Tour Reports - Stage 5

Miserable Weather for Stage 5

Miserable weather from the start of the Tour de France has made life difficult for the riders, who prayed for sunshine after another incident-ridden stage on Thursday.

``The atmosphere's not good and that's because of the weather, which has been awful,'' said French world number one Laurent Jalabert. ``We all hope it will clear up soon.''

Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini, feeling unwell, did not start the day's 242 km ride from Lac de Madine and Czech Jan Svorada, suffering from his injuries in a crash on Wednesday, retired after 106 km.

Italian mountain specialist Ivan Gotti, fifth in last year's Tour after spending two days in the yellow jersey, also withdrew through a calf injury. Other riders fell on slippery roads in a rain-soaked stage and Italian Gian Matteo Fagnini needed medical treatment but doctors said he had only superficial bruises.

Of the 198 riders who started the Tour last Saturday from the Dutch city on Den Bosch, only 183 were still riding and they were becoming increasingly nervous.

American Lance Armstrong and Frenchman Gilles Bouvard were seen shoving each other after recovering from one of the stage's several spills. Armstrong was accusing Bouvard of being responsible for the fall of one of his team mates in the Motorola stable, Laurent Madouas of France, and they had to be pulled apart, witnesses said.

Like previous days, heavy rain and head winds forced the riders to advance slowly and they only covered 26 km in the first hour before ending the stage more than one hour behind schedule.

``It's not that we don't want to go fast but it's impossible, especially because of the wind,'' said race leader Stephane Heulot of France.

As a result of the race conditions, four of the five stages held so far have ended in mass sprints and the Tour has often been exciting to follow only in the last few metres. After some riders complained that the stages ended late and prevented them from getting enough sleep, organisers decided to start Friday's sixth stage to Aix-les-Bains 30 minutes earlier.

Jalabert said he feared that the sun would shine only in the Alps, where tough climbs await the riders from Saturday. ``It looks like the hot weather might come just at the wrong time,'' he said.

Cipollini quits Tour de France

Italian sprint specialist Mario Cipollini quit the Tour de France before the start of Thursday's fifth stage complaining of feeling unwell, his Saeco team said. Cipollini, the winner of Monday's second stage, still plans to compete in the Atlanta Olympics this month.

Cipollini, winner of the second stage, claimed he was suffering from a fever, however, he had said earlier in the week that he had another objective this season.

"My main aim is to win the Olympic Gold medal. If I rode for a French team, I would be programmed to ride in the whole of the Tour de France, but that is not the case and with the amount of racing I have done this year I am not strong enough to finish the Tour," the 29-year-old Italian said.

Cipollini, nicknamed 'Il Magnifico', had a short but colourful Tour, winning one stage, disqualified from third in the first stage for taking Frederic Moncassin's ground and fined 300 Swiss francs (250 dollars) every day for wearing red Ferrari shorts, which did not conform to his Saeco team shorts.

Story on George Hincapie

American cyclist George Hincapie is enjoying his first Tour de France, but is aware that it can exact a terrible price.

Hincapie, 23, is a member of the Motorola team, which lost Italian Olympic silver medalist Fabio Casartelli in a fatal crash last year.

Casartelli was only the third cyclist to die in the history of the Tour de France -- and his death led to memorable scenes of unity among the peloton, who allowed the American team to cycle to the finish of the next stage alone.

Hincapie remembers that dreadful July 18 well, even though he was competing in Germany at the time. "At first I could not believe it," he said. "But once it had sunk in I thought immediately of his wife and child. I felt awful. The Tour is the greatest race in the world, but it is not worth the life of a cyclist."

He felt the same sadness as the Tour started on Saturday, but he draws strength from those feelings. "It's weird, because the more I suffer the more I believe I am making progress in the race," Hincapie added.

Hincapie, born in New York of Colombian parents, gained his inspiration for becoming a professional cyclist from his father, who works for an American airline. "He was an amateur cyclist, that was his life. Thus everything in my youth revolved round cycling as well," the bearded Hincapie said.

The exploits of first Bernard 'Badger' Hinault, five-time winner of the Tour, and then Hincapie's compatriot Greg Lemond, who won his last Tour after recovering from a shooting accident, further inspired him.

Hincapie realised soon after his first junior success in New Jersey that he would have to give up his education if he were to pursue his dream of becoming a senior professional. "I realised that if I was to make an impact on the professional circuit I would have to spend more time in Europe," Hincapie said.

Hincapie, who lies 46th overall -- four minutes and 58 seconds behind leader Stephane Heulot -- spends his time between sharing a house with compatriot Frankie Andreu in Italy and living alone in Charlotte, South Carolina.

He is realistic about his role on his first Tour. "My remit is to cycle for Lance Armstrong, the 1993 world champion, but if I have a chance of winning a stage -- then it is every man for himself. Mind you, the Tour is a good deal more intense than I had imagined!" the laidback Hincapie explained.

It is an important tour for Hincapie and his teammates who are looking for a new sponsor after Motorola announced they were withdrawing after six successful seasons.

Hincapie, who like most of the peloton goes onto the Olympics in Atlanta after the Tour, is keen that the team stays together. "We have an excellent team spirit in what is one of the most cosmopolitan teams," he said. "Lance is a great influence on us younger fellows and it would be a shame if we were to split up, as we have great potential."

All Colombians will certainly be willing him on. The withdrawal of Hernan Buenahora on the first stage left them without a serious challenger for the leader's jersey.

Jan Svorada abandons

Jan Svorada of the Czech Republic, the sprint specialist, abandoned the Tour de France during Thursday's 242kms fifth stage from Lac de Madine to Besancon.

Svorada, 28, lost the lead for the most consistent finisher's green jersey when he fell in the final sprint finish on Wednesday.

Although he walked over the finishing line with what the Tour doctor termed 'superficial injuries' he was dropped by the peloton soon after the start of the fifth stage and he abandoned after 106kms.

His abandonment follows that of fellow top sprinter Mario Cipollini who did not start the fifth stage because he was suffering from a fever.

The stage was an hour behind schedule owing to unfavourable winds.