|ESPN.com: Tour de France 2007||[Print without images]|
|Michael Rasmussen survived Saturday's time trial and held a 1:00 lead in the overall standings.|
Kloden has a solid track record in Tour time trials that has twice helped him to the podium, but he, too, was hurt early in the race and is riding with a cracked tailbone. He took yet another spill Saturday and rolled past the finish line grimacing and bloodied, with a gash on his left quadriceps and scrapes on his hip. Kashechkin, Vinokourov's 27-year-old heir apparent, jumped from the French Credit Agricole team to follow Vino to the ill-fated Liberty Seguros squad last year. Both Kazakh riders found themselves out of the 2006 Tour when several of their teammates -- including Contador -- were excluded from the race because of alleged links with the Operacion Puerto doping investigation in Spain.
Neither Vinokourov nor Kashechkin were implicated in the scandal and its central figure, Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, stated that Contador was not one of his clients (a statement he significantly refused to make about other riders). "Kash," as he is commonly referred to, recouped later that summer by taking third place in the same Tour of Spain won by Vinokourov. One of the most interesting debates about cycling tactics is whether it's better for a team to have one strong leader or a couple of different options. Does it cause hard feelings? Does it confuse the troops?
Astana team manager Marc Biver depicted his team's situation much the way a political party strategist might talk about a trio of charismatic presidential candidates. He called it "a privilege" to have both Vinokourov and Kloden in the running, and carefully described Kashechkin as "a great talent for the future ... Vinokourov is our current leader."
"The course will decide," Biver said, which we all knew anyway. Then he said something a little surprising, given Discovery's double whammy: "Cadel Evans is the biggest threat." Bruyneel said he was wowed by Contador's time trial ride but emphasized that he expects an "aggressive" ride from Leipheimer in the Pyrenees, where he had perhaps the most assertive Tour stage finish of his career there last year. "He says he's ready," Bruyneel said. One thing several of the riders high in the standings share is that they have had to answer recently to charges they have not cooperated with anti-doping authorities who require knowledge of their whereabouts. An official from the UCI, cycling's international governing body, implied this spring that Astana's penchant for training in dark, unmarked clothing might have something to do with not wanting to be found. This inevitably led the media to dub the team "Men in Black."
Biver vehemently denied the allegations at a pre-Tour press conference in London. No fire has erupted from all this smoke as it did with Rasmussen, who was besieged Friday by revelations he had received several warnings for failing to file proper paperwork with the Danish cycling federation and the UCI.
Here's a fearless prediction for the next few days. No one will have any problem finding the Astana guys. Just look for the flying wedge of robin's egg blue. Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.