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Tales from the peloton, August 2, 2007

How the Tour was won (and lost)

The race for the yellow jersey wasn't so much won as it was lost in 2007 - and the losers began falling to the bottom of the heap well before the first barricade was set down, before the first podium girl began applying her mascara, and even before the snow had melted in the Pyrénées. Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo calls the Tour "Good news for people who love bad news."

A fan holds on
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The 2007 Tour de France began being lost back in 2006 when more than 100 athletes visited a Madrid clinic to enlist the services of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. Had a few not been caught with their names (or their dogs' names) on bags of blood, the 2007 Tour might not have come down to mere seconds separating the top three on the podium. But with Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso out of the picture come July 6, 2007, it was anybody's guess who would win this Tour.

The men who came to London in search of glory were hauling the heavy baggage of a year's worth of doping scandal, and needed to prove to the world that the sport was still worth of the massive amount of attention the Tour brings - worth of the millions of Euros spent on sponsorship and the gigantic revenues of television coverage.

The first week, Vino and Klöden fall.

"We have one chance, one chance to get everything right..."

Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC)
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Set amid the terrorist plot and natural disaster which befell the Grand Départ's host country prior to the Tour's arrival, doping seemed like a minor problem, and the prologue in London was a smashing success. Huge crowds lined the eight kilometre course which wound past all the hot tourist spots: Buckingham Palace, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the day was won by the World Champion, Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC).

The course wasn't long enough to be very decisive for the overall - or so one would think. But just 31 seconds separated third from first in Paris, and the four seconds Levi Leipheimer lost to Cadel Evans that day was half his gap to second place overall by the Tour's end.

The rest of the first week was designed for the sprinters, and the general classification contenders needed only to stay upright and finish with the group - something Evans, Contador and Leipheimer had no trouble with, despite a huge crash on the stage two finish in Gent.

The first week did strike a blow to Astana's GC hopes when both Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov crashing on stage 5 to Autun, the former finished the stage with a broken tailbone while the Kazakh came in more than a minute down with blood running out of his knees. But those crashes were relatively inconsequential compared to what loomed in the team's future.

Advantage: Contador. Evans - 1", Leipheimer - 4".

The Alps: The chicken takes flight, Rogers goes down

"We have one chance, one chance to get everything right..."

Gerdemann cherishes the yellow
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As the Tour wound through Belgium and into France, the Alps began to loom larger and larger until finally, the race hit the mountains on stage 7 and the fireworks began. While it was true that the Alps weren't as decisive as they'd been in past years, in that big time gaps didn't open between the men who stepped onto the final podium in Paris, they would have decided the final winner had other forces not intervened.

The first Alpine stage, won by T-Mobile's Linus Gerdemann with a nearly suicidal descent into Le Grand-Bornand, saw Evans, Contador and Leipheimer finish in the same time, and the yellow jersey for Gerdemann was hailed as a victory for a cleaner sport.

The second Alpine stage to Tignes was an entirely different plot. Rabobank threw all its efforts into bringing a 16 man breakaway to within striking distance for an attack by Michael Rasmussen on the Cormet de Roselend, and successfully launched the 'chicken' to what looked like just another bid for the polka dot jersey. With the maillot jaune's T-Mobile team and the Rabobank squad stepping off the gas, the peloton eased and allowed Rasmussen to open up the gap. Normally Rasmussen wouldn't worry the GC contenders, but this was no normal Tour.

Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) can feel his Tour de France hopes
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The descent of the Cormet de Roselend spelled the end of T-Mobile's GC hopes when Michael Rogers crashed and had to abandon. At the end of the descent, Levi Leipheimer had a mechanical that dropped him out of the select chase group with 44 kilometres and two climbs to go. He quickly regained the group, but when they hit the final climb, an attack by Dauphiné Libéré winner Christophe Moreau (Ag2r) drew Evans away. Contador was strong enough to bridge to the Australian, but Leipheimer was left chasing and would lose 46 seconds to the Australian by the line.

Contador was also struck by bad luck and punctured out of the select group, losing 18 seconds to Evans in Tignes. After the finish, Leipheimer was given a 10 second penalty for holding onto the team car after his mechanical, leaving him one minute back on Evans. Rasmussen, in yellow, was nearly three minutes clear after his day in the Alps.

Advantage: Evans. Contador - 17", Leipheimer - 1'00".

Evans gets a bonus, Vino loses the plot

Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel)
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The final Alpine stage to Briançon saw the Discovery Channel team attempt to blow the race apart by sending Yaroslav Popovych up the road on the first climb. With five kilometres to the top of the final climb of the day, the monstrous Col du Galibier, Contador attacked, taking Evans along, but the young Spaniard was too strong and left Evans in 'no-man's land' as he flew over the top and joined his team-mate in a two-man time trial on the descent.

