Virenque takes Tour de France lead

BORDEAUX, FRANCE — BORDEAUX, France -- So who thought that Richard Virenque, with a lead of 4 minutes, 34 seconds in the Tour de France -- seemingly enough time to stroll through yesterday's stage -- would keep the leader's yellow jersey for just one day?

He lost the jersey by less than a country mile -- actually about a kilometer -- to an RMO teammate, Pascal Lino, but he lost it nevertheless.


Virenque, who took the mantle of leadership on Monday thanks to a long breakaway, was the victim of a similar attack yesterday.

This time 10 riders linked up and went off after 109 kilometers (67.5 miles) of the 218 flat kilometers (135 miles) from Pau to Bordeaux. With the rest of the 195-man field engaged in other pursuits than riding quickly after them, the 10 riders quickly found themselves with a top lead of more than 15 minutes.


When Rob Harmeling of the TVM team from the Netherlands won the sprint finish, that lead was reduced to just seven minutes.

It was more than enough to put Lino into the yellow jersey. The 25-year-old Frenchman started the day in ninth place over all in least elapsed time, trailing Virenque by 5:06.

At exactly 5:07, with Virenque and the rest of the pack still more than a kilometer away, Lino broke into a broad smile and punched his left fist in the air after he finished.

"I'm sorry for Richard," he said, somewhat unconvincingly, "but that's racing, isn't it?"

"Racing" was a charitable interpretation of this third stage of the Tour de France, which passed vast forests of commercial pine trees planted so straight and regularly spaced that, as somebody once wrote, it was like traveling through the bristles of a hairbrush.

Perhaps the lack of reaction by the main pack was because of the weather, which turned gloriously sunny and hot after days of rain, wind and gloom.

Or perhaps the pack never got into the race because riders did not want to squander their energy in a chase before today's team time trial in nearby Libourne. No real chase, with any of the major teams not represented in the breakaway, was ever organized.

The time splits between the two groups tell the story: the first group's lead was 12 minutes with 40 kilometers remaining, 10:20 with 20 kilometers remaining, 8:30 with five kilometers remaining and seven minutes at the finish.


Or perhaps the lack of interest reflected the composition of the breakaway, which included riders from eight of the 22 teams in the Tour but all of them outsiders. Their teams would not chase and challenge their own riders.

Second to Harmeling was Sammy Moreels of the Lotto team. Massimo Ghirotto of Carrera was third, with Lino fourth. All nine breakaways were timed in 5:45:17.

In the overall standing, Lino holds the yellow jersey by 1:54 over Virenque. Miguel Indurain, the defending champion, is third, 6:28 behind.

A strong climber who won the Tour of the mountainous European Community in 1989 and has won the hill section of the Criterium International, Lino is not really considered to be a serious challenger for victory when the Tour ends July 26 in Paris.

That is what people were saying about Virenque on Monday, while feeling, however, that he would certainly wear the yellow jersey at least until the mountains arrive in a week.

And where is he now? In second place, heartbroken. With different riders unexpectedly wearing the yellow jersey, this is becoming a strange Tour de France.