For three weeksthey admired his matador's daring, his dark good looks and his abundantcharisma. But as Spain's precocious Alberto Contador stepped onto the podiumand the strains of La Marcha Real filled the Champs-Élysées, cycling fans hadone overwhelming thought: Please, God, let this kid be clean. ¬∂ This being anodd-numbered year, the Tour¬†de France proceeded in a clockwise directionaround the countryside, like water swirling down a commode. That appeared to bethe destination of this event--indeed, this sport--during the mostscandal-scarred Tour ever. In one 36-hour period last week, three riders(including the race leader) and two teams were cast out of the race.
Resoluteoptimists regarded the positives and subsequent ejections as a painful butnecessary step. Here, they insisted, was evidence--however ill-timed andembarrassing--that the more sophisticated tests and targeted antidoping programinstituted in the last year by the UCI, cycling's governing body, were working.David Millar, an outspoken Scot who has emerged as the peloton's self-appointedantidrug crusader, went so far as to say that this Tour had been "thecleanest, or one of the cleanest, we've ever done. That doesn't mean there's nodoping. It's just not as prevalent as it once was."
Speaking severalhours after Sunday's final stage, Millar also announced that he was signingwith Slipstream/Chipotle, a relatively new American squad best known for itsargyle jerseys and a comprehensive, cutting-edge antidoping program in whichteam members are tested weekly by an independent agency. Slipstream is planningto sign American riders Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde and isexpected to receive a wild-card bid to next year's Tour. Which means there willbe at least one U.S.-based team in the race.
Anotherremarkable testament to cycling's woes: After its eighth Tour victory in nineyears, the Discovery Channel team finds itself on the cusp of extinction. Ownedby San Francisco-based Tailwind Sports (in which seven-time Tour winner LanceArmstrong holds a stake), the squad is without sponsorship for next season. Ascorporations rethink their investment in athletes who have repeatedly provedthat they cannot be trusted, the question must be asked: Is this a sport in itsdeath throes?
Absolutely not,declared T-Mobile's hLinus Gerdemann, 24, who followed his stage¬†7 winwith a cri de coeur against doping. "The news has not been positive,"the German rider later told SI, "but it is positive that the controls areworking."
Indeed, advocatesfor this laughingstock of a sport insist, perhaps wishfully, that all these"adverse analytical findings" (as the UCI describes positive tests) arethe symptoms of a patient on the mend. Better this, they contend, than whatwe've had for years and years: a peloton full of uncaught dirty riders.
The UCI hasbecome more creative, and less predictable, in the ways it goes about testingriders. The result: a string of high-profile busts that began last spring andcontinued into the sport's showcase. (Results of the race's final days of drugtests won't be known until this week.) "I'm encouraged by what I see andwhat I hear," UCI president Pat McQuaid said last Saturday. "I'mencouraged by what I look at in the race itself." (The pace of the firstweek of this Tour was far slower than in recent years.)
"It was neversomething that was going to change overnight," McQuaid said of cycling'sstubborn doping culture. "It takes some time for the message to getthrough, and the guys who are getting caught are the older guys. When [we]replace those older guys, then we'll have a sport that we can be proud of andbelieve in."
Contador, 24, isthe brightest young star in cycling's firmament, a climbing specialist whosesudden, vicious accelerations are unmatched in the peloton. One of fourbrothers from Madrid, he played soccer and ran track before discovering thesport that would make him a national hero. Enamored of the freedom he felt inthe saddle, he took up bike racing at 16 and turned pro at 21. His charmedcareer almost ended abruptly in May¬†2004, when he crashed during theVuelta a Asturias race in northern Spain. In addition to breaking his jaw, hedeveloped a brain aneurysm that led to a massive blood clot. Emergency surgerysaved his life and left him with a titanium plate in his skull. A longconvalescence, he said on the final rest day, gave him "anotherperspective" on life. It made him value more deeply, he says, "the factthat I am here."
As it becameapparent that he would end up on the podium, Contador faced more pointedquestions about his past associations. He was one of five Astana team ridersheld out of last year's Tour after they were allegedly linked to OperaciónPuerto, a Spanish doping investigation. Shortly after the '06 Tour, UCIofficials and the Spanish courts cleared him of any links to Puerto. Askedstraight up if cycling fans could trust him, Contador flashed his 1,000-wattsmile and said, "Yes, of course."
