PERPIGNAN, FRANCE — SOMEWHERE in the golden fields of Provence, with the rocky hillsides and cypress windbreaks of Cezanne and Van Gogh whizzing by, Laurent Brochard decided it was time to act.
The young cyclist for the French Castorama team, this year riding his first Tour de France, broke away repeatedly from the peloton, or pack, of nearly 150 cyclists humming along at 25 to 30 miles an hour.
It was a bid to "stand out a bit, begin making a name for myself," says the blond 25-year-old, and it would be repeated - futilely - early in the next day's 136-mile stage ending in this Mediterranean city near the Pyrenees.
"Right now I have good legs, so I was feeling this was my chance," says Brochard, his close-cropped flattop contrasting with a ponytail and loop earring. "Maybe it didn't work this time, but I'm just learning," he adds. "Anyway, this is the Tour, and we're here to create a spectacle."
With this year's 2,325-mile, three-week-long Tour de France drawing toward its traditional Sunday-afternoon finale up Paris's Champs-Elysees, Brochard's chances of "standing out" are dimming. But already he has made a name for himself as one of a handful of young professional cyclists to watch.
With Spanish powerhouse Miguel Indurain maintaining a "lock" on what looks to be his third consecutive Tour triumph, attention is turning to the riders who may battle for the Tour victor's yellow jersey in the future. Longtime Tour observers say the field of top-flight new talent is limited - and increasingly marked by names from outside cycling's traditional European bastion.
"Maybe it's just a lull, maybe it's economics, and maybe there's young talent out there that hasn't been discovered yet," says Michel Lefort, a veteran Tour official and cycling observer, "but right now the list of young riders who are showing the stuff of future champions isn't that long."
He and other cycling enthusiasts list Swiss Alex Zulle, Dutchman Eddy Bouwmans, Brochard, and fellow Frenchman Jean-Pierre Bourgeot. From the Americas, there are Colombians Alvaro Mejia and Oliviero Rincon, Venezuelan Leonardo Sierra, and American Lance Armstrong.
Zulle and Armstrong's names come up most often: Armstrong created a "spectacle" of his own by winning this Tour's eighth stage - at the tender age of 21 - before pulling out of the race on his trainer's advice.
But as of midweek, Mejia continued to ride second to Indurain in the overall standings of this 20-stage Tour, and Rincon - who started cycling as a delivery boy for a Bogota pharmacy - made a splash by winning Monday's grueling stage over nine formidable climbs in the Pyrenees.
For a time Monday, Rincon was shadowed by Sierra, whose hope of victory was dashed when he faded and fell back into the pack. "I'd like very much to win a stage," says the 25-year-old Sierra, the first Venezuelan ever to ride in the Tour, "but right now my No. 1 goal is just to finish."
LIKE many Tour cyclists, Sierra is a country boy whose rural surroundings made cycling practical. "I was crazy about soccer, but my area didn't offer many possibilities," he says. "My mother gave me my first bicycle when I was 16, and I just took off."
Similarly, Brochard's native Sarthe, the sparsely populated farming region in northern France, offered lots of country lanes for the cross-country running he took up. "But I wanted to move faster - I love speed," he says. "So when people around me suggested cycling, I took to it right away."
This Tour, the 80th since it began in 1903, has been marked by some sour critiques on the state of professional cycling.
French cyclist Laurent Fignon, who won two Tours in the early 1980s, last week dropped out of what he said was his last Tour, bitterly attacking a race he said had become "too fast" and "machinelike" to enjoy, with too little team spirit and too much "every man for himself."
"It's the kind of comment we hear each time one generation steps aside for the next," says Tour General Director Jean-Marie Leblanc. "That's not to say there isn't some truth to what Laurent [Fignon] says. This has become a profession.... But at the same time we've remained a rural competitive sport, close to people, and it's our good fortune that that's part of us that will always exist."