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Commentary: So who will win the Tour?

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Jun. 30, 2006

No Lance, no Jan, no Ivan… this race is wide open

By John Wilcockson

Perhaps it’s premature to look ahead to the afternoon of July 23, 2006, when a new champion of the Tour de France will be crowned on the Champs-Élysées. Perhaps it’s naïve to look past the latest doping scandal to bring professional cycling to its knees. But for the continued popularity of our sport — which has never been at a higher point in the United States — we have to move on.

It takes months, sometimes years before the judiciary resolves complicated cases like Operación Puerto; for instance the Cofidis team scandal of January 2004 is only going to court a few weeks from now, 30 months later. Perhaps it will turn out that Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich are actually telling the truth when they say they “have nothing to do with this affair.”

From this point on, though, every other pro racer will see that their reputations mean nothing when it comes to UCI ProTour teams suspending (or eventually dismissing) anyone suspected of being involved in doping cases. And that’s a positive development in the fight against doping, not a negative.

In all the sensationalist stories coming out of Strasbourg, one small fact seems to have been lost: All 189 Tour riders (including Basso, Ullrich, et cetera) who took blood tests on Thursday were cleared by the UCI inspectors. None of them had a high hematocrit level, none had suspicions of blood doping. They were all clean.

Some skeptics will dismiss this fact as just telling us that the “dirty” riders and their doctors got it right, that their blood manipulations and EPO regime’s were perfectly timed to give clean results on June 29. But negative blood tests mean that none of the athletes showed a level of new red blood cells above the squeaky-clean level of 0.2 percent. In other words, if any of the riders had been cheating, he wasn’t about to get any advantage over any of the other starters.

Maybe this is a long way of getting to the point: The 93rd Tour de France can be just as valid as any of the previous 92 Tours — perhaps it might be even more so! And that’s why, for the sake of the 175 riders who will start the race on Saturday (now that Alexander Vinokourov and his team have been pulled because five of his Astaná-Würth teammates are implicated in Operación Puerto, meaning that Vinokourov cannot start; a Tour team must have at least five starters), we have to look ahead to what will likely be the most open Tour in modern history.

Americans to the fore
According to the European odds-makers (see related story), the new top pre-race favorite is Alejandro Valverde. That verdict reflects the general feeling of experts the other side of the Atlantic who this year have refused to recognize that Americans Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis and George Hincapie and Australia’s Cadel Evans have genuine shots at the Tour podium. And now that Ullrich is not starting the Tour, perhaps his long-term designated replacement on T-Mobile, Aussie Mick Rogers, will also prove he has the ability to be a leading contender.

So, recognizing that this 2006 Tour de France has just taken on a completely revised perspective, here’s a rundown on who the “new” contenders will be:

1. Levi Leipheimer (USA)
The Gerolsteiner team leader is the best Tour finisher from last year when the excluded Ullrich, Basso, Vinokourov and Francesco Mancebo, and the retired Lance Armstrong, are taken out of the equation. This is Leipheimer’s fifth Tour. He crashed out of one (2003), but has finished top 10 in the other three. Also, since last year’s Tour, the Santa Rosa, California resident has improved his game. He beat Ullrich fair and square at the Tour of Germany last August, and a few weeks ago he dominated the Dauphiné Libéré — top three in the long time trial and easily the strongest climber on its stiffest test, Mont Ventoux. The confidence he has gained from those victories make him a formidable opponent.

2. Floyd Landis (USA)
The Phonak team rider has blossomed this year into a true leader, taking overall wins at the Amgen Tour of California, Paris-Nice and Ford Tour de Georgia. This is his fifth Tour. Landis rode 100-percent for Armstrong the first three years, and last year came in ninth overall. Like Leipheimer, Landis lives in California and Gerona, Spain, and he is full of confidence and motivation. Landis did beat Leipheimer by a few seconds at the Dauphiné time trial, but he faltered badly on the Mont Ventoux climb and rode the remainder of the weeklong race as training.

