Weblog of Leland Rucker
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New Tour Stars Rise to the Occasion

One of the most interesting things about this year’s tour is that, with all the brand names and dopers out of the picture, we are watching a new generation, as it were, of new coming into their own that will guide the destiny of tours future.

At the top of the list would have to be Riccardo Ricco, a 24-year-old rider who took the peleton at the end of Stage 5 on Super Besse and again waited until just the right moment to strike (he is called the Cobra) as he outlegged the peleton over the second high mountain of the day and led the way into the finish line at Bagneres de Bigorre.

There were reports insinuating Ricco had been targeted by the drug squad. He also crashed hard at the end of Stage Eight, which left questions about his health.

He answered both today, Ricco was superb. He stayed with the main peleton, which included all the favorites playing their usual game of watching each other and staying together, went over the first climb, the Col de Peyresourde, without gathering attention to himself.

The riders dropped quickly off the first mountain and almost immediately hit the Col de Aspin, not quite as bad as the Peyresourde, but one in which the gradient becomes progressively steeper as it gets higher. Ricco waited patiently for the steepest part of the road to kick in – about three miles from the summit – and shot off the front of the pack like a rocket.

Accelerating at a pace I have rarely seen on a nine-degree slope, Ricco passed Sebastian Lang, who had led since near the beginning of the race, like he wasn’t even moving, went over the top and was never again seen by the rest of the riders during the 16-mile descent to the finish line.

Ricco, in his second tour, said in an interview a couple of days ago that he was here to learn the tour, not to win. With one of the tour’s most difficult stages tomorrow, we will see how this day affects his legs, but you have to think that Ricco is pretty darned close to being ready. He is still no threat to the leaders – he’s moved up to 21st, 2:35 behind – but he’s somebody to watch for.

Also impressive has been Stefan Schumacher, who lost the yellow jersey when he fell near the top of the climb to Super Besse and is currently standing 4th, 0:56 behind leader Kim Kirchen. Obviously still bothered by that incident, he ran another strong race today. He might not be as ready as the better-known riders, but he’s definitely, for now, in the running.

All in all, there are 23 riders within two minutes of the leaders. Let’s see whether the most difficult Pyrenean stage tomorrow will change those numbers while we watch somebody, anybody, attack in the high mountain passes.

The leaders play cat-and-mouse up mountains, while the rest of us beg for the leaders to challenge each other. So far, that hasn’t happened. The only significant event today was when Cadel Evans, hands-down the favorite in the general classification, had an apparently ferocious crash halfway along the course that bounced his head on the pavement, cracking his helmet. Cameras didn’t catch the incident, but later footage showed a huge gash down the back of his jersey and with many visible bruises and cuts. All indications from the team are that Evans, who finished the stage with the rest of the leaders, is all right. That could have implications with Monday’s difficult Pyrenean stage looming, however.

Manuel Beltran was thrown off the tour and suspending from his team after testing positive after the first stage for EPO. While this actually put the tour on the front page of American newspapers, which generally ignore or give lip service to the race unless drugs are involved, there is a change in attitude this year.

One of the problems with cycling and doping is that riders have kept a code of silence in talking about other riders. This year the riders themselves are on record against dopers; the general attitude the next day in interviews was, “Fuck Beltran and his cheating ways.” I might be wrong about this, but I think the tour has turned a corner in the fight against doping.

I am also reminded that the tour is one of the only sports that is actually trying to do something about drugs. No American major-league sport has taken the action cycling has taken, yet cycling is generally seen (if you read headlines) as a tawdry sport. As this year’s version proves once again, the race is still a unique and amazing spectacle. Onward to Hautacam.


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