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They are to be expected in cycling, but that does not mean that crashes aren't sickening to behold. Riders in the Tour de France are constantly taking risks. When one of them does go wheels-up, as Bobby Julich of the U.S. did just five kilometers into stage 7 last Saturday, it literally turns one's stomach. As the 34-year-old leaned into a left turn early in the 52-kilometer time trial in Brittany, he lost traction on his front tire, slamming to the pavement and careening into a concrete curb.
The sight of the distraught CSC rider being helped into an ambulance was but one in a series of grim vignettes from the 2006 Tour. We knew that this, the first Tour of the post-- Lance Armstrong era, would be wide-open. We did not know that it would be rocked by a scandal that swept favorites out of the Tour and confirmed cycling's status as one of the dirtiest sports in the world.
In May the Spanish police raided the Madrid clinic of one Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. There they found performance-enhancing drugs and scores of packets of frozen blood, which could be doped and then pumped back into riders' bodies. Of the 58 pro riders implicated in Operation Puerto, as the investigation was dubbed, 13 were in the Tour, and all were banished. The biggest names were CSC's Ivan Basso, runner-up in last year's Tour and winner of the three-week Giro d'Italia in May, and T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich, the star-crossed German who won the Tour in 1997 and has since finished second five times.
The official list did not reach Tour officials until two days before the race was to start. Under the so-called code of ethics signed by all the teams in the Tour, riders under investigation for doping are not allowed to compete. Basso and Ullrich were sent home, guilty until proven innocent. Also out was podium threat Alexandre Vinokourov, a predatory Kazakh who stood accused of no wrongdoing; his only offense was to be part of a team--Astana-Wurth--that had four men on the list. You need six guys on your team, minimum, to ride in the Tour. The sting left Astana-Wurth with five, so Vino was gone.
Having bid Basso, Ullrich et al. adieu, the Tour patted itself on the back for the lengths to which it goes to clean up its sport. "The enemy is not cycling," declaimed race director Christian Prudhomme. "The enemy is doping."
The enemy is cycling's deeply ingrained culture of cheating. It was only eight years ago that the Tour was brought to its knees by the Festina Affair. On the eve of the race Festina team masseur Willy Voet was apprehended at the French-Belgian border, where customs officials found the contents of a fair-sized pharmacy in his car. Nine days later the team was expelled from the race. Then as now, there were many self-congratulatory pronouncements about cycling's willingness to take drastic measures to clean itself up. Operation Puerto revealed that, if anything, cheating has become more widespread since Voet was busted at the border.
The good news for cycling fans on this side of the pond was that with so many top riders getting the thumb, the new favorites were Americans. Then came Letdown Saturday. Coming off a victory in the weeklong Dauphin�-Lib�r� in mid-June, Levi Leipheimer of Gerolsteiner had high hopes for this Tour. But it became apparent, as he lost six minutes to the stage 7 winner, Serguei Gonchar of T-Mobile, that the Montana native had peaked a month or so early. After seven years as Tonto to Armstrong's Lone Ranger, Discovery Channel's George Hincapie was looking forward to riding a Tour time trial all-out for himself, rather than conserving energy for a certain Texan. But South Carolina's Big Hink finished two minutes, 42 seconds behind Gonchar, dimming his chances to be on the podium in Paris.
The only American to grab any glory was Phonak's Floyd Landis (SI, July 3), a Californian who took second, 61 seconds behind Gonchar, whom he will drop like a bag of Quickrete the day the race enters the Pyrenees. It was a terrific result for Landis, 30, especially considering that he came close to reprising Julich's crack-up. Early in the time trial his bike went briefly airborne-- Landis had taken too much velocity over a speed bump--and he slammed into a roundabout, breaking his handlebars. While Landis stayed upright, he lost 30 or so seconds mounting a replacement bike.
As the race entered the mountains on July 5, Landis, who said on Monday that he's riding on a painful arthritic hip that will be replaced after the Tour, looked more and more like the odds-on favorite to win. And what a feel-good story that would be: the son of Mennonites, a former mountain biker who toiled three years for Armstrong, whom he now stands poised to succeed. Surely that would restore some of the luster to this sport--until the next scandal comes along.
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