Stage 17 Reports

Dufeaux wins Staeg 17

Swiss Laurent Dufaux enjoyed his moment of glory after riding up seven arduous climbs in stifling heat to claim Wednesday's longest stage of the Tour de France. ``It was a terrible stage, so difficult,'' said Dufaux, looking exhausted after outsprinting race leader Bjarne Riis of Denmark at the end of the day's 262-km, 17th stage from Argeles-Gazost.

``I worked very hard in this race and I think I deserved this,'' said the 27-year-old from Montreux, who had previously concentrated his efforts in the race on helping his French team mate Richard Virenque.

But his success should come as no great surprise because Dufaux has already proved his form in this year's Tour by working for Virenque on the steep slopes in the Alps.

And the Frenchman was happy with his colleague's win and also his own third place in Wednesday's stage which allowed him to move two places up to third in the overall standings. ``I'm glad for Laurent,'' said Virenque. ``Perhaps I wouldn't be so high up overall if he hadn't helped me. It's good to see him get a reward.''

Like many talented riders, and like Riis himself a few years back, Dufaux often stays in the shadow of his leader.

But the pocket-sized mountain specialist, now fourth overall just behind Virenque, has class.

A Swiss champion in his first year as a professional in 1991, he has won the Dauphine Libere twice, first in 1994 and again last year. ``I had not won anything this year and I was certainly looking forward to this,'' he said. ``I knew I was in great shape and capable of doing well but when you have to work for others, it's not always easy.''

Dufaux was particularly pleased to have beaten into second place Riis, the man who has dominated this year's Tour and who looks ideally placed to win it in Paris on Sunday.

But he got upset at the suggestion that Riis had perhaps let him win.

``No, he didn't,'' he said firmly. ``He was incredibly strong. He's so determined that he always wants to show he's the boss. And he was certainly not going to let me win.''

Riis unbeatable

Laurent Dufaux of Switzerland won the 262km 17th stage of the Tour de France from Argeles-Gazost to Pamplona on Wednesday -- carrying out his Festina team plan to perfection. Yellow jersey wearer Bjarne Riis of Denmark virtually assured himself the Tour, coming in second.

The Swiss rider's teammate Richard Virenque, who earlier in the stage sealed his third successive King of the Mountains title, was third, 20 seconds in arrears.

Dufaux, twice winner of the Dauphinee race, explained how his boss Bruno Roussel and the team had planned it in advance. "We had a look at the climb in January and decided this morning that we would attack there," Dufaux said.

"Its great consolation for me as at one point I was 10 minutes ahead on the stage to Les Arcs and destined for the yellow jersey but Luc Leblanc caught me," the 27-year-old Dufaux said.

"I would like to dedicate this victory to my sister-in-law who lost her father in an accident recently," added Dufaux, who also signed a two year extension to his Festina contract on Wednesday.

The tense race finish had many in the crowd guessing.

At one point it appeared that Riis had allowed Dufaux to cross the line first.

After the race, however, it was revealed that Riis's quiet word to Dufaux in the last kilometre was not giving him the go-ahead to win, but telling him to do some of the pacesetting.

"I told him to do some of the pacing in front but he refused. I had to lead out the sprint and you saw the rest," Riis shrugged.

The 32-year-old Dane leads his German teammate Jan Ullrich, the 1993 World amateur champion, by 3 minutes 59 seconds and Virenque, who sealed his third successive King of the Mountains title, is third 4 minutes and 25 seconds in arrears overall.

Riis, courteous as ever, mounted the winners' podium to applaud five-time winner Miguel Indurain, who was returning to his home town, sadly for him not to celebrate a record sixth Tour triumph.

Indurain, letting the emotion show through his usually stern features, received a hero's welcome nonetheless and Riis paid him a fulsome tribute.

"I adore him. He is a great champion and it is sad that he hasn't been 100 percent this Tour. But he will be back," Riis said.

Riis retained the overall leader's yellow jersey extending his lead after he led the breakaway group that left his closest rivals -- Switzerland's world hour record holder Tony Rominger and Spain's world road race champion Abraham Olano -- trailing on the first category climb of De Soudet, the fourth of seven in the stage.

Though Olano and Rominger were in a group of 16 riders, they were unable to catch Riis group which came home over eight minutes clear.

Rominger, Olano and their Mapei teammate Manuel Fernandez Gines had to do all the pacework and although the gap came down to three minutes they eventually paid for their efforts.

Their failure makes Riis' task of holding onto his lead that much easier as they would have been formidable opponents in the time-trial on Saturday had they been able to limit the damage in the mountainous stage.

Riis, accompanied by Ullrich, whose decision to turn down a place on the German Olympic team to ride in the Tour has been well rewarded inflicted the damage on the peloton.

