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Stage 17

Frankie’s Diary: The Lantern Rouge, lactic burners, and keeping a (shut) eye on Lance’s  bike 

                   This report filed July 22, 1999

                   By Frankie Andreu
                   U.S. Postal Service rider

                   Pascal is sitting second from Lantern Rouge right now. Lantern Rouge is the name given to the last rider in the overall. Jay Sweet (Big Mat) held that position for most of the Tour until he was eliminated two days ago, after he finished outside the time limit. Actually this was the second time for, but the commissaries felt sorry for him and kept him in the race. If anything he should get the award for most competitive. He never gave up even when he would get dropped over the first climb. A couple days he rode over 100 
kilometers on his own and would finish only four minutes behind the grupetto. That's determination. 

                   I've gotten second on this stage before, but before today’s start I could have guaranteed you that won't happen this year. The good thing was that we had six guys riding on the front instead of our usual three or four. There is no need to save anyone for the mountains now that they are behind us. Since we didn’t have to work at the front, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn't believe it. I saw guys in the race that I haven't seen in three weeks. 

                   Even though I was off of the front it was not an easy day. The start had some big rollers and over the top of each one was a lactic acid burner. When your legs are trying to decide how they feel these rollers drive home the point -- your legs are tired. 

                   As I had hoped, the sprinter teams were doing their job controlling things. A few breaks would go up the road and right away Mapei would chase them down. Eventually eight guys got away and built a lead of eight minutes pretty quickly. The first team to start chasing was Polti, because Virenque was scared of losing his G.C. position to Stephan Heulot as the first French rider. I loved it. 

                   Later the sprinter teams started helping to try and bring the break back for a field sprint. At one time there must have 20 guys riding on the front. Needless to say it was a very fast day. At the finish Steels won easily over Zabel, who had the full train leading into the finish. I think Zabel must be getting desperate by now. 

                   George said today was the best day of the Tour for him. He didn't have to work, he got to sit on the wheels all day, and it was over quickly. I think the best day of the Tour will be the day after the Tour finishes. 

                   Speaking of the day after the Tour finishes, here’s a tradition that will be modified this year.  L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper, says it assigns a reporter to follow the winner of the Tour for one day after it finishes. I have a feeling that tradition will be broken this year.  Like Lance wants a bunch of journalists that have been breathing down his back for three weeks to be with the day after the Tour finishes.  Forget about it! 

                   George and Lance have some criterium lined up for after the Tour. The first criterium is Monday night and then they have one every other day after that. There is no rest for the weary. 

                   Yesterday Olano had his climbing bike out again with the small wheels. It didn't do him any good.  With the small wheel he rides a 56 front chain ring to make up for the difference. It's a shame that Olano is on the ONCE team this year. He is the weakest link on the team. The guys were always waiting for him and trying to help him to stay in the first group. Without Olano I'm sure they would have had three or four guys everyday in 
the first group. 

                   There are only two teams with full squads left in the race, Telekom and Lotto. There are lots of teams with fewer riders, but Saeco and Lampre each have only three riders left. 

                   Each night Julian, our head mechanic, brings Lance's bike in the hotel room with him. He sleeps with the bike just in case something might happen outside. You never know if someone might steal the cars or trucks or whatever. It has happened before. 

                   Yesterday was a hard day in the mountains. At the bottom of the climb it would be sunny and as we climbed the mountain we would enter into the clouds. As we approached the top of the climb the clouds would disappear and the sun would come back out. The coolest sight was after going over the top of the Tourmalet and looking down and seeing a ceiling of white clouds. It took about five kilometers of descending before we entered the clouds, or fog. Once we were in the fog we were not able to descend fast because we couldn't see ten feet in front of us. At the bottom of the climb it would become sunny again. The mountains provide lots of variations in temperature and weather and yesterday was no exception. 

Ridin’ the train… Mapei Steels one in Bordeaux 

                   This report filed July 22, 1999

                   By Charles Pelkey
                   VeloNews technical editor

                   It was back to the flats for the Tour de France today, and time again for the sprinters to strut their stuff. And with the inevitable absence of opening-week superstar Mario Cipollini, the stage was set for points jersey leader Erik Zabel to earn his first stage win. Carried by a Telekom train chugging down the streets of Bordeaux, Zabel was delivered in near-perfect position almost right to the line … but Zabel brought along some unwelcome company. Mapei-Quick Step’s Tom Steels bided his time on Zabel’s wheel, then grabbed his chance and jumped to his third stage victory in this year’s Tour. The U.S. Postal Service’s Lance Armstrong finished in the pack and, therefore, maintains his overall lead and his hold on the yellow jersey. 