With more than 37 kilometres of descending to do, a strong push by the yellow jersey group reeled back in the Discovery Channel duo, and a surprisingly aggressive Evans took third in the sprint behind escapee Mauricio Soler and Alejandro Valverde, gaining eight valuable bonus seconds on Contador.

Vinokourov finished the day well down and dissolved into tears after the finish. It was now on the GC contenders to decide how they were going to pull several minutes out of the maillot jaune Michael Rasmussen who, until this year, had never really tried to ride a strong time trial in the Tour. To be sure, the next week would prove unpredictable in more ways than one.

Advantage: Evans. Contador - 27", Leipheimer - 1'12".

In transition: Moreau goes down, grilled chicken and Vino's comeback

Hunter wins stage 11
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With the physical difficulties of the Alps behind, the Tour embarked on a surreal and convulsive week filled with not only with sporting drama but the agonising scourge of doping scandals. It began with the announcement that T-Mobile, a team which has proudly proclaimed to be leading the way to a clean sport, received news that Patrik Sinkewitz tested positive for testosterone in a June out-of-competition test. The news overshadowed stage wins by Cédric Vasseur and South African Robert Hunter.

France netted its first stage of the Tour in Marseille, but the following day had its hopes for its first Tour win in 22 years dashed - on stage 11 when Christophe Moreau crashed and, while he was getting attention from the race doctor, Astana split the field in the crosswinds and left the Ag2r man more than three minutes back.

Tom Boonen took out the final transitional stage as the rest of the GC contenders rested their legs for the stage 13 time trial, where they expected Rasmussen to give up the golden fleece. Evans may have gone to bed dreaming of yellow, but other forces were gathering strength to take down the yellow jersey. Rumblings from Denmark about Rasmussen's failure to notify antidoping authorities of his whereabouts spilled over into the Tour, and the press grilled 'the chicken' relentlessly.

Vino wins, but only for so long
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Despite the increasing unpopularity of the scrawny Rabobank man, Evans, Leipheimer and Contador all put in solid performances but failed to unseat an unwavering Rasmussen in Albi, who conceded just 1'41" to second placed Evans. Contador lost 1'04 and Leipheimer 1'25" to the Predictor-Lotto man, while pre-race contender Carlos Sastre lost nearly three minutes to Evans, effectively ending his hopes for a podium finish. A storming Vinokourov rounded the slippery, rain-soaked course like a lightning bolt, and came home victorious with a 48.66 km/h effort.

Advantage: Evans. Contador - 1'04", Leipheimer - 1'25".

The Pyrénées: Contador vs. Rasmussen, clouds gather on the horizon

"The clouds just hung around like black Cadillacs outside a funeral..."

Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel)
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Rasmussen defied his critics by storming away in the first Pyrenean stage, matched only by an ever-aggressive Contador, who took the stage to the Plateau de Beille. In the process, the pair caused Evans to come a bit unglued - the Australian lost 1'37" plus a 20 second bonus to the Spaniard while Leipheimer was able to limit his losses to just 40 seconds.

The day spelled the end of GC hopes for Denis Menchov, who detonated on the final climb and came in 11 minutes down, while Alejandro Valverde continued his backward slide by losing another 3'45" - by the end of the day he was a total of 9'45" down on GC. Vinokourov crashed again, and continued to plummet down the GC, while Klöden hung tough in fifth place.

Advantage: Contador. Evans - 41", Leipheimer - 2'06".

Contador checks to see if his attacks have done anything... nope.
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The second day in the Pyrénées was a Contador/Rasmussen battle again, but this time the Discovery team had its secret weapon, George Hincapie, in the breakaway that stayed clear until the final climb. Contador's relentless attacks left Evans in the unfortunate position of chasing with Leipheimer, who had two team-mates up the road, and three Astana riders, who were content to see Vinokourov solo to victory out of the breakaway.

While Evans waited for CSC's Carlos Sastre or Caisse d'Epargne's Alejandro Valverde to take up the chase, Contador was putting precious seconds into Evans' group on the Col de Peyresourde. It was a gamble that never paid off, and Evans would lose 56" to Contador on the day.

Advantage: Contador. Evans - 1'37", Leipheimer - 3'02"

Rest day blues, or, "The good times are killing me..."

Alexander Vinokourov (Astana)
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The rest day in Pau was anything but peaceful. While the riders went through the paces of riding, getting massages and holding press conferences, news came out that Vinokourov had tested positive for a blood transfusion after his stellar stage 13 time trial. The Astana team packed up and left the race before the final mountain stage could even begin, taking fifth placed Klöden out of the picture.

