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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 July, 2003, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Virenque takes yellow jersey
Richard Virenque
Virenque emulated a feat of Tour legend Eddy Merckx
Frenchman Richard Virenque delighted a crowd of thousands by racing to his country's first stage win at this year's Tour de France.

The Quick Step veteran called on all of his speed and endurance to sprint clear of a five-man breakaway on stage seven from Lyon to Morzine-Avoriaz.

And Virenque, who won a stage at the Alpine town in 2000, became the first man since Eddy Merckx in 1971 to seize both the yellow and polka dot jerseys in a single day of riding.

Tour favourite Lance Armstrong kept out of trouble and spurred US Postal to a big effort on the steepest climb to reduce his arrears on the stage to four minutes and six seconds, and 2:37 back overall.

And, although his team surrendered the yellow jersey - worn at the start by Victor Hugo Pena - the American will be confident of recouping his losses on future mountain stages, starting with a brutal ascent of Alpe d'Huez on Sunday.

"Today was a good start. For me the Tour started today," said Armstrong.

I will do my best to keep the yellow jersey for longer than I had it last time which was just a day
Richard Virenque

Among Armstrong's chief challengers, Briton David Millar, German Jan Ullrich and Joseba Beloki completed the 230.5km course in the same time.

But Gilberto Simoni, who had touted himself as a possible Tour winner after his victory in the Giro D'Italia, and Santiago Botero lost large chunks of time.

Virenque, assisted by team-mate Paolo Bettini, Médéric Clain, Benoit Poilvet and Rolf Aldag, set a fast pace from the start.

The Frenchman missed the jump and had to bridge a gap to the initial four-man breakaway, but when he had done so, he never looked like slipping back.

And his determination, coupled with that of surprise second place finisher Aldag, split the Tour de France field wide open on the first day of serious climbing.

There were some big-name casualties.

Alessandro Petacchi, winner of four of the previous six stages on the flat, found the going too tough and pulled out halfway up the first of the climbs.

Fellow sprinter, Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu, also gave up his hopes of finishing the race in Paris.

After the race, Virenque said it was the most magical moment in his long career.

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"It feels so good to have won the stage, the polka dot jersey and most importantly the yellow jersey," he said.

"When I win a race I like to think I win it my way, having plenty of fun combined with some extremely hard work.

"I enjoyed this win so much and admit that I was well overdue a stage victory although I didn't wake up this morning expecting to have the most magical moment of my career.

"But I will do my best to keep it for longer than I had it last time which was just a day," added the Frenchman.



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BBC Five Live's Simon Brotherton
"Virenque is the darling of France once again"



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