|ESPN.com: Tour de France 2007||[Print without images]|
After yellow jersey holder Michael Rasmussen was hounded out and prerace favorite Alexandre Vinokourov failed tests for a banned blood transfusion, it was hard for U.S. cycling fans to take anything positive (no pun intended) out of this year's Tour.
|Juan Mauricio Soler, left, and Alberto Contador represent the next generation of cyclists.|
If there's any reason to be optimistic, it's a gaggle of young riders coming up through the ranks who seem to have broken from the sport's doping past. The future of the sport depends on whether this new generation of riders can truly leave cycling's errant ways in the past.
Here's a look at the major revelations of the Tour:
Country: Spain; Age: 24; Team: Discovery Channel
Tour best: Overall title, Stage 14 victory, best young rider.
• No one could have imagined the unsung Contador would become the first Spanish rider to win the Tour since Miguel Indurain won the last of his five consecutive maillot jaunes in 1995, not even Contador.
Contador, whose name loosely translates to "accountant," didn't need a calculator to add up his razor-thin 23-second margin of victory, the second smallest in Tour history. The Tour sophomore took flight in the hardest climbing stages, caught the favorites by surprise, then hung on in the final time trial to become the youngest winner since now-disgraced Jan Ullrich won it at 23 in 1997.
The lithe climber has his own comeback story to match the cancer battle of Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour winner everyone already is comparing him to. In 2004, while racing in a small race in northern Spain, Contador crashed hard, and only quick action by a race medic prevented him from choking on his own tongue. Doctors later discovered he had a blood clot in his brain.
Contador still sports a visible scar across his temple that reminds him of brain surgery and the long convalescence that followed. While in the hospital, Contador took inspiration from Armstrong's biography, "It's Not About the Bike."
"I was just hoping to return to a normal life and not even thinking about racing again," Contador said. "When I realized what Armstrong overcame, my difficulties lost some of their gravity. I began to dream again in my own possibilities."
Contador already is touted as the best Spanish rider of his generation, and he delivered on his promise in 2005 by winning the weeklong Setmana Catalana, a mountain stage at the Tour de Romandie and a time trial stage at the Tour of the Basque Country -- all impressive results that boded well for the future.
But Contador's budding career nearly was blotted out last year when his name appeared in police documents as part of the Operacion Puerto blood doping ring. A Spanish judge later cleared him of any links to illicit doping practices, but doubts continued to plague him throughout the Tour."I was on the wrong team at the wrong time," he said. "I am a clean rider." Time will tell whether that pledge holds water. The beleaguered Tour can only hope so. Juan Mauricio Soler
Soft-spoken Soler harks back to the days when sons of Belgian miners and French farmers would chase their fortunes on two wheels. Literally raised on beans and rice in the towering Andes of central Colombia, Soler is the son of poor farmers and received his first bike from a charity.
His fearless persistence on the steepest roads reminds everyone of the famous Colombian escaladores from the heyday in the 1980s, when "Lucho" Herrera and Fabio Parra put the Euros on guard.
"To come to this Tour was a dream, and I paid back my team's confidence with a victory," Soler said after winning Stage 9. "Now I want to come back someday to win the Tour."Although Soler might be modest, that hasn't stopped him from dreaming big. Linus Gerdemann
Gerdemann's gutsy stage victory in the first stage into the Alps gave him the yellow jersey and helped give cycling a much-needed dose of credibility back in Germany. "Winning clean is possible, and we hope German fans do not abandon our sport," Gerdemann said. "The new generation of riders deserves a chance."
Gerdemann is a solid time trialist with improving climbing legs, and many believe he could become the second German to win the Tour. Everyone's just hoping he doesn't follow the path of the first German Tour champ, Ullrich, whose legacy has been stained by links to the Puerto scandal.Daniele Bennati
A fast-twitch sprinter who lags off the back of the pack in the steep climbs in the Alps, Bennati wasn't a factor in the dangerous, high-speed mass gallops of the first week after going down hard in the nasty pileup in Stage 2. "I was pretty beat-up, and I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make it," Bennati said. "I kept going because I still believed I could win a stage."
Bennati, who turns heads with his matinee idol looks, vows to come back next year to battle for the prized green jersey, awarded to the sprinters chasing bonuses at hot sprints and the finish line."This Tour gives me even more motivation in the future," he said. "It takes some time to really be able to know the Tour, its speeds, its distances; they're harder here than any race. I love the Tour." And the Tour, so it seems, loves him, too. Amets Txurruka
• No one beyond Spain's hilly Basque Country knew much about the diminutive climber before the Tour, but that changed after Txurruka (pronounced: chu-rrro-ka) worked his way into some high-profile breakaways to win the super combatif award that goes to the Tour's most aggressive rider.
In the Basque language, his first name means "dream," and the pint-sized climber fulfilled more than one by scoring a spot on the Tour podium on the Champs-Elysées.
The skinny climber -- once called "bolito," or little ball in Spanish, because he was so fat as a baby -- came into the 2007 Tour as the lightest rider in the peloton at 123 pounds.
One of the most promising of the newest generation of up-and-coming Basque climbers, Txurruka dreams of winning a Tour stage one day in the Pyrenees, where the narrow roads are clogged with rowdy Basque fans who pour over the French-Spanish border."This Tour makes me more ambitious to return to win a stage," Txurruka said. "It would be a dream to win a stage in the Pyrenees or one of the Tour's mythic climbs. I hope fortune is with me in the future." Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.