2007 Tour Stutters to Finish; Exhaustion Reigns
I stopped posting about the Tour after last Monday’s second stage in the Pyrenees, a dramatic duel between Alberto Contador and Michael Rasmussen which set up another mountaintop tit-for-tat on Wednesday.
It isn’t that I haven’t wanted to post, but we flew to Seattle on Wednesday. We were able to see the daily stages; meanwhile, in those short 48 hours, the tour almost imploded.
But before we get to that spot of bother, I want to remember two riders whose presence was indisputably part of the heroics of this tour. Michael Boogerd of Rabobank led the entire peleton through the desolate passes of the Pyrenees for two days, doing his part to set up Michael Rasmussen for the final victory. Boogerd, riding his last Tour, will be sorely missed, the super-est of super-domestiques.
And a nod of the helmet to Yaroslav Popovych, the unselfish Discovery Channel rider whose gritty performances day after day allowed Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer to make the podium in first and third places. Huzzahs to two of the often faceless team members who made it all possible.
Rasmussen, as we all know, is another story. My last entry began innocently enough: “I read somewhere that the race for this stage could easily be a microcosm of the three-week race for the maillot jaune.”
Oh how true that proved to be. We got to Seattle on Wednesday afternoon and watched the incredible Stage 15 that evening, an exhausting race where Rasmussen and Rabobank outwitted the entire Discovery team, saving himself until the others wore themselves out and did what he has always done on the crest of mountains at the end of long climbs: He just flat out took off and left everybody else in his wake.
He kissed the sky as he crossed the line, an act that would prove to be his last in this or any future tours or bike races. As we watched him bask in the greatest moment of his life, a ticker beneath the image on the TV screen reminded us again and again that his team had disqualified him from the event after the stage.
We wouldn’t find out until Thursday morning that Rasmussen was disqualified because he had lied about his whereabouts on two occasions before the tour when he was supposed to be available for drug-testing. Rasmussen said he was in Mexico but was spotted in the Dolomite mountains training. It left the team, and the rest of us, with the strong suggestion of doping. Rasmussen, who had passed seventeen drug tests since the Tour began, was gone. I wondered what Michael Boogerd and his Rabobank teammates felt about that?
Rasmussen trained meticulously, rode smart races and followed his leaders to glory – two Tour King of the Mountain jerseys — but drug rumors have dogged the Danish rider for years. This is the microcosm of the Tour and how it echoes life. One second you are leading the race, and the next you are on your ass with road rash and a broken collarbone, like David Millar. Or like Contador, you wind up in the yellow jersey the evening after you just got your ass kicked by a rider you tried in vain to wear down for three days. Or something from the past catches you up in lies, like it did with Rasmussen.
Alexandre Vinokourov, the pre-tour favorite and one of the main reasons I was anticipating this tour, tested positive for blood doping after a convincing win in Stage 13 that appeared to show the grit and determination that we all have all grown to love about Vinokourov. His B sample also came back positive, and he tested positive after a later stage.
Three other riders, Patrik Sinkewitz, Iban Mayo and Cristian Moreni, also tested positive for various illegal substances and now, perhaps, have seen their last days as professional riders. There were probably some others who weren’t tested and got away with their transgressions. Not to put too blunt a point on it, but let’s hope this shit is ending.
I would like to think that blood doping or other cheating could be eliminated from this and all sports. After decades of watching everything from pitchers greasing up baseballs to skinny hitters becoming hulking behemoths at 35, I am much too cynical to actually believe this. But I would hope, like all those who adore the race, that the governing bodies of the Tour and pro cycling can end their turf wars and come together to deal with cheaters.
All those caught save Sinkowitz this year were older riders, and it’s encouraging to see people like Bradley Wiggins take a strong stand against doping, and stage winner Linus Gerdemann calling for clean riding. Punishment to those caught should extend to those who supplied these riders; doping is not an isolated act.
There was still a bit of excitement to come on Saturday, when Levi Leipheimer finally stepped up, winning the stage in the third fastest time trial ever, which assured him of a podium place.
Underdogs everywhere rallied behind Cadel Evans, the gutsy Australian, and he responded with a desperate bid on the time trial that made up a minute and a half on Contador but came with 26 seconds of winning the race.
Let me say again that I really dislike the “tradition” of doing the traverses of the Champs Elysees as a ceremonial part of the race. Especially when, like today, the three leaders were only thirty seconds apart after the penultimate stage. Think of that, as Paul Sherwen reminded us that nothing even close to this has ever happened in the Tour’s long history. Less than thirty seconds between the three leaders after 91 hours in the saddle.
Evans admitted that he was ready to attack on Sunday but was stymied when the sprint teams took over the race on the Champs Elysees. Such is life.
Calls for ending the tour or cycling altogether are premature. And those who decry cycling forget it is the only professional sport so far taking active steps against doping, far ahead of the whole of U.S. professional sports. Le Tour has weathered its share of difficulties, and it will outlive these, too. It is a long, winding road, but there is a finish line at the end.
Meanwhile, let’s sleep on it for awhile.