The tall, balding Riis, who had to wait until this season to become a team leader, said he seriously believed he could win the Tour. ``It will be tough and I wish Paris was a little bit closer,'' the 32-year-old rider from Herning told a packed news conference on Wednesday. ``But I do think I can make it.''
Riis spent the much awaited rest day with his team mates in the Telekom stable in a small village in the mountains outside Gap. They went for a two-hour ride in the morning and then Riis faced a wide range of questions at the news conference.
``I'm not used to all this but it's part of my responsibilities as a leader,'' he said.
After coming fifth in the Tour in 1993 and third last year, he joined Telekom this year with even higher ambitions. ``He has kept telling me that he wanted to win the Tour,'' team director Walter Godefroot said.
``He was worried about his team mates, thinking they might not be strong enough to support him. I told him that if he behaved as a leader the guys would give their all to help him and that's exactly what happened.''
The Telekom team has been impressive since the race started in the Dutch city of Den Bosch last month.
Not only has Riis taken the yellow jersey but German Erik Zabel wears the green jersey as the points classification leader while another young German, Jan Ullrich, is fifth overall. ``To have such a team behind me gives me extra motivation,'' said Riis, who is 40 seconds ahead of second-placed Russian Evgeny Berzin, with Switzerland's Tony Rominger third a further 13 seconds back.
But Riis said he also feared five-times winner Miguel Indurain of Spain, who had a rare off-day in the Alps on Saturday and lies a modest eighth over four minutes behind. ``He will be very dangerous,'' he said. ``But then all the guys behind me are dangerous.''
Asked if he thought he was the strongest rider in the pack, a confident Riis said: ``Yes, I think so. I've been attacking all the time and often I realised that nobody could follow. It's a great feeling. Let's hope it will last.''
"Is five-time winner Miguel Indurain's dream of a record sixth triumph over?" was the question on everybody's lips as the riders took a well earned rest day on Wednesday.
The early retirements of Laurent Jalabert, the third time he has retired from the Tour with gastroenteritis, Ivan Gotti, fifth last year, and Enrico Zaina, second in the Tour of Italy have added to the unpredictablity of this Tour.
Superhuman efforts from the peloton to overcome appalling weather and horrendous climbs, added to the apparent decline if the widely favoured ONCE team, have further elevated this year's event to the pantheon of great Tours.
Indurain, the 31-year-old farmer's son from Navarre, has had a tough few days, seeing his immortality brought into question as he struggled up the final climb to Les Arcs trailing most of his main rivals.
To add insult to injury, he was later penalised 20 seconds for taking a drink in the final 10km, which is prohibited under Tour de France rules, and his obituary was all but being cast in stone by the journalists covering the event.
Jose Miguel Echavarri, the Banesto team boss, cast further doubt on Indurain's ability to make up over four minutes on Riis, Yevgeny Berzin of Russia, Swiss rider Tony Rominger and his teammate Abraham Olano during Sunday's time-trial. "He is clearly not himself this weekend. He is doing alright in the time-trial but this cold weather has had a bad effect on him and we must get the sun soon or else the dream will be over," Echavarri said.
Indurain, however, remains the master tactician. He pushed the breakaway group that led Monday's stage in horrific wet conditions, forcing the yellow jersey leader Berzin to lose a maximum of time.
The Spaniard can also look forward to the sunnier climes of the Pyrennees and a run into his hometown of Pamplona on July 17, a stage set for him to regain control of the race.
Riis, the 32-year-old three time Danish national champion, is open about who he regards as his main danger -- 'Miguel'. It is a view echoed in reverse by Indurain about Riis, third overall last year and fifth in 1993.
The valiant Dane has done everything right so far although he was not far from calamity a week ago when Jan Svorada fell, bringing down several riders, with Riis only staying upright because he grabbed hold of the roadside barrier.
Supported brilliantly by his Telekom team, managed by the wily Belgian Walter Godefroot, Riis has consistently looked the star rider.
Telekom though will have to take some tough decisions over the next few days, as they hold three of the four top titles -- yellow jersey, leading team overall and the green jersey (for the most consistent finisher) with Erik Zabel -- and surely cannot defend all three until Paris on July 21.
