It's Miguel Indurain's 32nd birthday, and at the start he takes a sip of champagne and cuts his cake. It's expected to be 30 degrees in the valley today and 15 degrees on the climb...
We join the race at the bottom of the climb. Out of sight a little way up it is Laurent Roux (TVM) who has been away 160km. Earlier Pascal Richard (MG) and Mariano Piccoli (Brescialat) had been away, but they are now back in the bunch.
On the front of the bunch pulling it along hard is a Motorola in a helmet. It's not Madouas or Vanzella, maybe it's Bruno Thibout. On his shoulder is Miguel Indurain (Banesto) and at the front are also Richard Virenque and Laurent Dufaux (Festina) and Peter Luttenberger. It's about 13-strong, with yellow jersey Bjarne Riis (Telekom) sitting farther back on Luc Leblanc's (Polti) wheel. Spanish champion Manuel Fernadez Gines (Mapei) takes over the pulling role from the Motorola.
About 1km into the climb with 12km to go there's a sharp attack -- from Alex Zulle (ONCE -- remember him!) -- and he builds a big gap quickly. Round a bend and he's on to Roux, going straight past him, twice as fast.
Now it's Virenque and team-mate Laurent Brochard on the front and they are closing Zulle down. Indurain is there at the front too. And just as 10km to go comes up Zulle is caught. The pace seems to have caught Tony Rominger out and he's going of the back with Fernandez Gines dropping back to try to pull him up again.
On the front Indurain is still second in line, Jan Ullrich (Telekom) is also there. At the back of the group are Abraham Olano (Mapei) and Evgeni Berzin (Gewiss). Riis is very near the back. After the stage he says, yes, he was looking at everybody, seeing how they looked. They weren't looking too good and at 9km he attacks!
It's a measured, testing acceleration -- I didn't go 100% he says later, and he eases off as Indurain goes on his wheel. Riis accelerates again and is out of the saddle followed by Indurain, Dufaux, Virenque, Leonardo Piepoli (Refin) and takes them away -- a new selection. Several metres back Berzin is visibly struggling and there's no sign of Rominger either. Riis eases again.
Riis attacks again and only Virenque is responding with any conviction. Indurain too but he seems to be struggling. Olano comes past him as does Luttenberger.
Riis turns on the power -- not a sharp acceleration, he just turns on the power -- like Miguel used to do. He rides clear of Dufaux, Virenque and Leblanc who are going well but not well enough.
Farther back Indurain is trying hard but to little effect with Ullrich, Luttenberger, Olano, Fernado Escartin (Kelme).
With 5km to go Riis is safely away, with a group of four settling to their work a bit behind: Leblanc, Virenque, Dufaux, Piepoli.
Maybe 5.5km to go Indurain is being dropped from his little group -- Olano, Ullrich, Luttenberger.... are going away from him.
Behind him Rominger is suffering but he's putting on a brave show. He sees Indurain riding like an ordinary tall big man on a climb, slow cadence, no rhythm, and puts on a show as he goes past, accelerating out of the saddle, just before the 5km banner.
Riis now has 28 secs on the four chasers
Rominger is inspired. He comes up to the ex-Indurain group, joining Luttenberger, Olano, Escartin, Brochard, Ulllrich and Piotr Ugrumov (Roslotto).
With 1km to go for Riis, Berzin is 3 minutes down, Indurain at 2.30.
Virenque group goes under 1km as Riis is approaching the line. Liggett dusts down his Abdoujaparov theme and adds a cadenza. "I think the grimace is turning to a smile here... [he] opens his mouth and searches for the finish."
Dufaux takes up the pace with Virenque on his wheel. Virenque attacks. Leblanc can't keep up this time, nor can Piepoli. They are at about 49 secs to Riis.
Rominger has fire in his belly. He rushes in holding off a sprinting Ullrich and a non-sprinting Ugrumov
Then Escartin ahead of Olano.... Then Indurain.
Indurain's not hanging about for the press. He turns on the line and heads off down the hill....
Long regarded as merely a useful team mate, the veteran Dane proved he had class by leaving all his rivals behind on the steep slope leading to the the Pyrenees resort of Hautacam, overlooking Lourdes.
``I soon realized that the others couldn't follow and I decided to attack,'' said the 32-year-old from Herning, who crossed the line 49 seconds ahead of Frenchman Richard Virenque and Swiss Laurent Dufaux, second and third respectively at the end of the day's 123.7 mile climb from Agen.
``I knew this could be my day,'' added Riis after gaining precious times on all his most dangerous opponents for victory in Paris, where the race ends Sunday.
Riis, who showed he was a potential Tour winner by finishing third in last year's race, now has a comfortable lead of two minutes 42 seconds on second-placed Abraham Olano of Spain, with Swiss Tony Rominger third, a further 12 seconds back.
All eyes were on five times winner Miguel Indurain of Spain, who started the day a modest eighth overall over four minutes behind Riis and was expected to attack to keep alive his chances of a record sixth win.
