Long and winning road for Virenque

Bastille Day brings the first big hills on the Tour's longest stage, which all added up to a superb

Bastille Day brings the first big hills on the Tour's longest stage, which all added up to a superb
The odds on Richard Virenque winning the first mountain stage of the race which just so happened to be taking place on Bastille Day were not generous. Every bookie in Europe had the Frenchman as today's pre-stage favourite, and he duly lived up to that status with a tremendous solo victory. Just like last year when he won the Tour's longest stage into Morzine, at 237 kilometres this was the longest day in this year's event. However, repeating last year's move into the yellow jersey was beyond even the incredible Frenchman, who will be 35 in November. He came in a substantial five minutes ahead of the main peloton, but he would have needed another seven to relieve young compatriot Thomas Voeckler of the lead. As it was, he had to make do with a sizeable leap up to fourth place overall. Virenque was one of a number of riders who were very active at the front of the race right from the start. Initially the pace was too high for them to get clear of the bunch, which US Postal pushed along at a very brisk pace. But Virenque and Axel Merckx made a move after the first sprint, survived over the first climb, and then drove onwards with a mere 199 kilometres to the finish. With a record-breaking seventh King of the Mountains title his main target, Virenque made sure of the points on all of the day's climbs, and there were no less than nine of them. The biggest was the day's only first-category hill, the Pas de Peyrol (173km), by which point the two leaders were almost 11 minutes clear. Merckx began to slip back on the steeper top section of this hill and never saw Virenque again. The same hill caused some big splits in the bunch, with Iban Mayo the main casualty after suffering two punctures within the same number of minutes. The Basque did, however, get back up to the leaders. Much more unfortunate were Matthias Kessler and Sbastian Hinault, who both crashed on the descent of the Pas de Peyrol. Kessler lost control on a left-hand bend and went into the roadside ditch, where he hurtled frighteningly into a roadside marker. Thankfully, the German did continue, but he appeared to have suffered badly in the rib region. Hinault also ended up in the roadside ditch, but he was not able to continue. After a long wait he was lifted onto a stretcher and taken away to hospital. When the bunch finally caught Merckx 30 kilometres from the finish in St Flour, Virenque was still the best part of seven minutes ahead and well on his way to his seventh Tour stage win and to becoming the 14th Frenchman to win on July 14 in the post-war period. Fittingly, the last was Virenque's former ally at Festina, Laurent Brochard, back in 1997. After a steep final kilometre climb to the finish, there were tears and plenty of emotion from the Frenchman. Controversial he may be, but there is no doubting his bravery and eye for a stage-winning opportunity. Five minutes behind him the main contenders were led in by T-Mobile's Andreas Kloeden, who seemed unaware that Erik Zabel was surging in behind him in the search for vital green jersey points. Third place for Zabel moved him up to second in this competition, but he'd have been even happier if he could have jumped to just eight behind Robbie McEwen rather than 10. The King of the Mountains jersey, of course, went like most other things today the way of Virenque.
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