Udo Bolts, another teammate who has given everything, Fernando Escartin, Luc Leblanc, the winner of the stage to Les Arcs, Virenque, Dufaux, Piotr Ugromov, second overall in 1994 and young revelation Peter Luttenberger of Austria, were also among the leading pack.

Bolts was dropped on the steepest climb of the day, the Port de Larrau, but was encouraged by team boss Walter Godefroot who said: "Relax Udo. You have done a wonderful job. Don't push yourself over the top."

Bolts was to finish in the Indurain group which also included the valiant Australian Neil Stephens, or "Monsieur 100 percent" as he is known by the peloton.

Stephens, who fell two days ago when in with a chance of winning the stage, led for over 100km at the start of the race going over three climbs.

He lead two other escapees Pascal Herve, a teammate of Virenque and Dufaux, and Michele Bartoli, winner of this year's Tour of Flanders.

"Pascal Herve's escape was part of our plan to loosen up the peloton," Virenque said.

Stephens, 33, won a 20,000 Franc (4,000 dollars) prize for riding over the Aubisque climb first with Herve winning 10,000 francs.

"I was feeling so rough that I felt I had to win something before I was caught and tailed off," the exuberant Stephens said.

Stephens, whose Australian teammate Patrick Jonker is the leading ONCE rider in 17th place overall, actually stayed with the Rominger group to rise to 47th overall, having started the day in 85th position.

A less pleasant surprise awaited him later when several Basque demonstrators obstructed him on the dangerous descent from the De Soudet climb.

The demonstrators, waving Basque flags, almost brought him down and then Riis.

Police restrained the demonstrators allowing the riders to pass through.

Herri Batasuna, political wing of the Basque separatist group ETA, had threatened to demonstrate during the two stages that went through the Basque region.

They were demonstrating against the fact that the race organisers said that the Tour would race through French and Spanish territory and not the Basque countryside.

Thursday's 18th stage rolls the 154.5km from Pamplona to Hendaye.

By Thursday night, most of the 129 surviving riders will be pleased to have seen the end of the gruelling mountain stages.

Spanish fans sad as Riis dominates

An impressive Bjarne Riis stole the show before the fans of Tour de France king Miguel Indurain in the longest ride of this year's race on Wednesday.

Leader Riis came second behind Swiss Laurent Dufaux at the end of the day's 262-km 17th stage ending in Pamplona, in the heart of Indurain's Navarre region, to move even closer to victory in Paris, where the Tour ends on Sunday.

The 32-year-old Dane, looking almost effortless up the seven climbs taking the riders into Spain, gained considerable time on his pursuers in the overall standings and his triumph on the Champs-Elysees now looks a formality.

Spaniard Indurain, who had already lost almost all hope of a record sixth win by collapsing in Tuesday's stage to the Pyrenees resort of Hautacam, came in a poor 19th over eight minutes back although that did not stop his supporters from chanting ``Miguel, Miguel.''

Riis showed his strength by setting the pace up the day's third climb, the Soudet pass. Abraham Olano of Spain and Swiss Tony Rominger, who had started the stage second and third overall respectively, dropped back.

So did Indurain and Russian Evgeny Berzin as only seven riders could follow the 32-year-old from Herning who was stamping his authority on the Tour the way Indurain used to do.

``He's incredibly strong,'' said Dufaux, who escaped with Riis from the leading group of eight in the last kilometre and narrowly outsprinted the Dane. ``He's so determined, he always wants to show he's the boss.''

Frenchman Richard Virenque and young German Jan Ullrich came third and fourth respectively in the stage, both 20 seconds back, to move up the overall standings.

Riis now has a safe lead of three minutes 59 seconds over second-placed Ullrich with Virenque third a further 26 seconds back.

``I felt really strong today,'' Riis said. ``It's not over yet but it looks good.''

Indurain, in a class of his own in each of the last five Tours, suffered all day in a stage in which he badly wanted to shine.

Even the hundreds of banners reading ``Aupa Miguel'' (Up, Miguel) and cardboard cutouts showing him with the yellow jersey on his shoulders could not help.

He rode sadly past the house where he was born 32 years ago in Villava, near Pamplona, and did not even take part in the sprint of his group.

``I'm sorry for Miguel because he's such a great champion,'' said Riis. ``He was not at a hundred percent this year but he will be back, I'm sure.''

Indurain then climbed on a podium and looked close to tears as his supporters sang his name. He threw them flowers and saw Riis join him, wearing the yellow jersey which had been his so many times.

The image, providing a symbol of this year's Tour, moved the crowd, who burst into loud applause. Then Riis lifted Indurain's arm up in the air and the Spaniard tried his best to smile.