But Indurain lived a nightmare on the day of his 32nd birthday, suffering in the heat and gradually dropping off the pace to end the stage 12th and fall to 10th overall, seven minutes six seconds back.
The once unbeatable Spaniard was not the only rider to falter as Russian Evgeny Berzin, who started the stage in third place overall, came 13th nearly three minutes late to slide down the overall rankings to sixth.
Swiss Tony Rominger, who has been unhappy since the race started last month from the Dutch city of Den Bosch, falling several times, managed to take sixth spot and moved up one place to third overall.
Riis let team mate Jan Ullrich of Germany set the pace in the first miles of the 8.3 mile climb and once dropped back at the bottom of a leading group comprising most of his rivals, apparently to see how they were doing.
Probably pleased with what he saw, he then moved to the front of the group almost effortlessly and 4.3 miles from the summit, he made his move. ``He was so strong today that there was just no way we could follow,'' said Virenque. ``We tried but it was impossible.''
Riis might pay for his efforts in Wednesday's 162.8 mile ride to Pamplona, Spain, the longest and arguably the toughest stage of this year's race with seven moutain passes. ``I know it will be tough but I reasonably think I can win the race,'' he said.
Organizers were worried that Basque separatists might disrupt the race after police detonated a nine pound bomb Tuesday in Pamplona.
Navarre officials did not speculate on who might have planted the device, but the Basque separatist group ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) has threatened to disrupt the Tour on its passage through the Basque country. Navarre is 25 percent Basque.
France's Richard Virenque was second 49 seconds behind and Laurent Dufaux of Switzerland was third.
Riis, winning his second stage of the Tour after his victory at Sestrieres, leads Abraham Olano by over two minutes 42 seconds with Tony Rominger of Switzerland, Olano's teammate, in third overall two minutes 54 seconds in arrears.
Five-time winner Miguel Indurain, on his 32nd birthday, saw his fragile hopes of winning a record sixth successive Tour evaporate as he was left by Riis, Virenque, Dufaux, Luc Leblanc -- who won this stage two years ago -- and the surprising Italian Leonardo Piepoli with about 10km to the finish.
Indurain is 10th overall more than seven minutes behind.
Riis, red faced and showering himself with water in the last kilometre raised both his arms pointed his fingers skywards as he crossed the line. "I am speechless, it is astonishing and I am just so delighted that I won. I said I would and I kept my promise!" the 32-year-old said.
Walter Godefroot, the Belgian born manager of Riis Telekom team, was in tears. "I can't believe this. He is in the process of winning the Tour. All my life I've wanted to witness this and this wonderful Dane is doing it," Godefroot said.
Riis, third overall in 1995, produced one of the greatest performances anyone produced in the yellow jersey as he seized control of the stage on the 1500metre 13.5 kilometre climb to Hautacam.
A group of 16 split from the peloton at the start of the ascent, overhauling longtime leader Laurent Roux, with Riis teammate Jan Ullrich leading the group and Indurain on his wheel with Riis locked onto Indurain.
Riis then surprised many by peeling off and retreating to midway down the group as if he had a puncture.
Suddenly he launched himself into an attack leaving main rivals like Russian Yevgeny Berzin and Abraham Olano, the world road race champion, trailing in his wake.
Indurain stuck grimly to Riis and the other four who went with him but once Riis upped the pace Indurain was a spent force and his dreams were gone another casualty of a race that is no respecter of reputations.
Riis was not to be matched by anyone on the horrendous climb and, although Virenque, Dufaux, Piepoli and Leblanc stuck to him for a kilometre, he eventually blew them away and was never in sight again.
Rominger mounted a great comeback to pass Indurain and finish ahead of Olano, thus preserving hopes that he can still win the Tour in his final attempt at the age of 35.
The stage to Pamplona on Wednesday over 262km with seven climbs could still represent the chance for Riis challengers but the way he performed on Tuesday suggests that the Tour de France is now only about podium finishes.
Olympic champion Casartelli, who was 25, was killed in a crash in the descent of the Portet d'Aspet mountain pass in the Pyrenees on July 18 last year.
Before Tuesday's 16th stage to Lourdes-Hautacam started, race officials, accompanied by American Frankie Andreu, who was a team mate of Casartelli in the Motorola stable, paid him hommage by going to a marble monument built at the side of the road where the accident occurred.
Casartelli's widow, Anna-Lisa, will be in Paris when the race ends on Sunday and she will give the prize awarded each year to the best young rider.
At the end of the second stage of the Tour, Tony decided to swap over his brake levers -- the left-hand one which he'd always had controlling the front brake was moved to the right -- and vice-versa. Why such a change after being a pro for 10 years and at an age (35) when he's supposed to have got past such trifles?
"It was to do with feeding," said Rominger in justification. "Since I eat with my right hand, I preferred to have the left hand free to use the rear brake in case I needed it."
Well though out Tony. Except that on a descent on Saturday his old rouleur's reflexes hadn't got used to this inversion. "It's true," he said, "I was thrown over the bike, with a sandwich in my mouth."
[It's still best like that though, Tony. I've had my brakes set up that way all my cycling life...]