"Good life" on fraught day

 

JEROEN BLIJLEVENS of the Netherlands took the 242km fifth stage of the Tour de France from Lac de Madine to Besancon yesterday - after twice finishing second in earlier stages. Stephane Heulot of France retained the overall leader's yellow jersey.

The 25 year old Blijlevens, whose name translates into "good life," won in a sprint finish, getting past former yellow jersey wearer Frederic Moncassin of France within 20 metres of the line.

"I was not satisfied with my two seconds, so this is very satisfactory," Blijlevens said. The Dutchman, winner of the stage into Dunkirk last year, made it a reasonable day for his TVM team as they had lost teammate Servais Knaven earlier in the stage.

The stage was dominated by abandonments and crashes, a feature of the tour so far: Sprint specialists Mario Cipollini of Italy, winner of the second stage, and Jan Svorada of the Czech Republic both dropped out. Cipollini did not start the stage because of a fever and Svorada retired after 106km following the effects of a fall on Wednesday.

Russian ace Yevgeny Berzin, who shadowed five time winner Miguel Indurain of Spain throughout the stage, suffered a blow when his Italian teammate Ivan Gotti, fifth in last year's Tour, also abandoned with tendonitis.

One mass pile up 70km from the finish led to American Lance Armstrong and Gilles Bouvard of France briefly coming to blows.

Heulot, the French national champion, highlighted the frustrations and problems that the peloton had faced. "It was windy and the surface was very slippery, provoking several crashes," Heulot said.

The peloton went at snail's pace, finishing an hour and a half behind the scheduled time, as the cross winds stopped anyone from making an early break.

Giuseppe Calcaterra (32) finally attacked 56km from the finish. The Italian, no longer responsible for his team leader Cipollini's welfare, set up a lead of over two minutes at one point.

The peloton, though, led by the remaining specialist sprinters' teams - like Telekom for German Erik Zabel and MG-Technogym for Italian Fabio Baldato - led the chase to catch him. The valiant Calacaterra, second in the 1992 stage into Revel, was caught with 12km to go.

Despite the habitual late attacks by Frik Dekker of the Netherlands and 10 time world pursuit record holder Viacheslav Ekimov of Russia, the sprinters were not going to let go one of their final chances to win a stage.

Meanwhile the race organisers received worrying news from Spain when ETA, the Basque terrorist organisation, exploded a bomb in Villava, near Pamplona - the hometown of Indurain. The 17th stage of the Tour is due to pass through Villava, as a tribute to Indurair on its way to Pamplona.

ETA issued threats before the Tour that they would take action unless the Tour used a Basque announcer for the finish of the stage. The organisers agreed to the demand.