Tales from the peloton, December 29, 2007
After a tumultuous - but exciting - first half of the year, the summer and the Tour de France are finally here. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins looks back at the big races and top news stories in the last year in cycling.
Part III: July to August
The big talking point as July begins is the UCI's anti-doping declaration, which it says all riders must sign before taking the start of the Tour de France. Despite its dubious legal value, lots of riders publicly sign up as it's seen as a gesture to restore some public confidence in cycling.
Since we still don't have the verdict from the Floyd Landis hearing, we still don't know for sure who won the Tour de France last year in 2006. Because of this, organiser ASO announces that there will be no number one at this year's race. Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne) - who stood on the second step of the podium last year - will wear number 11 instead, which is incidentally what the previous year's runner-up usually wears…
At last, the main event of many riders' - and fans' - season begins, as the Tour de France kicks off with a 7.9 kilometre Prologue through the streets of London in what must be the biggest day in the race's history. An estimated two million people come out to watch what is billed as a 'Battle of the Brits' between David Millar (Saunier-Duval) and local boy Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis). Unfortunately, Millar is struggling for form and finishes a disappointing 13th, and the fairy tale doesn't happen for Wiggins either, who can only manage fourth. Swiss Time Trial World Champion Fabian Cancellara (CSC) carries his Tour de Suisse form over to take the first maillot jaune in front of Buckingham Palace.
The next day's Chaucerian pilgrimage to Canterbury turns into a Millar's Tale, as the Scot gets himself into an all day break and secures the polka dot jersey. It's Mark Cavendish's (T-Mobile) turn to feel local disappointment, as he's brought down in a crash at the bottom of the last climb. Aussie Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) fares better though and wins the stage on pure adrenalin with his team bringing him back to the front after he finds himself on the deck with just 20 km to go.
After the two biggest days in its history, the Tour returns across the Channel to France, but only briefly. The next stage finishes in Gent, Belgium, where Tom Boonen's Quick.Step-Innergetic lead out man Gert Steegmans forgets to pull over and takes the stage win in front of his captain. In Compiegne the following day, Cancellara - still in yellow - jumps away inside the last kilometre to foil the sprinters in the town where the Paris-Roubaix starts - the race he won last year.
Two apparently innocuous crashes take down Alexander Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden - the joint Astana team captains - on a flat stage through Burgundy. There are worries for Klödi, as it looks like may have damaged his coccyx, but Vino seriously gashes both knees and loses time on the way to the stage finish in Autun.
The race finally hits the Alps, T-Mobile youngster Linus Gerdemann - representing the future of German cycling - wins the first mountain stage to Le Grand Bornand and takes the yellow jersey from Cancellara, despite the World Time Trial Champion battling hard to hang on.
The next day, Australia suffers its blackest day ever in the Tour de France on the road to Tignes, as Michael Roger (T-Mobile) and Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC) both abandon the race after serious crashes. Stuey's injuries are life threatening at first, but Roger's seem even more heart breaking as he was in the leading break and maillot jaune virtuel at the time. To complete Australia's woes, McEwen - still feeling the effects of his stage one crash - finishes outside the time limit. The stage is won by Rabobank's Dane Michael Rasmussen, who takes the yellow jersey; surely he's just after points in the mountains classification…
T-Mobile's Patrik Sinkewitz suffers a nasty crash on the way back to his team bus after colliding with a spectator. As Sinki lies in his hospital bed, news quickly breaks that he failed a random dope test for testosterone at a training camp last month. This is not the news the Tour needed - and everyone wonders why it took this long for the result to come out… Sinkewitz can think himself lucky that his crash has already smashed his face in; otherwise, there would have been a long line of people ready to do it for him.
The third Alpine stage into Briançon goes to previously unknown Colombian Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) - keeping the polka dot jersey warm for Rasmussen. As the race leaves the Alps the Spanish trio of Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Paris-Nice winner Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) and Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), one of the few remaining Aussies, seem the men most likely.
In the transition stage to Montpelier, French champion Christophe Moreau (Ag2r-Prevoyance) - until now enjoying his best Tour for years - has a small crash that shouldn't cause any problems. Vinokourov has other ideas though, possibly smarting from the way he was dropped after his crash last week, puts the Astana team to work on the front in the southern crosswinds. Moreau loses more than three minutes, and effectively any chance of winning the Tour this year.
The much-later-than-usual first time trial of the race takes place on a filthy, wet day in Albi. Nearly everybody comes down on the slippery roads at least once. Vinokourov takes it ahead of Evans. Vino's recovering well from his injuries sustained in the first week, surely he can't come back to threaten the overall. Where is he getting his energy?
Rasmussen's time trialling certainly seems to have improved since his calamitous ride in 2005, incredibly he catches and passes Valverde who started three minutes ahead of him.
The Pyrenean stages turn out to be a ding-dong battle between maillot jaune Rasmussen and meilleur jeune Contador. Contador takes the stage to Plateau-de-Beille, but three days later Rasmussen replies with a win on the Col d'Aubisque. Behind these two, the race is between Contador's Discovery Channel team-mate Levi Leipheiner and Evans, all others having drifted out of contention.
In between those two stages though all hell breaks loose as one scandal after another hits the Tour's rest day. Speculation abounds about Rasmussen's whereabouts in the month before the Tour. Was he in Mexico or Italy where Italian rider-turned-pundit Davide Cassani claims he saw him?
This is briefly forgotten about though as it's announced that Vinokourov - who won Stage 15 to Loudenvielle-LeLouron - has failed a "random" test for a homologous blood transfusion. Vino's Astana team is politely asked to leave the Tour through the back door, which just so happened to have the entire world media waiting outside for it.
