Stage 19 Reports

Moncassin wins Stage 19

Frederic Moncassin of France won the 226.5km 19th stage of the Tour de France from Hendaye to Bordeaux on Friday -- his second of the Tour. The Frenchman beat Erik Zabel of Germany, who was second, and Italian Fabio Baldato in a thrilling sprint finish.

Denmark's Bjarne Riis, teammate of Zabel, retained the overall leader's yellow jersey -- receiving his fresh shirt from French Prime Minister Alain Juppe, who is the mayor of Bordeaux.

But it was not just the finish that was being talked about after the race. A local rugby team had spiced up the middle section of the stage when they decided to go "au naturel" along the route -- equipping themselves with only fig leaves as protection against the burning sun.

Moncassin was pleased with his day's ride, despite the hair's breadth finish. "I came a bit later than I wanted to but it didn't matter in the end," said Moncassin, who also won the first stage in Den Bosch.

"I may not have won the green points winner's jersey but this gives me great pleasure to beat the points winner Zabel," added Moncassin.

Moncassin, 27 from Toulouse, surged on the outside, winner himself of two stages, to just pip Zabel over the line with Baldato only a fraction away in third. "Frederic came from nowhere and being on my outside I did not see him until it was too late. Full marks to him he did the same in Den Bosch," a sporting Zabel said.

Roger Legeay, Moncassin's GAN team boss, was delighted. "All the team did their job including Chris Boardman who led out the peloton to the final kilometre to stop any counter attacks and Fred who has matured to being one of the great sprinters in the world wrapped it all up although he made me sweat a bit!" Legeay said.

The peloton endured a hard chase after Frenchman Gilles Talmant, winner of a stage of the Midi Libre, and Marc Wauters of Belgium, winner of a stage in the Four Days to Dunkirk this season, escaped with about 50km to the finish.

The two built up a gap of over two minutes at one point, but with 20km to go it was clear that the peloton were not going to let them pull away any further.

This was to be a sprinters race and the teams of Moncassin, Baldato, Djamolodine Abdujaparov and Zabel were not going to give up the chance.

The two courageous escapees game was up with just over five kilometre to the finish as the peloton swept them up.

It was a classic sprinter's stage on the long flat roads from Hendaye, which was occasionally livened up by several lone attempts to break-away.

They were all reeled in by the peloton who then contented themselves by conducting conversations among themselves including a particularly animated discussion in Italian by Simone Biasci, Vladimir Belli and Francesco Frattini.

Moncassin and Riis

Tour de France leader Bjarne Riis of Denmark and Frenchman Frederic Moncassin both dream of Paris -- but for different reasons. Riis looks forward to becoming the first Dane to win the Tour when it finishes in the French capital Sunday while Moncassin, the winner of Friday's 19th stage, would love to claim the sprint which traditionally ends the race.

Moncassin won a close sprint on the day's flat, 140.7 miles stage from the port of Hendaye, narrowly beating German Erik Zabel and Italian Flavio Baldato into second and third.

Riis stayed safely within the pack to hold on to his comfortable lead of three minutes and 59 seconds over second-placed German Jan Ullrich in the overall standings.

Friday's ride through the Landes forest in stifling heat really came to life with 24.85 miles remaining when two men, Frenchman Gilles Talmant and Belgian Marc Wauters, managed to escape.

They built a lead of up to two minutes but the sprinters' team mates then led the chase and reined the leaders in three miles from home.

Moncassin was behind when the sprint started in Bordeaux but a late effort allowed him to outsprint Zabel in the last yards of the finishing straight alongside the river Garonne.

The 27-year-old from Toulouse had won the first stage of this year's Tour on June 30 in the Dutch city of Den Bosch and even took the yellow jersey two days later, only to lose it the next day.

But he had been overshadowed since then by the powerful Zabel, who won two stages in Nogent-sur-Oise and Gap and looks almost certain to keep his green jersey for the points classification leader until the end of the race. ``Zabel is stronger than I am and there's not much I can do about that,'' Moncassin said after taking his stylish revenge.

``I stayed behind the other sprinters because I felt good and I knew I could finish strongly,'' he added. ``I'm delighted to win here. The Bordeaux stage is often one for sprinters and I certainly wanted to do well in it.''

Moncassin, a team mate of Briton Chris Boardman in the Gan stable, said he would now try to score one last stage win in Sunday's final parade on the Champs-Elysees. ``I'd love to,'' he said. ``I was second in it three years ago but I had been blocked by (eventual winner Djamolidine) Abdoujaparov.''

Riis, for whom a mass sprint in Paris would be too dangerous, will instead go for victory in Saturday's penultimate stage, a 39.46 miles time trial through classic vineyards from Bordeaux to St. Emilion.

``I have better morale than the other riders and it would be a good way of finishing the Tour,'' said the 32-year-old from Herning, who excels against the clock.

Ullrich - 1997?

Bjarne Riis is not the only one to shine in this year's Tour de France. Another rider, 10 years his junior, should make history in his own way when the race ends in Paris on Sunday.

While 32-year-old Riis should become the first Dane to win the Tour, second-placed Jan Ullrich looks set to become the first German to win a place on the podium since Kurt Stoepl was second in 1932.

Ullrich finished Friday's 226.5-km 19th stage from the port of Hendaye within the pack to maintain his position behind Riis.

Few would have bet on the 22-year-old from Rostock, in former East Germany, to fare so well first time around in the Tour.

Ullrich, with his boyish face, ginger hair and gold earring, was unknown to many when the Tour started. He had come chiefly to help Riis, his leader in the Telekom stable, but soon proved a contender in his own right.

``He wanted to do the Tour last year but I thought it was too early,'' said Telekom team director Walter Godefroot. ``This year, he had to choose between the Tour and the Olympics. He chose the Tour and I said okay.''

Godefroot said he was surprised by Ullrich's achievements since the race set off last month from the Dutch city of Den Bosch.

``I knew he could prepare sprints, climb small mountains and race against the clock but I didn't think he would be so at ease in high climbs,'' said Godefroot. ``He's incredible, he can do it all.''

Ullrich learned his job in the famed East German school -- following the likes of Uwe Ampler, Jens Heppner and Olaf Ludwig -- before leaving Rostock for Berlin and became world amateur champion. ``When he joined us in 1994, it was all new to him -- the professional world and also the Western world,'' said Godefroot. ``He soon learned.''

Life has not always been easy for the revelation of this year's race who was nine when his father left home. ``My mother's still in Rostock and I help her the best I can,'' he said. ``I don't know where my father is.''

Ullrich lies second three minutes and 59 seconds behind Riis in the overall standings and is 26 seconds clear of Richard Virenque of France.

Godefroot believes the young German has the makings of a Tour champion. ``We'll prepare for next year's race carefully,'' he said. ``It's obvious that the boy has got the all-round ability to win the Tour.''

Motorbike protest

Motorcyclists working on the Tour de France cycle race staged a protest on Thursday after one of them was forced off the road by a team car.

A press photographer and his driver were taken to hospital with cuts and bruises after crashing during the descent of a mountain pass during Wednesday's stage.

Press photographers, radio commentators and television cameramen working on motorcyles rode in front of the race for the first few kilometres of Thursday's stage and then provided a reduced service.

Baron Eddy

Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx was awarded the title of Baron in the royal honours list realeased here on Friday.

Five times winner of the Tour de France -- his first in 1969 -- and five times winner of the Tour of Italy, the triple world champion also held the world record for the one hour time-trial.

Merckx now runs a small cycling business and is the selector for Belgium's road racing team.