I gained 20 minutes on (Frenchman Jacques) Anquetil and over half an hour on (Spaniard Frederico) Bahamontes. It's not over yet. Good luck.''


Denmark's Bjarne Riis has been in the leader's yellow jersey in the Tour de France for a week now and each day he must be more confident of holding on as his rivals fail to mount a serious challenge.

This is undoubtedly one of the great Tour de Frances and threatens to reach even greater heights as the Tour takes on two superhuman stages on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday the cyclists have the 199km ride to Lourdes-Hautacam, climaxing with the 1500m climb up Hautacam, and on Wednesday the monster of them all, the 262km stage to Pamplona, including three first category climbs and one like Hautacam that is so steep that the organisers declare it beyond categorising.

These are the two stages that should provoke attacks on Riis, though on the evidence of the past week it will be very difficult for them to ruffle him as he has led like one would imagine a Tour leader should -- from the front.

Twice in the last two days he has caused ripples in the peloton. On Saturday he initiated a breakaway that twice left Swiss rival Tony Rominger trailing and eventually the enormously talented Russian Yevgeny Berzin was also left.

Rominger appeared to admit defeat on Saturday when he said: "I have told the team to ride for Abraham Olano as my right thigh and knee are still giving me trouble."

The 35-year-old Swiss world hour record holder had evidently failed to persuade Olano, the Spanish World road race champion, of this because on Sunday the young Spaniard failed to help a breakaway that Riis was involved in.

"I would not help because Tony was caught in the second group and I only went with Riis and the others because otherwise they would have opened up a large gap. I think Tony is the realistic challenger to Riis," Olano said.

Nevertheless Olano, seen in Spain as the successor to five-time winner Miguel Indurain, lies second overall and according to the 1988 Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado he has the ability to win the Tour -- if he had forsaken riding for Rominger and become a team leader.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Abraham could win the Tour but only if he shook off his loyalty to Rominger, who it appears to me is fading as the race goes on," Delgado said.

Olano appears to lack confidence in taking the big men on, although he has always been there when the breaks have materialised, and this could prove his fatal weakness.

Were he to be in touch for the time-trial stage next Saturday then he would be a prime candidate for the yellow jersey, as he won silver to Indurain's gold in the 1995 World championship time-trial.

This indecision on behalf of the Mapei team, the only team to remain intact, can only help Riis whose Telekom team have given him perfect support.

"I can't tell you how much it has helped to have this splendid bunch of fellows working for me. Its a dream come true for me and if I'd realised this was what it was like to be a team leader I would have become one earlier," Riis joked.

The main question still remains how strong is Indurain. Has he simply been biding his time, recovering from his miserable ride to Les Arcs or is his star on the wane.

"I have just recharged my batteries and recovered from the cold weather of the first week and now I am ready to strike back," Indurain threatened.

The stage to his hometown of Pamplona, passing by Villava the village he was born in, would appear the perfect catalyst for Indurain to make his play for a record sixth successive win. "I will bide my time and when I see that my main rivals are cracking then I will pounce," Indurain said.

Indurain is not renowned for his attacking capabilities and certainly his Banesto team are not capable on their own to help him out.

However, when Riis led his second breakaway on Sunday it was evident that the Spanish teams were going to help Indurain as much as they could.

First ONCE and then Kelme came to the front to lead the peloton back to Riis, Berzin, Olano and several other dangerous rivals. Riis should be wary of this but he appears to have noticed that Indurain is not the same man as he was.

"I don't know what it is but unless he has some sort of injury I think he has lost that aura of invincibility. He appears to be asleep half the time," Riis said.

Berzin remains the wild card. The charismatic Russian, hated by some adored by others, has shown that he is a potential Tour winner this year but he has also shown that he can be caught napping.

Cursed by a mediocre team, weakened by the retirement of deputy Ivan Gotti in the first week, he was bound to lose the yellow jersey he so proudly wore for two days last week.

