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  Belgian Wins First Stage of Tour de France

By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press
Sunday, July 12, 1998; 1:27 p.m. EDT

DUBLIN, Ireland — Belgium's Tom Steels, disqualified from last year's race for throwing a water bottle at a racer, overcame stiff winds and a crash involving a half-dozen riders Sunday to win the first stage of the Tour de France.

Steels survived the concluding circuit of Dublin's vast Phoenix Park to win the 112-mile course in 4 hours, 29 minutes, 58 seconds.

"I'm always relieved to win the first stage,'' he said. "I did what I had to do.''

Germany's Erik Zabel took second place. Australia's Robbie McEwen, Italy's Gian Matteo Fagnini and Nicola Minali, and France's Frederic Moncassin and Philippe Gaumont took the third through seventh spots, respectively — all in the same time as Steels.

Chris Boardman, the time-trial specialist from Britain who won Saturday's opening prologue through downtown Dublin, retained the leader's yellow jersey for a second day, finishing 39th.

"I am hoping to stay in yellow at least until we reach France,'' Boardman said.

Last year's tour winner, Jan Ullrich of Germany, finished in 62nd place.

Italy's Mario Cipollini, well positioned as the sprinters passed through the park's gates, fell to the road in a pileup that also claimed France's Stephane Barthe.

Italy's Stefano Zanini had been first past screaming fans at the rain-flecked summit of the Wicklow Mountains, which provided no real chance for the sport's top mountaineers to show off.

But the top sprinters, who were about a minute behind, gradually powered past Zanini and a half-dozen others who had shared the midway lead.

France's Laurent Brochard finished 18th, the best performance for the top-rated Festina team, which began the tour under the cloud of a drug scandal.

Before the race, Richard Verinque — four-time winner of the tour's polka-dot jersey in recognition of the best mountain climber — said Festina's cyclists would "stand united'' regarding accusations they used muscle-building steroids or EPO, a drug that boosts the blood's ability to absorb oxygen.

"The people trying to sink us should have good lawyers,'' Verinque said.

A member of Festina's staff, Belgian masseur Willy Voet, remained in a French prison near Lille on Sunday after customs agents on the French-Belgian border were said to have found more than 400 vials of steroids and EPO in his Festina company car.

One of Festina's supporting riders, Christophe Moreau, is competing while appealing his positive test for steroid use in June. He finished 49th Sunday after placing fifth in Saturday's opening prologue.

The race continues Monday with a 128-mile run along Ireland's flat southern coast, from the village of Enniscorthy to the southwest port of Cork.

The competition ends Aug. 2 in Paris after grueling mountain runs through the Pyrenees and Alps.

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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