By John Trevorrow
After two horrible days for the sport of cycling, Predictor-Lotto's Cadel Evans could only sit back and watch as his closest competition was kicked out of the Tour. Gone is Alexandre Vinokourov and the more dangerous Astana rider, Andreas Klöden. Gone is Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen. Gone is the entire Cofidis squad after its Italian rider Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone.
Is there any hope left for the sport? In a heartfelt and brutally honest statement, Tom Boonen said yesterday that, of the remaining favourites actually left in this year's race, he picked Evans as one of the riders he still trusts. "I have given up my belief in most of the rest," he confessed. "It is possible to ride the Tour without doping, and to ride and win too. Cadel Evans proves in my eyes that you could win it without doping."
For his part, Evans was noncommittal, saying, "Unfortunately there's no prize for the first clean rider." Evans might have been closer to the overall lead had Rasmussen not collaborated with Contador on the mountaintop finishes, but he's not focusing on what could have been, but on what still needs to be done.
With 1'53" separating him from first place, what would it take now to win the Tour? "From my point of view, a good time trial," Evans told Cyclingnews. "Discovery with Contador and Leipheimer have become strong in the third week of the tour so we will see how it goes. But you know we saw in the first time trial that I wasn't too bad, this time trial suits me less, but it's more so for Contador. It's nearly completely flat so we will see what that brings, but also it's the third week - normally it's the way everyone recovers and comes out of it."
Evans rode strongly on stage 16, limiting his losses while Contador appeared to be losing some of his punch and was unable to get any distance on the now absent yellow jersey. "Contador has come down because, as you saw the accelerations he did over the Peyresourde were ridiculous. Leipheimer seems to have come better, but at the same time Leipheimer has really been able to sit comfortably and not have to have done much work."
Leipheimer will be a big threat if Contador should crack in the time trial. Just 56" behind Evans, he's been stealthily moving his way up the GC ladder. "[Leipheimer] hasn't been in the position to be under pressure because it's Contador or me that's been covering the moves. So it's Leipheimer that's coming into the time trial fresher than anyone."
Evans preferred to spend the day not thinking about the doping controversies that have shattered the Tour, and Thursday's stage provided just the excuse he needed to avoid the topic. "To be honest, we all rode too fast to even discuss anything. I don't know if you noticed at the start with the breakaway and all. I think everyone was expecting a little more rest.
"The first 100 km were really quick. But it wasn't too bad. The team looked after me, just like they have all Tour. Compliments to them and we just have to get through one more big day and then a big time trial."
Evans still has his heart in the race and in the sport, showing his resilient Aussie character. "I still believe in the race and I hope there's still a lot of people that believe in us, because there's still a lot of us who've been working very hard for a very long time," Evans said. "For me, half my life. The race continues and it's just a few that spoil it. The UCI are really doing a good job to fight against doping. Far more than any other sporting organisation and I think people forget that.
"I believe that cycling is in a transition period. I have no doubt that the sport is cleaner right at this moment than it has ever been. But you can't change a damaged culture in five minutes. Amazingly, through all this controversy, the Tour de France is probably cleaner now than at any time in its history."