A tall order
Mountains sort the men from the mice
Posted: Monday July 20, 1998 05:21 PM
PAU, France (CNN/SI) -- The Cyclists and tour organizers alike are hoping that the drug scandal surrounding this years Tour de France will fade into the background when faced with the challenges of the Pyranees -- Aubisque, Tourmalet, Soulor, Aspin and Peyresourde to name a few.
The tenth stage is a gruelling test of stamina as the riders travel over five of the most famous cycling passes in the 196.5 kilometers (122 miles) stretch between Pau and Luchon.
"The first mountain stage of the Tour is always the most difficult. It doesn't matter whether it's the Alps or the Pyrenees," said France's Laurent Jalabert, one of the riders expected to challenge last year's winner Jan Ullrich of Germany in the climbs.
"On the morning before the start, you're always a little bit scared. You fear you might have a let down, you never quite know what to expect," he said.
After almost a week spent in cloudy and relatively cool weather, temperatures reached soared in the Tour's ninth stage between Montauban and Pau on Monday to a reported 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit).
Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) winner Marco Pantani of Italy is the one rider everybody fears in the mountains.
"He is the only real climber left in the peloton," said former world champion Luc Leblanc, who has two stage wins on the tour -- in the Pyrenees in 1994 and the Alps last year.
"To try to follow Pantani in the mountains is very risky. It is like slow death. You'd better attack him first because when he does, it is too late," Leblanc added.
"If he has recovered from the Giro, he can win the Tour."
Pantani at present lies 47th, 8:25 behind current leader Laurent Desbiens of France, who is not a mountain specialist, and 5:04 behind Ullrich.
Pantani was one of few riders who looked capable of challenging the German last year in the climbs but he may have lost too much time on Ullrich in Saturday's time trial to be able to close the gap.
Festina riders Richard Virenque, Alex Zuelle and Laurent Dufaux would also have posed a threat, but they have been kicked out of the Tour.
The Festina team was expelled after its director confessed to making doping products available to his riders.
"In any case, the tactics are simple-- we must attack Ullrich before the last time trial. It's a pity we have to do that without the Festina, but we have to," Leblanc said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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