                   With an early-afternoon start in Mourenx, today’s 199-kilometer stage fell back into the pattern set in the opening week of the Tour: a flat day – with just one Cat. 4 climb – and then a long breakaway, reeled in as the pack raced toward the finish. With the focus off of the race for the yellow jersey, much of today’s attention turned to the contest for the green points jersey between Zabel and Credit Agricole’s Stuart O’Grady. The Telekom team leader started the day with a narrow 12-point advantage, a lead that could easily be erased in a single stage. 

                   The attacks began soon after a small labor protest caused an unexpected delay in the day’s race. Following the easy climb up the Cat. 4 Cote d’Arthez de Bearn, a group of 13 riders tried, without success, to initiate a break. But it was following the first intermediate sprint – where Zabel edged out O’Grady, adding four points to his green jersey lead – that an eight-man break took shape: Big Mat’s Carlos Da Cruz, Mercatone Uno’s Sergio Barbero, Erik Dekker of Rabobank, Rolf Huser of Festina, Udo Bolts of Telekom, Henk Vogels of Credit Agricole, Stephane Heulot of La Francaise des Jeux and Vitalicio’s Alvaro Gonzalez-Galdeano. 

                   The move appeared to stand a chance of success as with Bolts in the group, Telekom was content to let the group go. Also, with Vogels up front, O’Grady seemed content to shadow his main opponent Zabel. And the U.S. Postal team, having Armstrong’s comfortable six-minute overall lead on Kelme’s Fernando Escartin, and tired from defending that lead over the past week, had little reason to pursue, either. But the Polti squad, with no one in the break and a desire to give its star sprinter Silvio Martinello a crack at a stage win, moved to the front of the peloton and began to chip away at the eight riders’ 7:55 advantage. 

                   The chase was successful, and the leaders were eventually swallowed up on the outskirts of the finish-line city. In this case, about 20 kilometers from Bordeaux, the lead group began to disintegrate and as Bolts drifted back, the Telekoms moved to the front, now intent on setting up Zabel for the final sprint. The Mapeis followed suit. 

                   But in the closing kilometers, it was all Telekom up front, with Zabel tucked safely behind a line of pink jerseys. Steels stayed near the front, but the Australian O’Grady seemed to be playing his cards close to his chest, perhaps planning a last-second charge from about one-fourth of the back in the 140-rider pack…. 

                   But O’Grady’s luck ran out as he found himself in tight quarters just 1.2 kilometers from the line.  Near the metal barrier, O’Grady crashed, not seriously injured, but out of contention for any of the 25 places of sprinters points awarded at the end of each stage. 

                   Ahead, the Telekoms continued to drive toward the line, readying Zabel for his first stage win of the Tour. As Telekom after Telekom peeled off ahead of him, Zabel’s sprint was set, but he also knew he was bringing along his biggest competitor, Steels – winner of two stages in the opening week. Indeed, Steels had initially been credited with three wins, but officials relegated him to the end of the field in Maubeuge, ruling that the Belgian sprinter had not held his line and interfered with another rider in stage 6. 

                   As the green-jersey-clad Zabel charged for the finish, Steels took advantage of the German’s lead-out, timing his move perfectly and jumping ahead of a tiring and now-dejected Zabel, who was then passed by Rabobank’s Australian sprinter, Robbie McEwen. Postal’s George Hincapie was also trying to get in the picture, but his late burst was a little too late, just netting him fourth place – his best of the Tour
                   so far. 

                   Zabel now leads the points race by 40 points over O’Grady. The Australian was not injured, but left the finish area minutes after he crossed the line, declining to comment about the crash or his now-difficult race for the green jersey. 

                   As for his stage win, Steels was quick to credit his Mapei squad for the win, but had it not added insult to injury, the Belgian could have just as easily given the credit to the team and the man that gave him the perfect leadout: Deutsche Telekom and Erik Zabel. 

                   RACE NOTES: 

                   * While Mapei’s Tom Steels won today’s stage, the team lost one of its strongest and most aggressive riders. Pavel Tonkov, winner of the 1996 Giro d’Italia, left the Tour because of a death in his family. 

                   * As the peloton left Mourenx today, the day’s progress was briefly interrupted by a labor group protesting working conditions for firemen in Pau.  The protest – the first to disrupt a stage of this year’s Tour – resulted in a single kilometer of the stage being neutralized, meaning that today’s stage was actually only 199 kilometers long. 

                   * There is one Tour contest that doesn’t offer a jersey, but does carry more weight with some teams. In that race, the Credit Agricole squad leads after 16 stages. The team has so far earned prize money equalling 318,950 French Francs (about 6 to the dollar). In second, the German Telekom team, with 316,500 FF; Saeco-Cannondale at 309,350 FF, Mapei - 305,400 FF; Casino, 294,700 FF and in sixth place, the U.S. Postal Service with 261,200 FF.  Of course, that will all change when they give out the final prize list on Sunday. 