Fignon and Riis

Bjarne Riis may be all but crowned the winner of this year's Tour de France but it is France's dual Tour winner Laurent Fignon, who is assuming centre stage as the power behind Riis' tactics.

That is not to take anything away from Riis' shrewd Belgian born manager Walter Godefroot but Fignon has provided splendid advice and motivation for the 32-year-old Dane.

Riis paid him the ultimate tribute after winning the Hautacam stage on Tuesday.

"Godefroot has been a great inspiration but Laurent has been a pillar of strength and has given me excellent advice and provided me with the motivation to perform as I have done this Tour," Riis said.

Fignon, winner in 1983 and 1984, is returning the favour after Riis gave him three years of good teamwork in the Super U and Castorama teams (1989-91).

"I noticed Bjarne, during the Tour of the Avenir, when he was in the Toshiba team in 1988 and no-one in the team appeared to be interested in him. Thus I took him to Super U with me," Fignon said.

The partnership paid off immediately in the Tour of Italy as Riis recorded his first major success in the stage to Gubbio but Fignon felt he wasn't making the most of his ability.

"He didn't want to assume any responsibility as he didn't have any self confidence. There was a breakaway on the stage to Gubbio and though he wanted to stay with me I urged him to go on and win the stage. He did and beat Rolf Sorensen in a sprint finish," Fignon recounted.

Fignon, who never earned the love of the French after he ridiculed the five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault in the press in 1984, also inspired Riis to be cautious about letting his lead remain hovering just over the minute mark.

The pony-tailed Fignon paid the penalty in 1989 when he led Greg Lemond of the United States by 1min six seconds going into the final day -- a time-trial on the Champs Elysees. He lost by eight seconds.

Hence Riis' storming lead from the front actions on the stage to Hautacam and throughout other stages last week in direct contrast to five-time winner Miguel Indurain's style of winning the time-trials and conserving his lead by doing just enough in the rest of the Tour.

"I have a good friend who lost the Tour on the last day so I am not going to take any chances," Riis said after the Hautacam, referring to Fignon's day of despair.

Fignon, 36, is delighted for his friend but is not so sure how he will react after winning the Tour.

"Winning the Tour at the age of 32 can provoke different reactions. When something like this happens to you it can make you lose your motivation and I hope Bjarne does not go down that road. He could win another one such is his style and if you look at Rominger riding like he is at 35 then he has several good years left ahead," Fignon said.

Riis will surely not go down that road if Fignon has anything to do with it, and for Tour de France devotees, that can only be a good thing as his style of racing makes every stage unpredictable.

In short he is a joy to watch and there is much to thank Fignon for, as without him Riis may well have been just another rider.

Instead, Fignon paraphrased and activated the maxim that Napoleon so often used to inspire his soldiers: "In every soldier's backpack there lies a Marshal's baton," or in cycling parlance: Every cyclist has the ability to win the Tour de France if they believe in themselves.

Riis gets Ullrich second place, Virenque gets Dufaux stage win

Teamwork was the word today, with Bjarne Riis working a lot to bring Jan Ullrich to second place overall and Richard Virenque allowing Laurent Dufaux to win the stage in a sprint finish.

Bjarne Riis was impressive again today, taking long, fast relays for Ullrich and finishing second, behind Dufaux, eight minutes and a half ahead of the field. This huge gap means Ullrich is now second overall. Virenque is third, 26 seconds behind, a minute 27 seconds in front of Dufaux and out of reach of Rominger, Olano and Berzin (19th) before Saturday's time trial.

With a lead of over 100 points on Bjarne Riis, Virenque is now also assured of becoming the tour's best climber for the third straight year.

Riis, Dufaux and Virenque were part of a group of eight riders who arrived in Pampelune after a 150-km effort. In the stage's last kilometers, there were a lot of attacks, but Riis's second was the good one. Only Dufaux could follow, and Virenque protected his chase by slowing down the other riders.

In the Col de Soudet climb (km 112.5), eleven riders (Riis and teammate Ullrich, Virenque and Dufaux, Leblanc, Escartin, Indurain, Olano, Ugrumov, Luttenberger and Fernandez-Gines) had started chasing Neil Stephens, Michele Bartoli and Pascal Herve, then in the lead. Those three had gone clear in the Col du Soulor (km 18.5) descent and were caught at the Port de Larrau (km 155).

Successive attacks by the Festina men, Dufaux and Virenque, literally killed Indurain, Olano and Fernandez-Gines, who were left behind. Because Leblanc and Luttenberger were not relaying correctly and the Mapei team (Fernandez-Gines, Rominger, Olano) was working hard in the field, the gap shrank at first. But in the end, it didn't matter as the Mapei riders were too isolated and Riis and Virenque put some order in the breakaway group. They arrived in Pampelune with an eight-minute lead.