Richard Virenque adds another chapter to his up-and-down cycling story, and admits to being crazy fo
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Whatever your sentiments towards Richard Virenque – love, hatred or indifference – you can’t argue that the man doesn’t know how to rise to an occasion. Today, the 14th of July, Bastille Day no less, Virenque did what he has somehow managed to do in each of the last three Tours de France, confounding critics, the hands of time, and the bounds of credulity. After Mont Ventoux in 2002, Morzine in 2003, this year Virenque chose the Massif Central and the town of Saint Flour to leave his mark on the race that made him both famous and infamous. And to regain possession of the polka-dot jersey he may now take all the way to Paris for a record-breaking seventh time. “It wasn’t premeditated to attack on Bastille Day,” said Virenque, who emotionally dedicated his seventh Tour stage win to Joel Chabiron, a friend who died two days ago, and his recently-deceased grandmother. “My intention was to go for points on the mountains competition, which is what I managed to do. You know, it being Bastille Day doesn’t make that much difference: on the Tour there are so many people at the roadside, the atmosphere is so special that it always feels like July 14. Today the sun even arrived, too.” Virenque’s giant haul of 66 points on today’s 237km, nine-climb gymkhana has earned him a 16-point lead over Axel Merckx in the King of the Mountains competition. So delighted was Virenque tonight that not even Merckx’s criticism of the Frenchman’s points-hoarding tactics could dampen his spirits. The pair had come together after 35km and remained in tandem until the Pas de Peyrol, 63km from the finish, when Merckx lost his fight to stay on Virenque’s wheel. Virenque tonight rejected suggestions that he had effectively wanted his cake and eaten it, too. “I can understand that Axel is disappointed, but I never deliberately tried to drop him,” Virenque protested. “He knew that I was looking for KoM points and he was OK with that. I never attacked him on the climbs, in the end he just couldn’t follow. In fact, he collapsed once I had dropped him. Of course, if we had stayed together, I would have let him win the stage. But the aim of today’s breakaway wasn’t to get caught by the peloton and for us both to lose. “To embark on a 200km escape you have to be bit crazy,” the 1997 Tour runner-up continued. “The secret is not to look too far ahead, to start thinking about the finish. There were times in the last 40km when I asked myself where I was going and how I was going to finish. The fact that we had been to ride the course before the Tour was crucial. “My team and I came to the Tour aiming for the polka-dot jersey and we’ve started our bid well,” Virenque concluded. “It represents a real challenge, but my team-mates, Laurent Dufaux, Paolo Bettini, Michael Rogers and Juan Miguel Mercado will all help me on the way.” Virenque also suggested tonight that he would discuss his longer-term future as a cyclist with Quick Step-Davitamon manager Patrick Lefvre, between now and the end of the Tour. “I’m scared of doing one year too many.but as long as the fire is still burning, I’ll carry on,” Virenque grinned.