                   * So far in this Tour de France, riders from five countries have earned stage wins. Italy leads with six (Cipollini, Commesso and Guerini), Belgium with four (Steels and Dierckxsen), Spain with three (Etxebarria and Escartin), the United States with three (Armstrong) and Estonia with a single win credited to Kirsipuu. But France has won none and if that pattern doesn’t change by Sunday, this will be the first Tour since 1926 in which a French rider has not won a single stage.

Friday 23 July 1999

Tour de France: Steels' needs are well-suited by upturn in speed 
                        By Phil Liggett in Bordeaux 

                         TOM STEELS, Belgium's finest sprinter, heralded the return of the "greyhounds" in the Tour de France as the 2,400-mile race to Paris found flatter roads to Bordeaux yesterday.

                        On a day marred by a spectator spraying CS gas at riders, Steels, the winner of two stages in the first week and who was disqualified from the sixth stage for dangerous riding, was a clear winner after the 124 miles from Mourenx, near Pau.

                        The sprint left Australian Stuart O'Grady lying in the road a mile from the line, as riders fought for wheels on the tortuous run-in to the city.

                        O'Grady, who has daily been vying with German Erik Zabel for the lead in the green jersey points competition, found himself in the middle of the pack as it condensed in the narrow streets. As he bounced off riders, including his Australian rival, Robbie McEwen, he fell, but slid away from the racing pack, remounting to finish two minutes later.

                        McEwen, from Brisbane, stayed upright and made the most of the strong lead-out by Zabel's Telekom team, to finish second behind Steels. Zabel finished third, but increased his lead over O'Grady in the search for his fourth green jersey in Paris.

                        Lance Armstrong, the race leader since Metz a week last Sunday, retained his 6min 15sec advantage over Fernando Escartin. O'Grady's crash caused a slight split in the field, but the overall leaders finished together, eight seconds behind the winner.

                        As the riders paraded out to the official start, the field was brought to a standstill by striking firemen. The race made its start five minutes later after the firemen spoke to race director Jean Marie Leblanc.

                        In the last 10 miles, came the CS gas incident, which caused Switzerland's Fabien Jeker to lose contact with the pack. He was rubbing his eyes and finished last, 4min 36sec behind. Marco Serpellini, of Italy, complained at the finish, saying the gas came as the race passed under a bridge. He finished 133rd, and said he had trouble with his vision for a good five minutes and finished 1min 09sec behind.

                        The race returned to its record average speed schedule yesterday as the field left the Pyrenees behind them. A breakaway of eight tried to beat the sprinters to Bordeaux and took the race back on course to be the first to beat 25mph.

                        Highest-placed in the front group was Stephane Heulot, of France, who was 16th and 24 minutes behind Armstrong. The only other Frenchman in the group was Carlos Da Cruz.

                        The eight got clear after 26 miles, just after Zabel won the sprint at Hagetmau. Second here was O'Grady, falling back to 14 points behind in the race for the green jersey, but the crash at the finish meant the Adelaide rider is now 40 points behind overall.

                        France is having its worst Tour since 1926 and yesterday the best home finisher was Pascal Chanteur in seventh.

                        The race ends on Sunday, where Steels will be the favourite to win again in Paris, as he did last year, while the time trial tomorrow will provide the last in-fight among the leaders. Today, realistically, is their last hope to redeem themselves as they go to Futuroscope near Poitiers.

                          Ian Hallam and Sean Yates, two greats of British pursuiting, will contest the open 4,000 metres in today's opening session of the nine-day national track championships in Manchester.

                        Hallam, 50, was the Commonwealth champion in 1970 and 1974. Yates, 39, a former Tour de France time trial winner, rode in the pursuit at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and won the British professional title, over 5,000m, in 1982 and 1983.

                        Yesterday's details

                        17TH STAGE (Mourenx-Bordeaux, 124 miles): 1, T Steels (Belgium, Mapei) 4h 22m 29s; 2, R McEwen (Australia, Rabobank); 3, E Zabel (Germany, Telekom); 4, G Hincapie (US, US Postal); 5, S Martinello (Italy, Polti); 6, L Michaelsen (Denmark, La FranŸaise de Jeux); 7, P Chanteur (France, Casino); 8, G Mondini (Italy, Cantina Tollo); 9, C Capelle (France, Big Mat); 10, A Vinokourov (Kazakhstan, Casino); 11, E Aggiano (Italy, Vitalicio Seguros); 12, J Durand (France, Lotto); 13, L Brochard (France, Festina); 14, F Simon (France, Credit Agricole); 15, F Guesdon (France, La FranŸaise de Jeux); 16, F Sacchi (Italy, Polti); 17, P Wuyts (Belgium, Lotto); 18, C Moreau (France, Festina); 19, L Auger (France, Big Mat); 20, J Voigt (Germany, Credit Agricole). all st. GB: 94, C Boardman (Credit Agricole) 8s behind.

