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  Italy's Cipollini Wins Fastest Tour Leg

Tour Summary
Stage: A 121-mile ride from the Laval in western France to Blois in the Loire Valley.

Stage Winner: Italy's Mario Cipollini won in record time of 31.290 mph for a flat stage. The previous record, set in 1993, was 30.707 mph.

How Others Fared: Germany's Erik Zabel was second and Australia's Stuart O'Grady third. They finished in the same positions Tuesday. Belgium's Tom Steels, winner of the second and third stages, placed fourth.

Overall Standings: Estonia's Jaan Kirsipuu, who finished fifth Wednesday, retained the leader's yellow jersey for the third day in a row. O'Grady, 16 seconds behind, moved into second place, and Steels fell to third. Lance Armstrong was fourth.

Tour Tidbits: Wednesday was Zabel's 29th birthday, and he narrowly missed giving himself the ultimate birthday present, a stage win. ... Steels has an extra incentive to wear the yellow jersey later this week: the Tour will approach the border of his home country, Belgium.

Quote of the Day: "It was the perfect sprint,'' said Cipollini, the stage winner.

Next Stage: Thursday, Bonneval to Amiens, 145 miles.

By Jocelyn Noveck
Associated Press
Wednesday, July 7, 1999; 3:47 p.m. EDT

BLOIS, France – In the town where Joan of Arc plotted her attack on the English at Orleans, Mario Cipollini of Italy won the fastest stage in the history of the Tour de France today.

Coming off a stone bridge spanning the Loire River, the Italian surged past Germany's Erik Zabel in a photo finish to win the fourth stage of cycling's showcase race.

A favorable tailwind, cool weather, a relatively straight course and wide, flat roads all contributed to the record average speed of 31.290 mph, breaking the 1993 mark of 30.707 mph.

Australia's Stuart O'Grady finished third, followed by Tom Steels, the Belgian who won the two previous stages. Estonia's Jaan Kirsipuu was fifth but kept the leader's yellow jersey he captured Monday.

The 121-mile route took the riders through flat roads from the town of Laval on the Mayenne River to Blois in the Loire Valley, home to a castle of French kings. The castle is also where Joan of Arc prepared for her siege of Orleans in 1429.

As in Tuesday's third stage, two riders broke from the pack early and held a long lead. Gianpaolo Mondini of Italy and Anthony Morin of France survived an early breakaway by 10 riders. They built a lead of more than six minutes over 62 miles before the pack started gaining late in the race.

The final sprint went down to a photo finish, and Zabel was deprived of a stage win on his 29th birthday.

In the overall standings, O'Grady moved up to second place, 16 seconds behind. Steels, who wants to be wearing the yellow jersey when the race nears his home country later in the week, was third at 21 seconds behind.

In fourth place was Lance Armstrong, the American making a gallant comeback from testicular cancer, 24 seconds behind. Zabel was in fifth.

Armstrong plans to wait for Sunday's time trial and then the mountain stages before making his real challenge. But this week, in the early, flat stages, it is the sprinters like Cipollini who are in command.

In winning in 3 hours, 51 minutes, 45 seconds, the 32-year-old Italian captured his ninth career Tour de France stage victory, and his first this year.

"It was the perfect sprint,'' he said.

He paid tribute to his teammates on the Saeco team, such as Gian Matteo Fagnini and Mario Scirea, who worked mightily to get him into proper position for the final sprint.

Cipollini is ninth in the overall standings, 44 seconds behind Kirsipuu.

So far, this year's tour has had little of the controversy that enveloped last year's race when a drug scandal almost scuttled the entire event.

Manolo Saiz, sports director of the ONCE team, who was initially banned from this year's Tour for involvement in the drug scandal but then was reinstated, said in Le Monde on Wednesday that he thought that "90, if not 99, percent of the riders in this year's Tour de France are clean.''

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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