NARBONNE (France): French cycling hero Richard Virenque (pic) will be focusing on only one thing during the next few days on the Tour de France – winning a record-equalling sixth 'King of the Mountains' polka dot jersey.
And the 33-year-old Quick Step rider, who has successfully reintegrated into the peloton after his career was in tatters in the wake of the Festina doping scandal, says he could stick around long enough to set his own Tour de France benchmark.
“I’m preparing myself mentally for the Pyrenees and hopefully by the time we reach the mountains again my legs will stand up to the test,” said Virenque yesterday, the Tour’s rest day.
Seeing Virenque wearing the polka dot jersey awarded to the best rider in the mountains the past week is a significant affair for the French, although it is coming at the latter part of his career.
Prior to the Festina doping trial in 1999 where he finally admitted to systematic doping in the 1998 Tour – for which he was banned six months – he was France’s biggest cycling celebrity.
In the absence of their own contenders for the overall title Virenque’s boyish good looks and uncomplicated demeanour made him the perfect pin-up and a suitable replacement for their lack of a yellow jersey champion.
Winning a sixth polka dot jersey to equal those of Lucien Van Impe and Federico Bahamontes might seem significant in terms of statistics, but Virenque seems just to be enjoying having been given a second chance.
“For me this year it’s just another polka dot jersey. It’s a bit strange for me because it’s been three years since I last wore it,” he said, referring to his last polka dot win in 1999 with the Polti team.
“But hopefully the legs will stand up to the Pyrenees and I’ll do enough to keep hold of it.”
A few days ago after his impressive climb over five ascents to Morzine on the Tour’s seventh stage, Virenque also pulled on the yellow jersey.
Since then Lance Armstrong has taken the race lead, and the yellow jersey with it, the 31-year-old American now expected to blast his rivals out of the water on Friday’s 47-kilometre time trial stage.
A day later, the peloton will hit the Pyrenees for four days of climbing – and Virenque says that after seeing 22 riders abandon in the Alps, his job and Armstrong’s was not going to be easy.
“For me the hardest is still to come,” added the Frenchman, who will nonetheless be given plenty of support from his fans on the tight roads up to the Pyrenean peaks.
“We’ll see how Armstrong gets on in the time trial.
“I can’t see any immediate danger of anyone really challenging him, but he’s a rider like everyone else and is susceptible to fatigue or some kind of accident.”
As for his own future, Virenque is enjoying being part of the peloton again after his forced flight from cycling was turned on its head after the Belgian Quick Step outfit took a chance when no other teams would touch him.
“I can still feel the fire burning,” said Virenque. “I’m not ready to retire yet.
“I’m enjoying being a part of this centenary Tour and to have worn the yellow jersey added a little something.
“I’ve had nearly 11 years on the Tour de France and I’ve experienced almost everything there is to experience.
“But I’m still having a good time, and winning – as I did last week – and I hope to have more of that in the future.” – AFP