MORZINE (France): Richard Virenque, once the black sheep of world cycling, stole the show and the leader's yellow jersey when he won the first mountain stage of the Tour de France yesterday.
The Frenchman, who finished four minutes and six seconds ahead of the main group containing race favourite Lance Armstrong, was kicked out of the Tour in disgrace in 1998 and in the infamous Festina trial a year later finally confessed to drug-taking.
Since then he has won Tour stages in Morzine in 2000 and up the Mount Ventoux last year but this hardfought victory in the 230.5km longest stage of the Tour, which also brought him the King of the Mountains jersey, is probably the most important in his career.
At 33, Virenque is wearing the yellow jersey for only the second time, 11 years after his first Tour in 1992 when he led for one day.
Armstrong, bidding for a fifth successive Tour win, kept his US Postal team working hard at the front of the peloton but appeared content to save some energy for Sunday's crucial stage to l'Alpe d'Huez, seen by many as the Tour decider.
That did not detract from Virenque's feat, however.
“I held the yellow jersey in my first Tour and now, 11 years later, in what might be the last,” he said.
“I didn't go for the yellow but in the end, I've got it. It's magic. You needed to take risks and I did,” the Quick Step leader said.
The win in just over six hours was his sixth stage victory in the Tour and the five-times King of the Mountains, can now bid for a record sixth polka-dot jersey as the best climber in the race.
“I wanted to do something great on this Tour for its centenary. With the yellow jersey on my shoulders, tomorrow will be crazy,” he said of the keenly-anticipated 219 km from Sallanches to l'Alpe d'Huez.
“Honestly, I don't have the ability in time trials to defend the yellow jersey,” he said. I will defend my King of the Mountains jersey and for the yellow one, they gave it to me, so I will take it as far as I can,” he said.
As usual in mountain stages, Armstrong launched his US Postal “blue train” in the decisive La Ramaz climb late in the stage, when Virenque also made his final move.
But the American's aim, by asking his team mates to set the tempo, was not to catch the Frenchman, whom he does not see as a serious threat for final victory, but to test his other rivals.
Virenque made his move on the climb, dropping his breakaway companions and the descending smoothly to victory as Armstrong's US Postal team made a belated attempt to close the gap.
Aldag finished second, 2:29 behind, with Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel third, 3:45 adrift.
Armstrong finished 15th and will start today's stage 2:37 behind Virenque.
Italian sprint specialist Alessandro Petacchi, winner of four stages in the first week, dropped out of the race on the first climb after 49km. – Reuters
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