Tour de France Heats Up as Race Heads Into Pyrenees
VILLENEUVE-SUR-LOT, France (AP) _ After a week of high temperatures and slow races, it’s time for the Tour de France to heat up.
Overall leader Bjarne Riis has seven riders close behind, looking to chip away at his lead in a pair of challenging climbing stages today and Wednesday. The final time trial is Saturday.
Five-time defending champion Miguel Indurain is in eighth place overall, 4 minutes, 38 seconds behind Riis. The Spaniard was quiet all week when many expected he would attack, but with the race heading into Spain on Wednesday, all eyes will be on Indurain.
Riis and his strong Telekom team have controlled the overall lead since the 32-year-old Dane took the leader’s yellow jersey July 8 in a weather-shortened stage through the French Alps.
``I feel I’m at my strongest in my career and feel ready for (today’s) climbing stage,″ Riis said.
Tuesday’s 124-mile stage ends with a steep climb of 3,300 feet in a span of 6.2 miles to Lourdes-Hautacam in the Pyrenees.
Wednesday’s 164-mile stage crosses the Pyrenees and ends in Pamplona, Spain. The grueling stage features seven climbs, and riders will be looking to make a break and pull ahead of Riis.
``The mountain stages will be very tough, but I feel very strong,″ Riis said. ``I am ready to defend my lead.″
With the Tour heading into Spain, officials of the Tour de France announced Monday that race information will be broadcast in Spanish, French and the Basque language.
Officials said the move has nothing to do with threats from a Basque separatist group that has made veiled threats to disrupt Wednesday’s stage into Pamplona.
Societe officials said these actions were already planned before a letter was received from the separatist group two weeks before the Tour started.
Tour spokesman John Lelangue said security will be same as any Tour de France stage.
``It’s the same. It’s difficult to check every little thing along a 200-kilometer course,″ Lelangue said. ``We do not have some sort of terrorist squad. It’s the same as any other stage.″
In Monday’s 15th stage, Massimo Podenzana won his first Tour stage when he pulled ahead of a six-man breakaway to win the 110-mile stage.
``Well, I’m not that old ... but it’s a great thing for me today,″ said Podenzana, 34, who won the Italian national championship in 1993 and 1994.
Six riders broke early and held the lead throughout the hot day from Brive-la-Gaillarde to Villeneuve-sur-Lot in France’s Massif Central.
Podenzana sprinted the final three miles and finished ahead of Giuseppe Guerini of Italy and Peter Van Petegem of Belgium, who crossed the line third.
The overall leaders finished 5:38 behind Podenzana’s winning time.
American George Hincapie of the Motorola team didn’t start Monday after suffering a serious fall Sunday when he blew out a tire and went down hard on a steep descent midway through the stage.
With Hincapie’s departure Monday and Lance Armstrong’s on July 5, Frankie Andreu is the only American remaining in the Tour. He finished in 106th place with the main pack of riders Monday and sits in 121st overall at 1 hour, 50 minutes, 32 seconds back.
``I’ve had a bad Tour, plain and simple,″ said Andreu, racing in his fifth Tour. ``I wanted to win a stage, but my legs just aren’t there. But I want to finish the race.″
After today’s stage, officials from the Tour de France and the Motorola team will fly by helicopter to honor Italian Fabio Casartelli, who died in a crash in last year’s Tour.
Andreu, Casartelli’s teammate on the Motorola team, will be on hand at the memorial service on the Col de Portet d’Aspet, the mountain pass where Casartelli died after falling into a concrete barrier.