THE HARDEST mountain stage of this year's Tour de France provided the Dutchman Michael Boogerd with the perfect opportunity to revive his flagging career with a spectacular 127 kilometre breakaway which ended in a well-deserved victory at La Plagne ski station.
For Boogerd and for cycling in the Netherlands in general, a convincing Tour win of this nature was long overdue. Boogerd had previously raised his arms at the end of a Tour stage six years ago in Aix-les-Bains, his lone orange-jerseyed figure barely visible in a torrential downpour. Furthermore, more than twice that time had passed since shaggy-haired Dutchman Gert-Jan Theunisse won at Alpe D'Huez, the last Netherlands rider to be seen reaching a Grand Boucle mountain top finish line in first place.
Yesterday, Boogerd's tight blonde curls crowned a toothy grin that was only out-dazzled by the bright sunshine at La Plagne, as he finally put an end to his country's 13-year drought in the most prestigious kind of wins on offer in the Tour - barring, of course, the final overall victory itself.
His near-collapse on the final climb, though, reflected the fact that it had been a long haul for the 30-year-old Dutchman. After attacking on the first of the three beyond-category climbs on the 172.5km alpine stage, Boogerd was a victim of the unwritten law that to succeed in staying away one cannot be accompanied by riders thought even the remotest of threats overall.
In this case the undesirable elements (for Postal and the race leader Lance Armstrong) were Isidro Nozal and Jose Azevedo, two team- mates of Armstrong's closest rival on the overall, the Basque Joseba Beloki. Just to make matters worse, Kelme-Costa Blanca's co- leaders, Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero, were also present, and Boogerd and the seven other attackers were promptly reeled in. This proved to be Sevilla's last gasp - the Spaniard abandoned at the foot of the next alpine giant, the Madeleine - but by this point Boogerd was ahead once more, accompanied by three sprinters.
Postal gave the move the green light when they failed to chase, and the Dutchman, still clad in the same bright orange Rabobank colours in which he had won at Aix-les-Bains six years ago, promptly struck out alone. It was not easy. The Madeleine's 20 kilometre slopes have an average gradient of 7.9 per cent, but Boogerd nonetheless succeeded in forging an impressive lead of 3min 20sec over a group of five pursuers. The peloton was then 7:45 back.
Long, lone attacks of this nature rarely succeed and the Dutchman, who had already been 75 kilometres away at the start of the final climb to La Plagne, began to pay the price on the interminable succession of hairpin bends leading to its summit. For all the group of five chasers had ceded time, Boogerd's advantage over the peloton began to plummet.
There was a good reason behind this: Armstrong had put his crack mountain climber Jose Luis Rubiera on the front of the rapidly diminishing bunch, a tactic which not only shredded the peloton but also set things up nicely for the Texan's next manoeuvre.
With a four-minute advantage over Beloki, Armstrong has frequently claimed that he …