Forced to make the pace on the climb to Sestrieres on Monday to claw back Riis he was open to a counter attack and paid the penalty being left by Indurain and Rominger, as he was left by Riis on the final climb on Saturday.

He remains optimistic, which given his uneven temperament is a blessing for his supporters. "I had two bad days, so what. I have recovered and if I can stay in touch with the leaders upto the time-trial next Saturday then I will be in with a great chance," Berzin said.

Riis though remains the man to beat and while the French duo of Luc Leblanc and Richard Virenque fight out a personal duel for the top finishing Frenchman, with Leblanc the people's favourite on account of Virenque's overbearing arrogance, it is the Dane who goes into the final week with justifiable confidence.

"I feel as Indurain must have done these past five years," Riis warned.

If that is the case then only an eternal optimist would challenge him -- however, these madmen don't come on a Tour to be bit players and Riis will find out soon enough if his was a fleeting feeling or was indeed the real thing.

Basques Plan Protests

Herri Batasuna, the political wing of the Basque terrorist group ETA, have planned two demonstrations for the two Tour de France stages which run through the Basque country on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The first one will take place in Pamplona, hometown of five-time winner Miguel Indurain, in protest at the Tour saying that the race would race through France and Spain in their publicity and not the Basque country.

The demonstration on Wednesday will take place at the French village of Saint Engrace, which Herri Batasuna considers the gateway to the Basque country.

ETA have said that no other action will be taken despite bombing a civil guard post on Sunday in Ochagavia, which the Tour races through on Tuesday.

Also on Sunday Egin, an independent Basque publication, published an anonymous statement threatening the security of the cyclists and the Tour de France caravan when it races in the Basque countryside on Wednesday and Thursday.

The statement said that action would be taken as there were several companies who supported the Tour who were anti-Basque.

Several Spanish and French companies have had their offices bombed in recent weeks, including the Renault showroom in Pamplona, where the 17th stage finishes on Wednesday.

The statement said: "Once the cyclists are in Basque country their security cannot be guaranteed."

Indurain, who now speaks only in Spanish when questioned about ETA as he was misquoted once when he replied in French, dismissed the threats.

"There were similar threats four years ago when we were riding to San Sebastien and nothing happened. Besides they would be foolish as there are negotiations going on at the moment," Indurain said.

ETA, the Basque terrorist organisation, sent a letter to the organisers in June threatening to bomb the Tour if they did not use a Basque announcer for the Pamplona stage. The organisers agreed to the demand.

They appointed Inaki Perrurena, famous locally for his skill in the specialist Basque sport of rock carrying, as the announcer.

Japan's First TDF rider Out

Japanese cyclist Daisuke Imanaka was eliminated from the Tour de France late on Sunday after the organisers ruled that he had arrived outside the allotted time given to the riders on the 14th stage to Tulle from Besse.

Imanaka, 33, the first Japanese rider to ride in the Tour since the Paris based Kisso Kawamura rode in the 1926 and 1927 Tour's came in over 40minutes behind the stage winner Djamolodine Abdujaparov of Uzbekistan.

He was 140th and last overall of the surviving riders in the race, two hours and 58 minutes behind the leader Bjarne Riis.

Imanaka, riding under an agreement between his team Polti and their sponsors Shimano, had said his dream was to ride in the Tour but he wasn't sure about the mountains. "I love the mountains but I am not sure if they like me," Imanaka had said.

He was eliminated along with two other riders Vladimir Poulnikov of Ukraine, former leader of the Telekom team and 10th in the 1993 and 1994 Tours, and Poland's Marek Lesniewski, the oldest man making his debut in the Tour at 33.

American cyclist George Hincapie did not start Monday's 15th stage after failing to recover from a fall he took on Sunday. The 23-year-old, son of a Colombian amateur cyclist, is the third member of the Motorola team to retire during the Tour.

Their retirements leaves 136 of the original 198 starters still in the race.