                        Overall: 1, Armstrong 82h 25m 30s; 2, F Escartin (Spain, Kelme) at 6-15; 3, A Zülle (Switzerland, Banesto) 7-28; 4, L Dufaux (Switzerland, Saeco) 10-30; 5, R Virenque (France, Polti) 11-40; 6, D Nardello (Italy, Mapei) 13-27; 7, A Casero (Spain, Vitalicio Seguros) 13-34; 8, A Olano Spain, ONCE) 14-29; 9, W Belli (Italy, Festina) 15-14; 10, K van de Wouwer (Belgium, Lotto) 18-35; 11, D Etxebarria (Spain, ONCE) 19-31; 12, A Peron (Italy, ONCE) 20-17; 13, B Salmon (France, Casino) 22-55; 14, R Meier (Switzerland, Cofidis) 23-37; 15, S Heulot (France, La Française de Jeux) 24-15; 16, T Hamilton (France, US Postal)
                        25-24; 17, P Lanfranchi (Italy, Mapei) 26-03; 18, C Contreras (Colombia, Kelme) 26-46. GB: 128, Boardman 2-44-19.

                        Points: 1, Zabel 276 pts; 2, S O'Grady (Australia, Credit Agricole) 236; 3, Capelle 175; 4, Steels 170; 4, Hincapie 163.

                        King of the Mountains: 1, Virenque 273; 2, A Elli (Italy, Telecom)226; 3, M Piccoli (Italy, Lampre) 201; 4, Escartin 194; 5, Armstrong 193.

                        Teams: Banesto 247h 38m 53s; 2, ONCE at 6-11; 3, Festina 13-01; 4, Mapei 13-15.

Steels Steals Win Number 3

The first week of the 1999 may have been filled with sprint finishes, but the last bunch kick to the line in stage 7 seems like an eternity ago. But when Tom Steels jousted his way to the front of the elite sprinters remaining after the Alpes and Pyrenees - and the rolling stages in between - and won in Bordeaux today, the memories came rushing back.

The Mapei sprint specialist's win was a timely one. This morning, Pavel Tonkov, the Mapei leader through the mountains, retired from the race. His father had died overnight and the Russian returned home to grieve despite being 11th overall on general classification. The focus of the team suddenly - and unfortunately - returned to their first-week's emphasis: leading out their 'quick' in the bunch dash to the line.

 In the end, it was Steels' sprinting prowess - and his amazing ability to read the rush to the line - which mattered most. He passed the green-clad Erik Zabel only a matter of moments before the line and tonight the team can celebrate their third win in this year's Tour. All of them courtesy of Steels.

 The win gives Mapei - and Tonkov - some consolation. It also brings Steels' Tour stage tally 10. But it also brings to the fore several potent 'what ifs?' What if Steels wasn't thrown out of the Tour in stage 7 of the '97 edition? What if he hadn't been held up by Zabel's nut-crunching incident in stage 7 this year? What if Steels had begun riding the Tour before '97?

 Mapei played their part today by chasing down the main break of the day - an 8-strong troop which included Telekom's German champion, Udo Bolts, Frenchmen Stephane Heutot & Carlos Da Cruz, and Australian champion Henk Vogels.

 Once the break was reeled in 14 kilometers from the line, however, the Telekom train took over control of the peloton. Until that moment, the Telekom train was ominiously abscent from the chase. At the start of the day, the tactics of Erik Zabel's team had been clearly stated: not to chase if one of their full contingent of 9 riders was in the break - absorbing the remaining sprint bonus on offer, and in with a chance of claiming the stage. And with Bolts' presence, Telekom were well rested for the final 14km high-tempo routine they have used to secure Zabel three green jerseys (and possibly four come the final stage this year in 3 days' time).

 One small attack from a Rabobank rider was the only slight dent in the protective pace of the Telekom lead-out which was looking likely to break Zabel's non-winning streak this year. But it was Steels who stole the day ahead of another Rabobank rider - their perpetually close sprint specialist, Robbie McEwen - with Zabel taking third behind the remnants of the sprinters in the race... Except for one: Stuart O'Grady. 'The Freckle' ran up the back of one of the fading Telekom team-men about 1,300 meters from the finishing dance and hit the ground harder than a sack of spuds thrown from a 10-story window.

 Zabel and McEwen have had another chance to practice their second-place face, but O'Grady limped home battered, bruised and now 40 points behind in the green jersey competition. He began the day still well in contention 12 points back and finished the day sore - and 2'00" behind the winner.

 Lance Armstrong had a virtual day off to finish with a bunch time and in 51st position. He keeps his yellow jersey and the return of the sprint-fest translates to no changes in the high overall placings.