3. Cadel Evans (Australia)
For years, the Davitamon-Lotto rider has been threatening to be a grand tour contender — he led his debut Giro d’Italia in 2002, but circumstances prevented him from starting his first Tour until last year, when he placed eighth, just ahead of Landis. Evans, too, has shown great improvement this year, particularly when he won the late-April Tour de Romandie, where he had consistently good climbing form before dominating the favored Valverde in the concluding time trial. At the recent Tour of Switzerland, he had one poor performance in the mountains, but rebounded to finish second (to Ullrich) in the final time trial.

4. Denis Menchov (Russia)
The Rabobank team leader is somewhat the forgotten man of cycling. He was the Tour’s best young rider three years ago, and last September, after the exclusion for doping of Roberto Heras, he was declared the winner of the Vuelta a España. At the recent Dauphiné, he won the Ventoux stage (after tracking Leipheimer all the way up), but then fell on a descent and faltered on the final climb of the decisive stage to La Toussuire.

5. Alejandro Valverde (Spain)
The Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears team leader debuted at the Tour last year. He won a memorable sprint over Armstrong to win the first mountaintop stage finish at Courchevel in the Alps, but then developed knee tendinitis and pulled out of the race before the Pyrénées. This year, he has shown brilliant form to lead the UCI ProTour standings, but he has faltered in time trials and when in a break with Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Iban Mayo on the stage to La Toussuire at the Dauphiné he was out-climbed to the finish by his fellow Spaniard.

6. George Hincapie (USA)
Before the doping storm swept through Strasbourg this week, Hincapie was scheduled to be the sole Discovery Channel team rider (with team manager Johan Bruyneel) at a Tour press conference — indicating that he is Bruyneel’s choice to succeed Armstrong as his team leader and not Paolo Savoldelli or Yaroslav Popovych. Hincapie is starting his 11th Tour, the last seven of which he has done in Armstrong’s service. That invaluable experience, along with his overall 14th place last year (thanks to his greatly improved time trialing and climbing form, and his stage win at Pla d’Adet) make him a genuine contender. He was 10th at the recent Dauphiné, being one of the top four time trialists before riding steadily in the mountains.

7. Mick Rogers (Australia)
After riding the whole of this season in the understanding that he would be helping Ullrich at the Tour, the new T-Mobile co-leader (with Andreas Klöden) has new incentive. He has three Tours under his belt, with very mixed results, but he has the ingredients of a Tour contender. Rogers is the three-time defending world time trial champion, and he has shown he can climb by winning weeklong stage races like the Tour of Germany, Route du Sud and Tour of Belgium, Last year, he challenged at the Tour of Switzerland before finishing third overall.

8. Damiano Cunego (Italy)
Italy’s “Little Prince” — who won the Giro d’Italia in 2004 — only decided a week ago that he would ride his first Tour this year. Perhaps it’ll turn out to be an inspired decision. However, the reality of the modern Tour is that a first-timer has very little chance of finishing on the podium — particularly a rider who is so weak racing against the clock in a Tour with two TTs longer than 50km. The Lampre-Fondital team leader is a great climber and sprinter, and a stage win in the mountains plus a top-10 finish would make a great debut.

9. Fränk Schleck (Luxembourg)
With Basso gone, the CSC team has three potential team leaders in the experienced Bobby Julich, the untested Dave Zabriskie and first-timer Schleck. The Luxembourger has the makings of a true contender, with improving climbing skills, growing time-trial ability and great talent. He has shown that talent in a string of podium finishes at hilly one-day classics, and he was knocking on the door at this year’s Tour of Switzerland.

10. Christophe Moreau (France)
This aging Frenchman — he was one of the Festina team riders busted for drug taking at the 1998 Tour — says he still has the ambitions of a team leader. He did finish second to Leipheimer at the recent Dauphiné, but a three-week race is probably beyond his 35-year-old legs.

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