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Uphill Climb

Despite isolated doping allegations, which hit even race leader Michael Rasmussen, the Tour de France was buoyed by signs that riders might be cleaning up their acts

The leaders of theTour de France were playing chicken in the final climb of stage 14 on Sundaywhen they were briefly overtaken by . . . a chicken. To the Borat impersonatorin a lime singlet who ran alongside the cyclists during stage 8, waving theflag of Kazakhstan, and the guy who adorned his bike with gigantic racks ofdeer antlers in stage 10, add the fellow in the yellow-feathered costume to thelist of amusing spectators at this, the most unpredictable Tour in memory. ¶ Inthe last kilometer of a cruel Pyrenean beast called the Plateau-de-Beille,front-runners Michael Rasmussen of Rabobank and Alberto Contador of DiscoveryChannel 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 apull.

Rasmussen, 33, theskin-headed, stick-thin Dane and overall leader of the Tour, relented, throwingdown a punishing acceleration that failed to shake Contador. Fifty meters fromthe 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. Beforecrossing the line, Contador had enough of a cushion to sit up, zip his whitejersey and begin his celebration--a dash of insouciance that evoked the panacheof a certain Texan who preceded him at Discovery.

Indeed, thetactics employed in stage 14 by team director Johan Bruyneel sprang from thesame playbook that worked so well for Lance Armstrong, who won the last of hisseven straight Tours for Discovery. There was the aging warhorse, 34-year-oldAmerican George Hincapie, turning the screws on the peloton in the valleypreceding the last climb. There was Ukraine's Yaroslav Popovych, setting asavage pace at the front for almost the entire first half of thePlateau-de-Beille, his Herculean effort shedding all of Rasmussen's Rabobankteammates. With the yellow jersey isolated, Discovery's Levi Leipheimer set upContador's attack with a decoy surge of his own. The instant Leipheimer wasreeled in by the remaining elite group, Contador shot from the pack as if froma pneumatic tube. His was Discovery's first stage win of the Tour.

It delighted thethousands of Spaniards who'd made their way up the mountain. They painted hisname all over the road to the summit and roared when he appeared from behindthe giant, inflatable clamshell to receive the winner's bouquet and busses fromthe podium girls. In two days Contador had leaped from fifth place to secondoverall 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, wasLeipheimer, the top American rider and the man who, until Sunday, had beenknown as his team's leader.)

Rasmussen, who ledby two minutes, 23 seconds through Monday's stage 15, receivedconsiderably less affection from the crowds. The tepid applause for theRabobank 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 teamfor 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 dopedin order to gain an extralegal edge in the Giro d'Italia and the Tour deFrance, respectively). followed that bombshell with one of itsown: a story in which an American amateur mountain biker accused Rasmussen oftrying to trick him into carrying illegal doping products--in a shoe box--fromthe U.S. to Italy in 2002. (After denying the accusation last Friday, Rasmussenrefused to discuss it again.)

Rasmussen's 48hours of hell came on the heels of unsettling news from T-Mobile. On themorning of stage 10 team manager Bob Stapleton confirmed that following asurprise, out-of-competition test at a June training camp, T-Mobile's PatrikSinkewitz had come up positive for testosterone. (Two days earlier Sinkewitzhad crashed out of the Tour, colliding with a spectator while speeding downhillto his hotel after the eighth stage.)

Despite thenegative press, what followers of cycling might actually have been witnessingwas 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 noticeablyslower in the first week of the Tour than it had been in years. Midway throughstage 3, commentator Paul Sherwen of the Versus network noted that to thatpoint the riders had averaged a cortegelike 19.8 mph. "It's [been] a longtime," he observed, "since I've seen such a low average speed in one ofthe early days of the Tour."

His honey-tonguedsidekick, Phil Liggett, compared the pace to that of a club ride and noted thatit was "actually rather refreshing to see" because it gave the riders"a chance to chat . . . before they get to the mountains."

Other observersfound it refreshing for different reasons. The Sinkewitz bust (though notofficial because as of Monday his B sample had yet to be tested) wasdiscouraging but also served as evidence of an antidoping system that seems tobe working. T-Mobile's Stapleton is an American who was brought in,essentially, to clean up a team that had become notorious for its entrencheddoping culture. T-Mobile is now on the cutting edge of the InternationalCycling Union's 20 ProTour teams in that it subjects its riders to year-roundblood profiling. (When Serhiy Honchar's blood levels looked fishy at the Tourde Romandie in May, additional tests were conducted, and the Ukrainian wasbounced from the team.) T-Mobile also worked closely with NADA, the Germanantidoping agency, going so far as to invite its personnel to surprise-testteam members, which is how Sinkewitz got popped.

"This is whatthe sport needs," insisted Stapleton, speaking of Sinkewitz but alsopointing to the pre-Tour ejections of Astana's Matthias Kessler (testosterone)and Alessandro Petacchi of Milram (salbutamol). "Athletes need to see thatif you do this stuff, you've got a really good chance to get caught, and theconsequences are severe."

What the sportneeds is for people to stop talking about doping and to start talking aboutcycling--about the dazzling Contador, who attacked Rasmussen four times inrapid succession on the switchbacks of the Col de Peyresourde, Monday's finalclimb, only to see the Dane pull him back each time. That stage, by the way,was won by Alexandre Vinokourov, a human phoenix whose serial resurrections areone of the Tour's subplots. Vino needed 30 stitches in his knees following afearsome crash in stage 5. But the combative Kazakh dominated lastSaturday's time trial, thrusting himself back into contention . . . only todrop nearly a half hour to the leaders the next day, extinguishing his podiumhopes. The ersatz Borat, one assumes, was genuinely bummed.


Mountain High

Daily on-site Tour de France coverage from AustinMurphy.


The Sinkewitz bust was discouraging but also served asevidence of an antidoping system that SEEMS TO BE WORKING.


Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

POULTRY IN MOTION Young Contador (white jersey) caught Rasmussen and a feathered fan en route to his stage 14 win.



TÊTE-À-TÊTE After his dismissal from the Danish team, Rasmussen sought out Tour director Christian Prudhomme in mid-race.