Godefroot, though, is on another planet at the moment, the living emblem of the poet William Blake's saying 'the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom'. "It is like a dream. One day there is a stage victory on my birthday .. a few days later Bjarne wins the stage and the yellow jersey. I think sometimes I am dreaming but I sure don't want to be woken up!" Godefroot said.
The Mapei team though are looking very strong as well and team leader Tony Rominger, the 35-year-old hour world record holder, looks as if his tactics to train just for the Tour may well have paid off.
Olano, the world road race champion, exhibited his supreme sportsmanship on Saturday, waiting for Rominger when he fell and leading the chase back to Riis on Monday, although he later paid the penalty by being dropped.
He has, though, impressed many with his maturity for such an inexperienced rider and shown that he was not going to let his second opportunity in the professionals go astray.
Pedro Delgado, the 1988 Tour winner, believes that Olano is definitely the heir apparent to Indurain.
The joker in the pack remains the multi-talented Berzin. Always prominent in the first week, like Rominger constantly watching Indurain, he seized his chance on Saturday and pressed home the advantage in dazzling style on Sunday in the time-trial.
His weaknesses remain his personal relations with the other members of the peloton and the lack of quality support in his team. Last year he had a stronger team, Riis and compatriot Piotr Ugromov, second in 1994.
But owing to prima donna tantrums on Berzin's part caused them both to leave.
"I respect him, but I do not like him," Riis admitted candidly.
Berzin also drew a mixed response when he qualified for the Russian cycling team for the Atlanta Olympics. "I do not know why he has been picked as he is just a disruptive influence on any team he has been involved with," a Russian cycling official said.
Whatever the case he is a great talent and an attractive if eccentric individual, blond flowing locks and made to order coloured dark glasses adding to a glamorous personality. He may find it to his advantage not being in the lead, as he will not have to shoulder so much of the pacemaking and therefore set himself up as a target.
Far better to sit back and wait one's chance to take the glory in Paris.
``I don't know what comes next, I only look at the stages in the morning and take one day after the other,'' said a relaxed Rominger during Wednesday's rest day.
Third overall 53 seconds behind surprise leader Bjarne Riis of Denmark, Rominger can reasonably dream of making it at last when the race ends July 21 in Paris.
But he said Spaniard Miguel Indurain, a modest eighth overall four minutes 38 seconds behind the leader, would find it hard to win the race a record sixth time. ``There are seven guys ahead of Indurain and five might crack but not all seven of them,'' he said.
Regarded for years as the man most capable of defeating mighty Indurain, the Mapei rider has come close only once, in 1993, when he finished second.
The other years, he has been either hampered by a chest injury or simply unable to match the very best.
Now 35, he said before the Tour that this year would be his last chance to win it. He has looked good since the race started last month from the Dutch city of Den Bosch, faring well against the clock and surviving in gruelling climbs in awful weather conditions.
Rominger, who has won the Vuelta three times, the Giro once and holds the world hour record, certainly would love to win the Tour before retiring but past experience has taught him to be cautious.
The important aspect of the Tour, he said, was to pay attention to the race conditions and be ready for any opportunity. ``When Indurain had his hunger pangs in the Alps, you had to know to make a move straight away,'' he said. ``Some 10 kilometers before, he still looked the strongest of all by far.''
Rominger said he was impressed by the form displayed by Riis. ``Earlier in the season in the Dauphine Libere, he was nowhere and now, here he is, attacking all the time and getting us in trouble. I'm surprised.''
If Rominger fails to follow the pace in the next few days, he will concentrate on helping teammate Abraham Olano of Spain, the reigning world champion, who is fourth overall and three seconds behind him. ``If Abraham tells me that he can win the Tour, I will be very happy to help him the best I can,'' he said. ``I've raced five Tours and lost five. If I lose a sixth, it will not be the end of the world.''
Aware that he is getting old, Rominger plans to quit sometime next year and said he would have no regrets.
``I don't recover as well as I used to,'' he said. ``I can be good for four months but not for six anymore, unlike the guys who are 25. When I close my career in 1997, I will be very happy, with or without Tour victory.''