Fairly orunfairly, the entire peloton now rides under a cloud of suspicion. In onesix-day span, news of three doping busts--involving Patrik Sinkewitz ofT-Mobile, Astana captain Alexandre Vinokourov and Christian Moreni ofCofidis--rocked the race. Vino, who tested positive for homologous blooddoping, dismissed rumors that he'd used the blood of his father, who'd beenfollowing the Tour. If he'd done that, observed the dour Kazakh, who was firedfrom his team on Monday, "I would've tested positive for vodka."
This being the2007 Tour de France--every time you thought you'd reached rock bottom you fellthrough a trapdoor--there was more. On July 25, two hours aftercounterattacking Contador on the Col¬†d'Aubisque to seemingly put astranglehold on the race, the Danish climbing specialist Michael Rasmussen wasfired by his team, Rabobank. Already under suspicion for missing fourantidoping tests over the previous two years (news that broke shortly afterhe'd ridden into the yellow jersey on July¬†15), Rasmussen was let go forlying to team officials about his whereabouts in June, when he went missingfrom federation drug testers for 22¬†days.
Men have crashedout of the Tour while in yellow. But thrown out of this proud Gallicinstitution? Rasmussen's disgrace convinced many that the time had come towrite the Tour's obituary--in one case, literally. In a mock death notice theBelgian paper Le¬†Soir lamented the passing of the Tour "at age 104,after a long illness."
But Le¬†Tourlimped on, grievously wounded. It was one of the deficiencies of this race thatContador did not ride into yellow so much as he backed into it. Thepost-Rasmussen leader board looked like this: Contador held a lead of oneminute, 53 seconds over Australia's Cadel Evans, who nervously eyed Discovery'sLevi Leipheimer, lurking 56 seconds farther back. Three weeks of racing camedown to last Saturday's 34.5-mile individual time trial, a race against theclock through the cognac vineyards of the Charente region.
The day before itreached a merciful end, the Tour finally delivered an afternoon of dramaunadulterated by protests or positive tests or expulsions. Going into thestage, Contador, a climbing specialist, was expected to lose ground to Evans,who excels in time trials. But this much, this fast? Contador was five secondsdown to the Aussie, it seemed, before he reached the bottom of the ramp. WithArmstrong exhorting him from the follow car, the Discovery rider spent the nexthour fighting to limit his losses. Powering frantically up the slight grade tothe finish, he finished the stage still clinging to a 23-second lead overEvans--and thus clinched the Tour victory by the second-narrowest margin inhistory.
He sharedSaturday's spotlight with Leipheimer, who had blown away the field to win thetrial. After air-kissing the podium girls, Leipheimer shook the hands of thegrandees on the stage in Angouleme. To their congratulations he replied,"Merci beaucoups" in the Montana-accented French he first learned atButte High. A racer since age 13, young Levi chose to study the language, herecalls, "because I loved the Tour de France and dreamed to race in itsomeday."
Two decades afterhis first competitive bike race, Leipheimer had won his first stage of theTour. He'd hoped to do more in this race, having arrived in France asDiscovery's leader. But with Contador clearly stronger in the Alps, and then inthe Pyrenees, Leipheimer dutifully rode for the teammate he himself describedas "an upcoming superstar." After the final mountain stage, Leipheimerfound himself in fourth place and a bit forlorn, just off the podium.
Shortly before heretired that night, word swept through the Discovery team's hotel in Pau:Rasmussen was out. Leipheimer had moved up to third place while brushing histeeth. "It wasn't really the way I dreamed of making the podium," headmitted following his time-trial victory, "but after today, I feel like Ideserve to be there."
There were otheruplifting tales. While he recovered from brain surgery in 2004, Contador haddrawn inspiration from It's Not About the Bike, Armstrong's autobiography."It's a nice story," concluded Discovery director Johan Bruyneel lastweek.
So he is.Contador represents the bright future of a sport on the mend--or at least ahope for cycling fans to cling to as they wait for the next shoe to drop.
In A MOCK DEATH NOTICE the Belgian paper Le Soirlamented the passing of the Tour "at age 104, after a longillness."
Cantador, who survived brain surgery three years ago and doping questions in'06, held the yellow jersey through a searing time trial (above) and a finalcruise down the Champs-Élysées.
Photograph by Peter Dejong / AP
ERIC LALMAND/EPA; FRANCK FIFE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES; ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS; CHRISTOPHE KARABA/EPA
Riders (clockwise from bottom left) Moreni, Vinokourov and Sinkewitz eachtested positive, while Rasmussen was thrown out of the race by histeam.