Richard Virenque back in yellow
MORZINE, France – This French ski town high in the Alps is a blessing and a curse for the two main protagonists in Saturday’s seventh stage of the 2003 Tour de France.
For the stage-winner and new race leader, Frenchman Richard Virenque, Morzine paved his way back to redemption in 2000 as the 33-year-old Frenchman fell from grace following his role in cycling’s infamous “Festina Affaire.”
For four-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, Morzine has become something of a curse. In 2000, on the same route, Virenque won, Armstrong suffered the “bonk” and lost valuable time, barely hanging on to win his second Tour.
In June, Armstrong suffered over the long grinding Col de la Ramaz en route to winning the Dauphine Libere race – then crashed while rolling out of Morzine the very next day.
For both men, Saturday’s first hard climbing day of the 2003 Tour turned into a personal redemption tour.
“Something magical happened to me today,” said Virenque, who’s back in the the yellow jersey after first wearing it 11 years ago. “I wanted to do something special in the centenary Tour, but I could have never imagined this.”
For Armstrong, the Tour’s longest stage did nothing to change his overall placement: He remained where he started the day, in second place overall, now 2:37 behind Virenque.
Armstrong’s “Blue Train” set a menacing pace that reduced the 194-rider strong peloton down to a front group of about 40 riders. Spanish teammates Jose Luis Rubiera and Manuel Beltran drove so hard up the grueling Col de la Ramaz climb that several of Armstrong’s would-be rivals couldn’t keep up.
“Today was a perfect day for the team,” Armstrong said after finishing 15th at 4 minutes, 6 seconds behind Virenque. “Today was my first real good day of the Tour. I felt stronger than I did during the team time trial.”
Overall contenders Gilberto Simoni of Saeco and Santiago Botero of Telekom wilted under hot temperatures and the blistering pace set by U.S. Postal Service. Both lost more than 10 minutes to fall out of contention.
“When I arrived in the team hotel I jumped into the swimming pool because I suffered so much in the heat,” said two-time Giro d’Italia champion Simoni. “The team time trial Wednesday wrecked me, and I haven’t been the same since.”
The day’s victims included Botero and Simoni, now 74th and 77th overall, respectively, both at 10:21, Bianchi’s Angel Casero, 63rd at 8:38, and Fassa Bortolo’s Aitor Gonzalez, 60th at 8:38.
Bianchi’s German leader, Jan Ullrich, Italian Stefano Garzelli of Caldirola, Andre Vinokourov of Telekom, Francisco Mancebo of iBanesto.com, Joseba Beloki of ONCE, Ivan Basso of Fassa Bortolo and Great Britain’s David Millar of Cofidis were the favorites who made it safely in with the lead group.
American Tyler Hamilton of CSC, meanwhile, surprised many when he stayed with the lead group over the Ramaz. Hamilton fractured his right clavicle in a spill nearly a week ago and vows to fight through Sunday’s climb to Alpe d’Huez.
“I was a little bit surprised and glad that I was able to hang on,” said Hamilton, who finished 25th at 4:06 back. “To me it was good that the speed was steady, even though it was high. I made sure to have only minimum of pressure on my collarbone. I was able to sit and relax and just use my legs.”
Hamilton said with his cracked collarbone, he loses about 50 percent of his strength in his right upper body, something he says will cost him some of his speed at Alpe d’Huez.
“I said before the stage that if I lost a lot of time to the best I would be going home tonight, but I didn’t so I’ll still be here tomorrow,” Hamilton said. “Tomorrow will be the big test. I am not going to make some crazy prediction that I’m going to attack at Alpe d’Huez. I am realistic.”
Tomorrow Alpe d’Huez
With the legendary climb to Alpe d’Huez on tap for Sunday’s eighth stage, Armstrong and the favorites will be sparring on the Tour’s most famous climb. More than 400,000 fans are already on hand for what’s sure to be one of this year’s Tour highlights.
Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site, http://www.letour.fr/2003/us/index.html.