The positives seem to be coming thick and fast as it's announced that Christain Moreni (Cofidis) has failed a doping test for testosterone. After being arrested by French police, Moreni bucks the trend and admits using a testosterone gel for recovery, but Cofidis decides the decent thing to do is to follow Astana and pull out.
Just as everyone is getting their breath back from the Vino and Moreni announcements, Rasmussen admits that he lied about his whereabouts last month: he really was in Italy when he said he was in Mexico. Rabobank pulls him out of the race, despite the fact that he's wearing the leader's jersey, and fires him.
Contador takes yellow by default, but as the race heads into to the final time trial, Evans and Leipheimer - both better time triallists than the young Spaniard - seem poised to take victory from him. In an echo of the closest ever race in 1989, but even more exciting, Leipheimer wins the stage but can't quite manage to take enough time out of Evans who finishes second. Neither can take enough out of Contador, but the final Podium is the closest in history. The gap between Contador and Evans is 23 seconds, and the second closest one-two ever. Leipheimer is another eight seconds back, so first and third are separated by just 31 seconds!
Everyone thinks about final day's attacks, but in the end the bonus seconds are taken by breakaways and the stage goes to Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital).
In amongst all the scandals and revelations, it almost goes unnoticed when 1962 World champion Jean Stablinski finally succumbs to his long illness and dies on July 22. Born in Poland, but naturalised as a Frenchman after his mining family had moved to France when he was very young, Stablinski won many races, but was also responsible for finding a lot of the legendary cobbles used in the Paris-Roubaix, including the legendary Arenberg Forest sector.
Meanwhile, to the east, Discovery Channel's Stijn Devolder wins the Tour of Austria after taking the lead in the penultimate day's time trial. Gerald Ciolek (T-Mobile) proves that he's the next big thing in German sprinting by taking two stages, including the final one into Vienna.
In the Women's Giro d'Italia, Lithuanian Time Trial Champion Edita Pucinskaite (Equipe Nürnberger Versicherung) takes the overall after winning the prologue and the mountain time trial to Prato a Calci. The sprinters take most of the stages - two for Ina Teutenberg (T-Mobile) and one for World Champion Marianne Vos (DSB Bank), but they're foiled by Svetlana Bubnenkova (Fenixs-HPB-Edilsavino) on the final stage as she wins from a breakaway group.
In Germany, T-Mobile veteran Judith Arndt does battle with American Amber Neben (Team Flexpoint) in the Thüringen-Rundfahrt. Emerging Briton Emma Pooley (Specialized Designs for Women) briefly takes the lead after a solo stage win, but Arndt eventually prevails by a mere four tenths of a second over Neben.
After one of the most scandal hit Tours since the days of Festina in 1998, a bevy of riders sign for the American Slipstream/Chipotle team. General Manager and former professional rider Jonathan Vaughters announces that he has the signatures of David Millar, Christian Vande Velde and US National Time Trial Champion David Zabriskie. Before the month is out, 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Backstedt adds his name to the list.
Just when we think that the Tour de France and the world of cycling has had enough trouble and scandal, it is announced that Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval-Prodir) tested positive for EPO in the Tour's second rest day. He denies any knowledge of doping and calls for the 'B' Sample to be analysed, everyone assumes that this case will be resolved swiftly.
The month begins with rumours of reconciliation between Tour organisers ASO and the UCI. Don't worry though, it won't last!
Tragedy strikes the sport as South African Barloworld rider Ryan Cox dies as a result of complications following an operation to correct an arterial blood flow problem in his leg. Tributes pour in, as the sport mourns the loss of one of its true nice guys.
Not to be denied the glory that he feels he has earned, Rasmussen turns up to some post-Tour crits and rides in a 'Yellow Jersey'. The reception is mixed, but generally positive in his home capital of Copenhagen.
Andrey Kashechkin - so often following the lead of Vino, his team captain - tests positive for blood doping in an out of competition control while he's on holiday in Turkey. In an interesting twist, rather than denying it, Kash claims that the test was against his human rights…huh?
More bad news comes as Tailwind Sports, the management of the Discovery Channel team, announces that it will be disbanding at the end of the season. Despite winning eight of the last nine Tours de France, they have been unable to secure a new sponsor for next year, and also - bizarrely - claim that they don't feel comfortable with asking anyone to commit to the huge financial undertaking in the current climate of scandal.
Despite everyone still reeling from the scandals in the Tour, racing goes on as Leonardo Bertagnolli (Liquigas) wins the Clasica San Sebastian. He beats Juan Manuel Gárate (Quick.Step-Innergetic) in a two-up sprint as they hold off a chasing group of riders containing many of the favourites. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) takes the final podium spot.
The Women's World Cup continues in Sweden with the Open de Suède Vargarda. Chantal Beltman (T-Mobile) escapes from Karin Thürig (Raleigh-Lifeforce-Creation) to take a solo victory and Noemi Cantele (Bigla) takes a small bunch sprint for third. Nicole Cooke (Raleigh-Lifeforce-Creation) still leads the overall competition heading into the last stage of the competition.
The ProTour heads to Germany for the Deutschland Tour where Jens Voigt (CSC) takes the overall in his home tour after his team wins the stage two team time trial and he defends his lead to the end. Ciolek takes a while to warm up, but takes the last three sprint stages, only split by Voigt's penultimate stage time trial win.
Still in Germany, a crash mars the finish of the Vattenfall Cyclassics, where Flanders winner Alessandro Ballan foils the sprinters in the last few hundred metres. Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and Ciolek save some honour for the fast men, by taking the final two podium spots.
Moving north to the Belgo-Dutch Eneco Tour, José Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne) hangs on to take the overall victory by 11 seconds from Millar. Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) looks likely to hang on (after taking the jersey from Nick Nuyens of Cofidis when he crashes out) but loses the lead in a wet final-day time trial.