As befits his nickname, "The Lion King," Mario Cipollini is clearly inspired by grandeur.

With the Tour de France passing a royal palace one day and three stunning cathedrals the next, the Italian has won two straight stages of cycling's showcase race.

All this when observers had started to grumble about his sluggish performance, and Cipollini had joked about being unemployed soon because his team, Saeco, was unhappy.

"Discussions have resumed about my future," he said today, after surging across the finish line just ahead of Belgian Tom Steels and winning the fifth stage.

Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu finished third and retained the yellow leader's jersey for the fourth day. Robbie McEwen of Australia was fourth and German Erik Zabel fifth.

The stage was one of the longest of the Tour, a 145-mile ride through rolling wheat fields and sunflowers.

It approached at least three grand cathedrals: the Gothic masterpiece at Chartres; a graceful one at Beauvais and France's biggest at Amiens, where the stage ended.

On their way to the Somme region, where the famous World War I battle was fought, the riders passed tantalizingly close to Paris, only 31 miles away. They might have been tempted to take a short cut to the Champs-Elysees, site of the finale.

Unlike Wednesday, when a favorable tail wind led to a record speed for the stage, the riders faced a head wind today and the average speed was nearly 6 mph slower.

In the overall standings, Steels moved up to second and Australian Stuart O'Grady was third. Lance Armstrong, on the comeback from testicular cancer, was fourth and Cipollini fifth.

The talk at the Tour has been mostly about cycling, not drugs, which developed into such a monumental scandal last year. But today, the sport's governing body denied a published report that a Tour cyclist tested positive for a banned drug after the race's prologue.

The French sports daily L'Equipe said one of four riders tested was found to have taken corticosteroids, anti-inflammatory drugs that are not classified as steroids but are banned, except when used for legitimate medical needs.