Friday, July 27, 2007
Despite the scandals, Tour will still come down to time trial
By Bobby Julich Special to ESPN.com
This year's Tour de France is turning out to be similar to the 1998 Tour, which was marred by the Festina scandal. Back then, riders and teams were also pulled out of the race and allegations were thrown out at others.
I understood so little about those allegations. I spoke poor French. When races were over, I'd go back to my room, send a few e-mails and watch MTV. When I'd wake up, I'd see these other older riders with bloodshot eyes saying, "Did you hear what happened?" Some of us younger guys would answer, "Um, no. What's going on? Let's race! Will they stop the Tour?" We were clueless.
With this latest string of scandals, I think now everyone knows what the repercussions are, young and old. Some of my younger CSC teammates pointed out to me that 80 percent of the riders who have been on the Tour podium over the past 10 years have been either caught doping or admitted to it. Outside of Lance Armstrong, I think me and Andreas Kloeden were the only riders not to get into trouble.
Cycling is changing, and has changed, since 1998. There are no more backdoor deals; everything is out in the open. Yes, riders are still making mistakes, as we've seen in this year's Tour, but most know that now, sooner or later, they can't afford to make these mistakes anymore. It's not worth the risk.
When it comes to Michael Rasmussen, some might wonder how a Tour leader could be fired from his team and be out of the race because of a team violation, not a positive test. But in this day and age in our sport, with everything we're fighting for, to miss four out-of-competition tests and lie to your team has to be taken into consideration.
It was a ticking time bomb that could have been avoided. If Tour officials and Rasmussen's team (Rabobank) had this information before the race, they should not have allowed him to enter the race to begin with. It's another mess that could have been avoided.
I knew that things would likely get worse for cycling before they got better. But Rasmussen being pulled from the race was really the only way he was going to lose the Tour de France. He was really strong. How he got to be that strong is obviously the question some are asking now.
Of all of those involved in the mess, I feel really bad for Rasmussen's teammates: Michael Boogerd, Denis Menchov and the others. Those guys slaved at the front of the pack for Rasmussen and it has to be hard to walk away with nothing. Some riders deal with controversy differently than others. Menchov quit the race, which is totally understandable. Boogerd, one of the classier riders I know, channeled his frustration by trying to win Friday's Stage 18, powering his way with the breakaway pack.
Before Rasmussen was ousted, the race was between second and third place, and third and fourth. Now, it's a three-way battle for first among the race's top three riders: Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer -- and it all comes down to Saturday's time trial. (Only 2:49 separates all three riders.)
I don't think I've seen Evans so strong as I have in this year's Tour. Remember, he could have won the last time trial, but Alexandre Vinokourov beat him to it. Vino is now out of the race. Because Contador is more known for his climbing skills, I could totally see Cadel taking back a few minutes on Contador. Cadel has an impressive, never-say-die attitude (remember how he closed in on the pack in the last Pyrenees stage?) and great stamina. All those will benefit him on this time trial, which is much flatter than Stage 13.
For Levi, it's a win-win situation. He shouldn't lose his podium spot barring something out of the ordinary. The flat trial benefits him, too, because he is one of the most aerodynamic riders in the peloton with his great position and form. He's also conserved a lot of energy. He'll go all out Saturday and could upstage everyone.
Then, there's Contador. He finished seventh in the last time trial, so he's not too shabby. The biggest advantage he has over all the riders is that he goes last since he's wearing yellow. That means he'll know how some of the field did before he leaves the gate, and he'll continually hear the time checks in his team radio as he rides on.
The time trial will decide the Tour's overall winner. Now, it's just a matter of who that winner will be.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.