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 soon being unemployed because his team, Saeco, was unhappy.
"Discussions have resumed about my future," he said Thursday, 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 occasional bursts of sunflowers.
It approached at least three grand cathedrals: the Gothic masterpiece at Chartres, with its famed stained-glass windows; 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 over to the Champs-Elysees, site of the finale.
Unlike Wednesday, when a favorable tailwind led to a record speed for the stage, the riders faced a headwind Thursday and the average speed was nearly six 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 race was marked by an early breakaway, this time at the two-mile mark. A group of 10 riders made the break, instigated by Frenchmen Jacky Durand and his Belgian teammate on Lotto-Mobistar, Thierry Marechal.
The group had as much as a 6-minute, 15-second lead, but that soon was whittled down by the advancing pack.
Sweden's Magnus Backstedt took a brief lead near the end. But he was soon overtaken, and the race was set for another furious, wide-open sprint. Cipollini's Saeco teammates again moved him into position, and he sprinted to victory.
On Wednesday, Cipollini chose the former home of French kings to win the fastest stage in tour history.
In the town of Blois, in view of the imposing royal castle, he came off a stone bridge spanning the Loire River to win the fourth stage in a photo finish and a record speed of 31.290 mph.
For now, the talk at the Tour has been mostly about cycling, not drugs, which developed into such a monumental scandal last year.
But on Thursday, the sport's governing body had to deny 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 riers tested was found to have taken corticosteroids, anti-inflammatory drugs that are not classed as steroids but are banned, except when used for legitimate medical needs.
That charge was denied by the International Cycling Union.
"There was not one positive case," UCI spokesman Enrico Carpani said.
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.