TONY ROMINGER won his second huge Alpine stage in as many days and Miguel Indurain kept his iron grip on the Tour, but it was Scotland’s Robert Millar who won the hearts yesterday.
The Swiss finished half a wheel in front of the Spaniard after a 113-mile stage of more than 5 1/2 hours from Serre-Chevalier. But Millar had earlier written himself indelibly into the folk history of this towering race with a solo ride over the exposed summit of the Col de la Bonette, which rises to a dizzying 9,200ft and to which Europe’s highest road clings precariously.
Only twice before has it featured in the Tour, in 1962 and 1964. The legendary Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes, the winner in 1959 and the mountain king a record six times, took it on both occasions.
Millar attacked at the foot of the Bonette’s immense 15-mile climb together with Pedro Delgado. He eventually shook off the Spaniard to breast the peak more than a minute clear of Rominger and Indurain. It was a truly magnificent ride by the 34-year-old Scot who has, almost single-handedly, flown the British flag in the Tour over the past decade.
It was always likely, given such heroics, that Millar would be caught on the final climb to Isola and, when Indurain’s group duly swept past him, it seemed he was finally and completely done. Now he appeared hunched, small and frail – yet even then he fought back to stay in touch and, with 2 1/2 miles to go, suddenly launched another courageous attack.
Alas, he could not sustain it for Indurain was driving hard behind, accompanied by most of the men who had stuck so close to him the previous day.
Millar eventually finished seventh, a minute behind, but the position was of no real consequence. The Scot had ridden such a colossal stage, with such panache and daring, that his name will be for ever associated the Col de Bonette.
In fact Millar is no great lover of the Alps. All three of his Tour de France stage wins have been in the Pyrenees, and there are plenty of mountains to climb there next week. His year of years came in 1984 when he was fourth overall, won a stage and became the only Briton to win the King of the Mountains jersey.
Nowadays the legs are a little less pliable but Millar, as he so splendidly proved here, remains one of the great climbers. It is a disgrace that the Scottish sporting press, so keen to bang the national drum, have for years virtually ignored him.
Millar’s efforts aside, the 11th stage, despite the length and ferocity of the climbs, was never going to match the significance of Wednesday when Indurain virtually ensured that the rest of the race will be a sort of holiday for him.
The day’s first climb was the daunting Col d’Izoard, with its huge grey-brown, barren scree slopes and its almost mythical association with the mountain exploits of the former Tour winners Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobbet. Yet it seemed to go by almost as an afterthought.
Indurain was again imposing his authority pitilessly and seemed determined to take the stage, though in the end Rominger, still strong, nicked it. It was clear from the start that Indurain now considers the Swiss – who took over the climbers’ jersey yesterday – his only possible rival.
For the past two years Claudio Chiappucci has finished in that measled vest but he struggled horribly on the climb to the Bonette where he was almost two minutes down on Indurain and Rominger at the summit. Typically the Italian fought back to contest the final 32-bend hairpin climb to the ski station of Isola, being used for the first time in preference to L’Alpe d’Huez.
On such a long and gruelling stage there were inevitable casualties, but the day’s 15 victims included some notables: France’s Laurent Fignon, who won in 1983 and 1984; the overnight points leader Mario Cipollini of Italy, who finished out of time; and the Belgian lying second to him, Wilfried Nelissen, who abandoned.
The Uzbek sprinter Djamol Abdoujaparov, winner of the green jersey two years ago, scraped in last while Italy’s world champion Gianni Bugno had a second disastrous day and lost almost 13 minutes.
Today the Tour leaves the Alps – but the survivors face around eight hours in the saddle in this year’s longest stage.
Today: Isola 2000 to Marseille (180 miles).