More Stage 8 Reports

Snow in summer may change Stage 9

Possible snowfalls in the French Alps might disrupt the course of the Tour de France's difficult ninth stage on Monday, organisers said on Sunday. If snow at the Iseran mountain pass, just after the start of the stage from Val d'Isere, makes it impossible for the riders to climb it, the 189.5 km stage to the Italian resort of Sestriere will have to be changed.

Riders would cover the first 27 kms in team cars and then start the stage.

Berzin starts a new era

Russia's Yevgeny Berzin on Sunday emerged as a likely heir to the faltering five times Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain. The pocket-sized rider with the Gewiss stable was the toast of Russia on Saturday after becoming the first rider from the country to wear the yellow jersey.

On Sunday, he widened his overall lead in the world's greatest cycle race to 43 seconds and if he maintains his current form he could be the talk of the cycling world when the Tour finishes in Paris on July 21.

In the eighth stage, a 30.5-km up-hill time-trial, the 26-year-old blitzed the field finishing 35 seconds clear of his nearest rival Dane Bjarne Riis. Indurain clearly struggled in Saturday's mountainous stage and while showing signs of recovering in the time-trial, he still trailed Berzin by 61 seconds and had to be content with fifth place. The once undisputed Tour king from Spain is now a modest 11th overall 4:53 behind the Russian.

Berzin's display on the slope leading to the ski resort of Val d'Isere was reminiscent of Indurain's past achievements on the Tour and might have marked the signal for a long-awaited succession. ``It's much too early to talk about that,'' said Berzin. ``Many things can still happen.''

Berzin is no stranger to upstaging Indurain. In 1994, he became the first man to defeat Indurain in a big race since 1992 when he won the Giro d'Italia classic. But he has been disappointing since, ending a poor 10th in this year's Giro after suffering in the high climbs, and many thought he would find it hard to deprive Indurain of a record sixth Tour win.

Berzin retired after 10 stages of last year's Tour due to bronchitis. ``This year, it's different,'' he said. ``I prepared for Tour and I'm in top form.''

He has certainly looked that way since the start in the Dutch city of Den Bosch, keeping his cool in atrocious conditions and always staying with the best. Now a few months younger than when Indurain scored the first of his five consecutive Tour wins in 1991, Berzin learned his job on the famed Russian track team, becoming pursuit world champion in 1990.

He shot to fame in 1994, winning the Giro and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic in his first full year as a professional and gained 375 places in the world rankings to move into fourth place.

Tour Changes bring Results

Tour de France organisers were congratulating themselves on Sunday after their strategy to make a more open Tour succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The organisers probably wouldn't admit it but their ploy of holding Saturday's first mountain stage before Sunday's first time-trial, rather than on previous Tours where it was the reverse, was undoubtedly made to prevent five-time winner Miguel Indurain motoring ahead overall.

Indurain would normally have taken a commanding lead into the mountains, following the team time-trial (not included this year) and an individual time-trial. Instead the 31-year-old farmer's son from Navarre enters the time-trial with his rivals scenting blood as for the first time since he rode as a workrider for Pedro Delgado he was left by the lead group.

Indurain's team manager Jose-Miguel Echavarri was as surprised as anybody that Indurain had suffered so much. "I have never seen Miguel like that. He lost a lot of calories and if this had happened on the climb to Madeleine then his Tour would be over. Now I have told him to do his best in the time-trial and not to lose at whatever price any more time," Echavarri said.

The organisers, though, will not be so happy that the French favourite Laurent Jalabert, attempting to become the first French Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985, failed to take advantage of the programme.

Jalabert, the world number one, backed by the highly prized ONCE team showed the same weakness as he had on the recent Dauphine race, when he retired exhausted on the last stage. He is still in the Tour but even with some testing stages to come and the two time-trials his chance is surely gone and he must play second fiddle to Swiss teammate Alex Zulle.

The 28-year-old Zulle showed remarkable resilience on Saturday to recover from two falls -- in one he disappeared down a gully -- and finish within reach of the leaders Mapei team leader Tony Rominger, world road race champion Abraham Olano and yellow jersey wearer Yevgeny Berzin. Zulle's main problem will be to keep the ONCE team together as they suffered several blows on Saturday. Australian Neil Stephens, normally one of the steadiest and reliable workriders, was not able to stay with Jalabert.

Spain's Melchor Mauri, sixth overall last year, paid the price for having to set, in vain as it turned out, the pace for Jalabert's group in pursuit of Indurain's group.

The death of promising ONCE rider Mariano Rojas, killed in a car crash a week before the Tour started, may be preying more on their minds than they let on. And with the excellent climber Inigo Cuesta being eliminated for finishing outside the allotted time team boss Manolo Saiz will require all his motivational qualities to push the team on.

Other teams also suffered. Brescialat lost three members on Saturday including 1993 third Zenon Jaskula, and Saeco are down to just five riders as are Panaria -- not a good omen for the challenging mountain stages to come.

Two French teams have suffered the highs and lows of what only the Tour de France can deliver. GAN started the Tour on a high, thankfully for them as they had had two riders suspended the week before for taking prohibited drugs, with first Frederic Moncassin and then the French national champion Stephane Heulot wearing the yellow jersey.

Heulot left the Tour in tears -- a rare sight but a sign that even the toughest sportsmen can be brought to their knees when both nature and the mountains combine, and Moncassin will do well to make it to the finish in Paris.

Aubervilliers, given a wild card into the Tour, celebrated success on Wednesday thanks to Cyril Saugrain's stage victory -- but by Friday he and two of his teammates had joined the long list of abandonments.

What the Tour giveth it taketh away ... is this what Indurain is to discover after five years. The next fortnight will tell the tale.