They are to beexpected in cycling, but that does not mean that crashes aren't sickening tobehold. Riders in the Tour de France are constantly taking risks. When one ofthem does go wheels-up, as Bobby Julich of the U.S. did just five kilometersinto stage 7 last Saturday, it literally turns one's stomach. As the34-year-old leaned into a left turn early in the 52-kilometer time trial inBrittany, he lost traction on his front tire, slamming to the pavement andcareening into a concrete curb.
The sight of thedistraught CSC rider being helped into an ambulance was but one in a series ofgrim vignettes from the 2006 Tour. We knew that this, the first Tour of thepost--Lance Armstrong era, would be wide-open. We did not know that it would berocked by a scandal that swept favorites out of the Tour and confirmedcycling's status as one of the dirtiest sports in the world.
In May theSpanish police raided the Madrid clinic of one Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. Therethey found performance-enhancing drugs and scores of packets of frozen blood,which could be doped and then pumped back into riders' bodies. Of the 58 proriders implicated in Operation Puerto, as the investigation was dubbed, 13 werein the Tour, and all were banished. The biggest names were CSC's Ivan Basso,runner-up in last year's Tour and winner of the three-week Giro d'Italia inMay, and T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich, the star-crossed German who won the Tour in1997 and has since finished second five times.
The official listdid not reach Tour officials until two days before the race was to start. Underthe so-called code of ethics signed by all the teams in the Tour, riders underinvestigation for doping are not allowed to compete. Basso and Ullrich weresent home, guilty until proven innocent. Also out was podium threat AlexandreVinokourov, a predatory Kazakh who stood accused of no wrongdoing; his onlyoffense was to be part of a team--Astana-Wurth--that had four men on the list.You need six guys on your team, minimum, to ride in the Tour. The sting leftAstana-Wurth with five, so Vino was gone.
Having bid Basso,Ullrich et al. adieu, the Tour patted itself on the back for the lengths towhich it goes to clean up its sport. "The enemy is not cycling,"declaimed race director Christian Prudhomme. "The enemy is doping."
The enemy iscycling's deeply ingrained culture of cheating. It was only eight years agothat the Tour was brought to its knees by the Festina Affair. On the eve of therace Festina team masseur Willy Voet was apprehended at the French-Belgianborder, where customs officials found the contents of a fair-sized pharmacy inhis car. Nine days later the team was expelled from the race. Then as now,there were many self-congratulatory pronouncements about cycling's willingnessto take drastic measures to clean itself up. Operation Puerto revealed that, ifanything, cheating has become more widespread since Voet was busted at theborder.
The good news forcycling fans on this side of the pond was that with so many top riders gettingthe thumb, the new favorites were Americans. Then came Letdown Saturday. Comingoff a victory in the weeklong Dauphiné-Libéré in mid-June, Levi Leipheimer ofGerolsteiner had high hopes for this Tour. But it became apparent, as he lostsix minutes to the stage 7 winner, Serguei Gonchar of T-Mobile, that theMontana native had peaked a month or so early. After seven years as Tonto toArmstrong's Lone Ranger, Discovery Channel's George Hincapie was lookingforward to riding a Tour time trial all-out for himself, rather than conservingenergy for a certain Texan. But South Carolina's Big Hink finished two minutes,42 seconds behind Gonchar, dimming his chances to be on the podium inParis.
The only Americanto grab any glory was Phonak's Floyd Landis (SI, July 3), a Californian whotook second, 61 seconds behind Gonchar, whom he will drop like a bag ofQuickrete the day the race enters the Pyrenees. It was a terrific result forLandis, 30, especially considering that he came close to reprising Julich'scrack-up. Early in the time trial his bike went briefly airborne--Landis hadtaken too much velocity over a speed bump--and he slammed into a roundabout,breaking his handlebars. While Landis stayed upright, he lost 30 or so secondsmounting a replacement bike.
As the raceentered the mountains on July 5, Landis, who said on Monday that he's riding ona painful arthritic hip that will be replaced after the Tour, looked more andmore like the odds-on favorite to win. And what a feel-good story that wouldbe: the son of Mennonites, a former mountain biker who toiled three years forArmstrong, whom he now stands poised to succeed. Surely that would restore someof the luster to this sport--until the next scandal comes along.
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