Stage 8 Reports

Berzin wins Stage 8

Russia's Yevgeny Berzin widened his overall lead in the Tour de France with a convincing victory in Sunday's eighth stage, a demanding uphill time-trial over 30.5 km.

Berzin, who became the first Russian to take the coveted yellow jersey in Saturday's stage, opened a 43-second overall break after starting the day with a slender 0.16 seconds advantage over world champion Abraham Olano of Spain. He finished 35 seconds clear of Dane Bjarne Riis in Sunday's race against the clock from Bourg-Saint-Maurice, setting a winning time of 51 minutes 53 seconds at an average speed 35.271 kph. Olano was third in 52:38 on the windswept course leading to the ski village of Val d'Isere.

``I didn't expect to win with such a wide margin,'' said Berzin.

Riis moved into second place overall, with Olano dropping to third 45 seconds behind the leader.

All eyes were on Spaniard Miguel Indurain, who clearly struggled during Saturday's strenuous ride in the Alps, trailing winner Luc Leblanc of France by more than four minutes. The five-times Tour champion, once in a class of his own in time trials, seemed to have recovered but had to be content with fifth place 61 seconds behind Berzin.

Switzerland's Tony Rominger was fourth in the time-trial just hundredths of a second ahead of Indurain.

The once undisputed Tour king is now a modest 11th overall 4:53 behind Berzin.

The Russian, riding without a cap on a miserable day with occasional rain, was ahead at all intermediate times on his way to a win reminiscent of Indurain's past achievements on the Tour. ``It's not over yet,'' he said, worried about Monday's gruelling ninth stage to the Italian resort of

Sestriere featuring two awesome passes, the Iseran and the Galibier. ``Many things can still happen. ``Now I have to control the race,'' said Berzin, who will have to watch Indurain carefully as the Spaniard's only option is to attack if he wants to stay in the hunt for a record sixth win when the race ends in Paris on July 21.

``Miguel was good today but not at his best,'' said Eusebio Unsue, one of Indurain's team directors. ``What happened yesterday belongs to the past and he will keep fighting for victory.''

Analysis of Stage 8

Berzin, the eighth stage winner and yellow jersey leader, is presenting the Tour de France spectators with his more pleasant side -- a direct contrast to last year. The 26-year-old Russian, who leads Danish national champion Bjarne Riis by 43 seconds and Spanish world road race champion Abraham Olano by 45 seconds, retired from the Tour with bronchitis last year.

It transpired later, however, that he was having difficulty in acclimatising to the task of riding for teammates Riis and Italy's Ivan Gotti, who were in the top 10 while he was trailing.

Similar problems occurred in that year's Tour of Italy, when Berzin complained that fellow Russian Piotr Ugromov had not worked hard enough for him -- as he was defending the title.

Berzin, a world pursuit champion at the age of 20, is a happier man now that Riis and Ugromov have moved on and it is showing in his performances this year. "Last year I was not myself, but this year I have trained differently and I feel a lot happier," Berzin said.

The only blots on his landscape are the retirements of Gotti, who finished fifth last year, and this season's Amstel Gold Classic winner Stefano Zanini of Italy -- which could hinder him if there is a breakaway in the mountains. Berzin, who rode in the time-trial without a helmet but with yellow dark glasses to go with his flowing blond hair, must cast anxious glances at the strength of Riis and Olano's teams.

Riis' Telekom team have been the surprise of the Tour so far. Udo Bolts and Jan Ullrich have looked strong in the mountains and on the time-trials, while Erik Zabel won a stage.

Olano can rely on Tony Rominger and Spanish national champion Manuel Fernandez Gines to help him, although he would be at hand, too, to help Rominger should their roles be reversed.

The time-trial failed to lift Spain's five-time winner Miguel Indurain. The 31-year-old failed to make an impression on the overall leaders -- he lies 11th four minutes and 53 seconds behind Berzin.

Berzin was elated with his performance. "Yesterday was very difficult but today is really the best day I have enjoyed in cycling," Berzin smiled. "However, all that can change as there are 13 days to go and if the weather to Sestriere is cold on Monday then the picture may change," the 1994 Tour of Italy winner added.

Indurain's Banesto team were hoping that his nightmare on Saturday's seventh stage, where he was left trailing on the final climb to Les Arcs, would be wiped out by a winning performance in the time-trial, where he has been dominant in the past.