On the last Pyrenean stage to the Col d'Aubisque, the racers couldn't even get across the line without news of another doping positive coming out. It was revealed immediately after he crossed the line that Cofidis' Cristian Moreni had gone positive for testosterone - another embarrassment for a vocally antidoping team, and another early trip home for dejected team-mates.

Leipheimer finished strongly
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The penultimate decisive stage and final day in the mountains saw the maillot jaune pull out another stage win. Rasmussen further strengthened his lead by allowing Contador to blow his legs with rapid-fire attacks, and then riding away to victory and 47 more seconds with the time bonus.

Leipheimer tried to help the youngster stay in contact, but eventually rode away to take second along with a 12 second bonus. Evans dug deep to stay within 43 seconds of the stage winner, while Sastre's aggressive effort to gain back time lost in the time trials backfired, and he ended the day six minutes down on GC.

Advantage: Contador. Evans - 1'53", Leipheimer - 2'49".

The disappearing maillot jaune

"Well you disappeared so often, like you dissolved into coffee..."

Michael Rasmussen's thoughts are spinning
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The Tour's nightmares weren't over when the race headed back to flatter lands, proving it wasn't the altitude that had made the Tour go crazy. In a shocking overnight decision, Rabobank pulled its leader - the man in the maillot jaune with a good chance of standing on top of the podium in Paris and taking home some pretty sizeable bank - from the Tour.

Rasmussen had been warned twice by the Danish federation and twice by the UCI for failing to notify them of his whereabouts for out of competition testing. But the hoopla over Rasmussen's whereabouts turned more serious when former Italian pro turned RAI commentator Davide Cassani claimed he saw the Dane training in the Dolomites at the time when Rasmussen said he was in Mexico.

The alleged lies proved too much to take for Rabobank management, and Rasmussen was secreted away in the night back to Italy and his demoralised team-mates went on without him.

With Rasmussen gone, Alberto Contador inherited the lead in the overall classification, but did not don the yellow jersey until after Stage 17, all the while looking rather uncomfortable with the whole situation. His first day in yellow proved to be a nervous one - his brightly coloured shirt more of a target than a protective shield.

The peloton heads up to the finish
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While the press took pot-shots at Contador for an alleged involvement in Operación Puerto, Evans was resorting to ruthlessness to stay at the front of the race on stage 18 - even bashing shoulders with a spectator on the run-in to Angoulême to stay tight on the Quick.Step train. The heavy hearts of Tour fans were lightened a bit when Sandy Casar won the stage after battling back from a crash with a dog. Even with his shorts ripped open he got the better of Michael Boogerd, Axel Merckx and Laurent Lefevre from the breakaway. With a tough uphill finish, Contador lost the wheel of Evans despite a massive effort of Hincapie to move his man forward, and wound up losing three precious seconds to the Aussie.

Advantage: Contador. Evans - 1'50", Leipheimer - 2'49".

One chance

Contador had to really pour on the gas
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The final time trial from Cognac to Angoulême was the one chance for Evans to unseat Contador, but with Leipheimer only 59 seconds behind, one wrong move - one missed turn, flat tyre, bad patch along the route - could drop him down to third or worse. Contador was under enormous pressure, but had a secret weapon: seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong was in the team car to shout encouragement and give advice.

The last three riders to leave the start house provided the crowds with a nail-biting performance. First to go off, Leipheimer led the time checks all along the route, picking up 14, then 35, then 51 seconds on Evans - going so quickly that it seemed possible that he would even overtake Contador to win the Tour.

Meanwhile Evans was closing in on Contador - 22 seconds, 32 seconds, 1'18" - eating into his gap with increasing ferocity throughout the second half. But in the end, Contador pulled out the time trial of his life and held on to his yellow jersey, while Leipheimer came within eight tiny seconds of taking second overall. Just 23 seconds separated the first two - and 31 seconds separated the top three overall riders after more than 87 hours of racing - the difference of less than 0.01% of the total time.

Fuentes helpers
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On the Tour's final day, the much bandied about race for intermediate sprint bonuses never materialised, and the three riders finished safely in the main bunch to complete the Tour like gentlemen. The margin wasn't the closest in the Tour's history, but it certainly created plenty of opportunity to wonder, "what if?" The Tour also raised larger issues about the future of the sport with the three doping positives announced during the Tour [and one more afterward], the exit of the yellow jersey wearer, and the withdrawal of two teams from the race. On the bright side, the ridiculousness actually created a sympathetic reaction from the fans who all hope that real change can come out of this year's circus.

And so the sport comes full circle back to where it was when the Grand Boucle began. "We have one chance, one chance... to get everything right, and if we're lucky we might... I've seen so many ships sailing just to head back out again and go off sinking." (Lyrics by Modest Mouse)

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