Sunday, July 29, 2007
Best and worst from this year's Tour
By Andrew Hood Special to ESPN.com
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
Nothing else better summed up the tumultuous yet exciting 2007 Tour. Doping brouhahas overshadowed scintillating racing. A scandal-frenzy media corps gave up on reporting on racing and devoted entire pages to chasing the sport's dark underbelly.
French police escorted Cristian Moreni from the Tour after he tested positive for testosterone.
The Tour endured a three-week, Jekyll-and-Hyde procession that saw amazing, gut-wrenching performances undercut by scandal and controversy that bordered on the farcical.
Here are our highlights of the Tour's split personality of 2007:
Best attack/worst lies
Michael Rasmussen rode away with the maillot jaune in a blistering attack on the Cormet de Roselend, one of France's most harrowing roads, to win Stage 8 on the vertiginous roads to Tignes. It looked like the Tour had its first pure climber winner since Marco Pantani in 1998 until Rasmussen's story of where he was before the Tour unraveled under media scrutiny.
Rasmussen dug his own grave with a series of bungling contradictions about his whereabouts in critical, pre-Tour out-of-competition testing periods. After an Italian TV commentator said he saw Rasmussen training in the Dolomites in June, when Rasmussen said he was in Mexico, his exasperated Rabobank team made the dramatic decision to remove him from the race with just four days left to Paris. "My team stole the Tour that was mine to win," said a bitter Rasmussen, who is now preparing a lawsuit against his former employer.
Best recovery/worst excuse
Alexandre Vinokourov started the Tour as the five-star favorite, but saw his dreams tank when he slammed onto the French asphalt in Stage 5, leaving both knees pieced together with 30 stitches. When the 33-year-old Kazakh hero won two stages within three days across the Pyrénées in a spectacular display of panache, it almost seemed too good to be true. It was. He soon tested positive for homologous blood injections and his entire Astana team left the Tour in disgrace. Vinokourov proved he still had a sense of humor even in his blackest moment, denying rumors it was his father's blood he injected: "If I used my dad's blood, I would have tested positive for vodka."
Best comeback/worst way to block a road
Erik Zabel was a conquering hero when he escaped the former East Berlin to win some of cycling's biggest prizes in the 1990s, including six green jerseys awarded to the Tour's top sprinters. In May, he joined an avalanche of confessions from former Telekom team riders when he admitted he used the banned blood booster EPO in the 1996 Tour.
Despite the admissions, the 37-year-old was allowed to race and nearly won a stage. In Stage 3, however, Zabel was the instigator of a spectacular crash into Ghent, Belgium, when he touched wheels and riders fell like dominos in his wake to completely block the road with clanging bikes and smashing bodies. Zabel later fessed up he caused the roadblock: "I'm getting too old for this [expletive]."
Best protest/worst perp walk
Italian rider Cristian Moreni was part of a rider protest before the start of Stage 16 to demonstrate solidarity among the Tour peloton against the doping culture. The grandstanding was short-lived. Moreni then suffered in the saddle for seven hours over the punishing five-climb, 218.5-kilometer stage up the jutting Aubisque summit.
Waiting for him at the top were two French policemen, who unceremoniously hauled him away after news broke that he tested positive for high testosterone levels after the stage into Montepellier five days earlier. Moreni begged forgiveness after his Cofidis team, one of the four French teams who always complain of a "two-speed peloton," was forced out of the race. "I bought a cream over the Internet and the instructions were in German. I didn't think it was banned and I didn't advise my team doctor."
Best podium/worst wait
The 2007 Tour de France ended without knowing the official winner of the 2006 edition. Last year's champion, Floyd Landis, is still fighting doping charges and the lengthy hearing process has yet to be concluded, leaving last year's Tour in limbo. Oscar Pereiro of Spain stands to inherit the crown if Landis' legal battle fails, but Pereiro will never get to stand on the Tour podium in Paris if he does.
"I was jealous when I saw [Alberto] Contador in the yellow jersey and standing on the podium. I became paralyzed with regret. That's something that I will never enjoy," Pereiro said.
Best third/worst penalty
American Levi Leipheimer fulfilled a lifelong dream of winning a Tour de France stage and finishing on the podium after delivering the double in Saturday's decision time trial. On Sunday, he stood in the third-place spot on the Paris podium, just eight seconds behind second-place finisher Cadel Evans. He would have slotted into second, however, if race judges hadn't slapped him with a controversial 10-second penalty in Stage 8. Officials made a ridiculous crackdown this year on "bidon pulls," when riders lagging off the back with mechanical problems or fetching water bottles catapult off team cars back to the main pack. "If it was for the win, it would have been more heart-breaking," a philosophical Leipheimer said.
Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.