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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Riis Keeps Lead While Basque Separatists Rage

PAMPLONA, Spain -- Switzerland's Laurent Dufaux won the most difficult stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday amid minor protests from Basque separatists and heightened security along the racers' route.


Overall leader Bjarne Riis finished second in the 262-kilometer stage, the 17th of the race, and easily kept the leader's yellow jersey with only four days remaining before the Tour ends Sunday in Paris.


Five-time defending champion Miguel Indurain of Spain, who conceded defeat after losing more than two minutes to Riis in Tuesday's climbing stage, lost more than eight minutes through the Pyrenees Mountains Wednesday and sits more than 15 minutes behind Riis.


"The Tour is beating me this year,'' said Indurain, who was cheered on by hundreds of thousands of fans lining the course. "I have to lose one time.''


Riis appears to have a lock on his first Tour victory with only Saturday's time trial between him and the podium in Paris. After Wednesday's stage, teammate Jan Ullrich of Germany moves into second overall at three minutes, 59 seconds back.


World road race champion Abraham Olano started the day in second place but fell back to ninth overall at 11:12 back. Swiss rider Tony Rominger also struggled through the stage, dropping from third to 10th overall at 11:24 back.


"I feel very strong and I'm happy to be where I am,'' Riis said.


After the race, Riis and Indurain appeared on the podium together and Riis presented Indurain with a bouquet of flowers.


"He's a great champion,'' Riis said of Indurain. "There were a lot of people who would have liked to see him win today. I'm sorry he didn't.''


About halfway through the stage, Basque separatists staged a minor protest along the course that wound through the heart of the Navarre region from Argeles-Gazost, France to Pamplona.


About a dozen protesters strung banners with Basque slogans across the course and slowed the race as the bikers headed down a steep descent.


A lead group of riders that included overall leader Riis was forced to come nearly to a stop as protesters yelled into television cameras while police tried to hold them back.


The race continued without further disturbances.


Before the start of the race, security was tightened as armed Spanish guards put up roadblocks, checked motorists for papers and searched cars on roads leading into Pamplona.


The ETA, Basque Homeland and Freedom, organization, which has killed some 800 people in its 28-year fight for independence in northern Spain's Basque region, threatened to attack the Tour de France unless unspecified changes were made for the portions of the race in northern Spain on Wednesday and Thursday.


Tour officials said their decision to broadcast race information in Spanish, French and the Basque language was not directly related to a letter received two weeks before the race started June 29.


The 21-stage, 3,900-kilometer (2,437-mile) Tour continues Thursday 226.5 kilometers (141 miles) from Pamplona, Spain to Hendaye, France.