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The leaders of the Tour de France were playing chicken in the final climb of stage 14 on Sunday when they were briefly overtaken by . . . a chicken. To the Borat impersonator in a lime singlet who ran alongside the cyclists during stage 8, waving the flag of Kazakhstan, and the guy who adorned his bike with gigantic racks of deer antlers in stage 10, add the fellow in the yellow-feathered costume to the list of amusing spectators at this, the most unpredictable Tour in memory. � In the last kilometer of a cruel Pyrenean beast called the Plateau-de-Beille, front-runners Michael Rasmussen of Rabobank and Alberto Contador of Discovery Channel had a brief conversation. Neither, it seemed, wanted to ride in front. Contador gestured toward Rasmussen, as if to say, It's your turn to take a pull.
Rasmussen, 33, the skin-headed, stick-thin Dane and overall leader of the Tour, relented, throwing down a punishing acceleration that failed to shake Contador. Fifty meters from the finish Contador, a dashing, 24-year-old Spaniard, dropped into a big gear, pulled around the man in the yellow jersey and dropped him, too. Before crossing the line, Contador had enough of a cushion to sit up, zip his white jersey and begin his celebration--a dash of insouciance that evoked the panache of a certain Texan who preceded him at Discovery.
Indeed, the tactics employed in stage 14 by team director Johan Bruyneel sprang from the same playbook that worked so well for Lance Armstrong, who won the last of his seven straight Tours for Discovery. There was the aging warhorse, 34-year-old American George Hincapie, turning the screws on the peloton in the valley preceding the last climb. There was Ukraine's Yaroslav Popovych, setting a savage pace at the front for almost the entire first half of the Plateau-de-Beille, his Herculean effort shedding all of Rasmussen's Rabobank teammates. With the yellow jersey isolated, Discovery's Levi Leipheimer set up Contador's attack with a decoy surge of his own. The instant Leipheimer was reeled in by the remaining elite group, Contador shot from the pack as if from a pneumatic tube. His was Discovery's first stage win of the Tour.
It delighted the thousands of Spaniards who'd made their way up the mountain. They painted his name all over the road to the summit and roared when he appeared from behind the giant, inflatable clamshell to receive the winner's bouquet and busses from the podium girls. In two days Contador had leaped from fifth place to second overall and become a serious threat to relieve Rasmussen of le maillot jaune. (Sitting fourth at week's end, a serious podium threat in his own right, was Leipheimer, the top American rider and the man who, until Sunday, had been known as his team's leader.)
Rasmussen, who led by two minutes, 23 seconds through Monday's stage�15, received considerably less affection from the crowds. The tepid applause for the Rabobank captain on Sunday was of a piece with the lousy week he was having. Two days earlier the Danish Cycling Union had booted him off its national team for twice failing to make himself available for drug tests: one in early May, another in late June (optimal dates, it so happens, for a rider to have doped in order to gain an extralegal edge in the Giro�d'Italia and the Tour de France, respectively). VeloNews.com followed that bombshell with one of its own: a story in which an American amateur mountain biker accused Rasmussen of trying to trick him into carrying illegal doping products--in a shoe box--from the U.S. to Italy in 2002. (After denying the accusation last Friday, Rasmussen refused to discuss it again.)
Rasmussen's 48 hours of hell came on the heels of unsettling news from T-Mobile. On the morning of stage�10 team manager Bob Stapleton confirmed that following a surprise, out-of-competition test at a June training camp, T-Mobile's Patrik Sinkewitz had come up positive for testosterone. (Two days earlier Sinkewitz had crashed out of the Tour, colliding with a spectator while speeding downhill to his hotel after the eighth stage.)
Despite the negative press, what followers of cycling might actually have been witnessing was a sport on the mend. Take, for example, the average speed of the race. Yes, the riders encountered headwinds, but the pace of the peloton was noticeably slower in the first week of the Tour than it had been in years. Midway through stage�3, commentator Paul Sherwen of the Versus network noted that to that point the riders had averaged a cortegelike 19.8 mph. "It's [been] a long time," he observed, "since I've seen such a low average speed in one of the early days of the Tour."
His honey-tongued sidekick, Phil Liggett, compared the pace to that of a club ride and noted that it was "actually rather refreshing to see" because it gave the riders "a chance to chat . . . before they get to the mountains."
Other observers found it refreshing for different reasons. The Sinkewitz bust (though not official because as of Monday his B�sample had yet to be tested) was discouraging but also served as evidence of an antidoping system that seems to be working. T-Mobile's Stapleton is an American who was brought in, essentially, to clean up a team that had become notorious for its entrenched doping culture. T-Mobile is now on the cutting edge of the International Cycling Union's 20 ProTour teams in that it subjects its riders to year-round blood profiling. (When Serhiy Honchar's blood levels looked fishy at the Tour de Romandie in May, additional tests were conducted, and the Ukrainian was bounced from the team.) T-Mobile also worked closely with NADA, the German antidoping agency, going so far as to invite its personnel to surprise-test team members, which is how Sinkewitz got popped.
"This is what the sport needs," insisted Stapleton, speaking of Sinkewitz but also pointing to the pre-Tour ejections of Astana's Matthias Kessler (testosterone) and Alessandro Petacchi of Milram (salbutamol). "Athletes need to see that if you do this stuff, you've got a really good chance to get caught, and the consequences are severe."