After 11 days of racing, Tour cyclists finally get a rest

Today the Tour's 160 survivors travel in their team buses to the foot of Mont Ventoux, something which has not gone down well with some of the teams, who would have preferred to make the journey last night to give their riders a full day in one place.

The race organisers were adamant, however, that the plan must be followed. In the past they have fined and expelled riders for not sticking to their accommodation and transport arrangements as they like to know exactly where their cyclists are.

Yesterday, however, there were cyclists spread everywhere over the little valleys and rounded slopes of the Pyrenean foothills. As a stiff wind and one or two hefty rain showers blew the peloton out of the mountains, it split it to pieces through the avenues of plane trees, some old enough to have been planted to keep the sun off Napoleonic troops marching into Spain.

There was no risk of sunstroke as the roadside crowds shivered in autumn coats. There were enough casualties in the race to suggest that much of the peloton is feeling the strain of a Tour which has been run at exceptionally high speed - nearly 26 mph - much of it in high winds which fray the nerves.

Yesterday the peloton had barely begun to tackle the first climb, the relatively innocuous Cote de Mauvezin, before the first rider, last year's under-23 world champion Ivan Gutierrez, had climbed into the broomwagon, the van which follows the race "sweeping" up casualties.

The German Marcel Wst, stage winner at Vitr, has issued no Internet updates recently as he is ill, and yesterday he was the last finisher, 15 minutes back.

The winner of the first two road-race stages, Tom Steels - a Belgian who should have been completely at home in yesterday's winds - lost 12 minutes, as did last year's winner on the Champs Elyses, the Australian Robbie McEwen.

Five members of Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team were also among the 90 or so who could not hold the pace, reinforcing the impression that, if Armstrong is the strongest rider here, his team could prove the weak link.

The wind was, however, ideal for blowing breakaways far ahead of the rest, and full advantage was taken by the Dutchman Erik Dekker, Saturday's winner at Villeneuve-sur-Lot, and the Colombian Santiago Botero as they shared the pace for 125 miles. Colombia has produced many climbers but its cyclists are legendary for being slow out of the blocks and Botero was no competition for the Dutchman in the finish sprint.

Dekker's celebrations were extravagant but pointing at Botero just before the line, as if to underline how easy it was, seemed a trifle unfeeling. An unlikely pair - one tall and blond, the other squat and dark - they share troubled pasts.

Botero served a six-month suspension for taking the hormone testosterone in 1998, while Dekker was expelled from the world championships last year after his blood level was deemed "unhealthy".

An internal inquiry by his team subsequently cleared him of any wrongdoing, on the novel grounds that the tourniquet tied round his arm when the sample was taken had been fixed too tightly.

After the first mountain stage the Tour's sub-plots begin to take shape and play their part in determining the pattern of the day's racing. Yesterday the only Briton in the race, the 23-year-old David Millar, and a 24-year-old from Madrid, Francisco Mancebo, "watched each other like hawks," as Millar put it, throughout the stage, and finally fled the bunch together in a seven-rider escape on the final hill.

Theirs is a small battle for the white jersey which goes to the best under-25 rider, which Mancebo currently wears and on which Millar has his sights set. For a rider unused to climbing, the Briton rode well during Monday's mountain stage and now lies 31st; 12 minutes, 20 seconds behind Armstrong.

He is only four minutes, 13 seconds behind the Spaniard, although he admits that Mancebo is a better climber.

Millar attacked on the final hill four miles from the finish but the pair stayed side-by-side right to the end, where the Briton finished just ahead, making the bulk of the running in the sprint before taking fourth on the stage.

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