Instead it was Berzin who dominated from the start after British Olympic and World pursuit champion Chris Boardman had set the early target of 54mins 23 seconds -- which Indurain then beat by over a minute. Boardman was to finish a respectable eighth.

It became clear, though, that Berzin, Riis and Olano, the top three in the overall standings, were not going to allow their advantage over Indurain slip.

Riis, third overall in 1995, went through the last time check 27 seconds ahead of Indurain and lost only a second on the run-in, yelling in triumph as he crossed the line. "It went really well today. I'm in great form as it's normally not my strength but today, boy it went well!" the 32-year-old Riis said.

Berzin, though, was not to be denied and screamed into the finishing straight to finish in a time of 51:53 -- a remarkable 35 seconds ahead of Riis.

Olano, struggling two seconds behind Indurain and 47 behind Riis at the last checkpoint, recovered brilliantly to beat Indurain by 16 seconds -- finishing only 10 seconds behind Riis.

Perhaps the biggest loser was Rominger, at 35 on his last Tour, who could only finish on the same time as Indurain -- after being up with the pace throughout.

Frenchman Laurent Jalabert suffered for the second successive day and was never a factor -- entering his hotel afterwards he complained of a stomach upset. Jalabert's eclipse means that France's hopes of winning their first Tour de France since Bernard Hinault in 1985 rest with Richard Virenque, attempting to become King of the Mountains for the third successive year, lying in seventh place nearly four minutes behind Berzin.

Virenque, 26, was not enthusiastic about his prospects after the time-trial, traditionally his weakest event. "I have not really recovered from Saturday's stage and a time-trial was not really what I would have wanted," he said. "However, with Laurent struggling then it is up to me to provide the French crowd with someting to remember -- and I will do my best," Virenque said.

Monday's ninth stage is the 189.5km ride from Val-D'Isere to Sestrieres in Italy -- scene of veteran Italian Claudio Chiappucci's victorious ride in 1992

Luc Leblanc

Luc Leblanc's win in Saturday's dramatic Tour de France stage marked the end of a long nightmare for the former world champion. ``It's an extraordinary feeling,'' said the Frenchman after crossing the line at the end of a punishing climb to the ski village of Les Arcs. ``I have been through difficult moments but now I'm happy.''

Leblanc, more than perhaps anyone else on the Tour, knows life is full of ups and downs. He was still a child when he and his brother were hit by a car. His brother died in the accident and Leblanc sustained severe leg injuries. One of his legs is still slightly shorter than the other and he cannot sit properly on the saddle, which explains his awkward riding position.

When he won the road race at the world championships in Sicily two years ago Leblanc thought he had at last put misfortune behind him. But he was wrong. The controversial Le Groupement team he joined soon collapsed and shortly afterwards he had to undergo surgery on his sciatic nerve which forced him out of cycling for three months.

He eventually signed for Italian stable Polti and got back to winning last month by taking the last stage of the Dauphine Libere cycle race -- a strenuous Alpine climb near Grenoble. ``I owe a lot to (Polti team director) Gianluigi Stanga,'' said the 29-year-old from Limoges, who tamed two awesome passes in Saturday's eventful ride in the Alps.

He surprised the favourites by breaking away in the last few kilometres, just as he did at Hautacam in the Pyrenees in the 1994 Tour. Leblanc had suffered in the previous day's atrocious conditions, falling several times and losing precious minutes. ``I didn't expect to win because the last days had been very hard for me,'' he said. ``Friday was especially tough. I fell but my team mates did a fantastic job to bring me back.''

In the first kilometres of Saturday's 199-km stage from Chambery he struggled and wondered if he would reach Les Arcs. ``The first 40 kilometres were really painful and I certainly couldn't imagine that the day would end like it did,'' he said with a gleam in his bright blue eyes.

Leblanc, who once considered becoming a priest, has often said that belief in God has helped him overcome sadness and given him the strength to carry on. But in this year's Paris-Nice he said he was so tired of hardship he might retire from cycling. ``I'm fed up of suffering all the time,'' he said. ``Riding a bike is always difficult but when you have a physical handicap it becomes unbearable.''

On Saturday all thoughts of retirement had vanished. The joy of winning had once again eased the pain.