2007 Tour de France Review

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The 2007 Tour de France is a metaphor for life. It featured all the traits of human frailty at a time when cycling again needed redemption. There were displays of humility and grace, courage and bravado, failure and collapse. Yet stupidity and naivety along with suspicion and speculation were themes that contributed to a great race being spoiled at a time it should have been celebrated.

Words: Rob Arnold


We are currently realising another cycling renaissance: a rebirth of dignity has arrived. It happened by default but when the management of the team with the rider who is about to claim victory declares that he has duped them and promptly sacks him, you know change is in the air. What Rabobank did was courageous and marks a new era. Honesty is clearly more valued than winning by any means. Michael Rasmussen discovered as he clung to the precipice of success that no longer do you have to be beaten to lose.

During each Tour de France you witness riders pushing themselves to extremes. The match of rivals is compelling, the scenery captivating and the drama mounts by virtue of the race’s place in history. Its popularity has grown globally in recent years and Australians are not immune to the lure of the Tour. There’s even reason to watch now. What made this year more significant than others? Twenty-three seconds. One game ends, another begins. The renaissance men have arrived.

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Alberto Contador won. At least we know that much. His victory was sealed in Paris but achieved with stunning surges on the mountain slopes while supported by a team-mate who was capable of a stage win and a place on the podium himself. Only 31 seconds stood between the Spaniard and his American colleague Levi Leipheimer. Separating the Discovery duo was an Australian. Cadel Evans effectively won a stage but he hasn’t officially been credited with it. In Albi he was second on the day but was the fastest clean rider in the race against the clock.

Time bonuses are awarded to stage winners. They get a reduction of 20 seconds from their general classification haul. According to Tour rules, the riders who finish second and third place each day can subtract 12 and eight seconds, respectively, for their efforts. There were only three instances when this did not apply during the three-week contest; the award perk didn’t count for time trials. Imagine if it had!

The two men closest to Contador on the final day had each won a stage. Evans got to within exactly one minute of the yellow jersey when he beat Astana pair Andreas Klöden and Andrey Kashechkin. Alas, the antics of this crew were also at play that day. Their captain, the celebrated – and now infamous – Mr Vinokourov accepted undue accolades and stood on the podium to receive the winner’s bouquet and bissous from the hostesses who lavished him with praise for his triumph.

He was fast. Sure. Whatever. He had a doctor who has long been considered dubious but the rider declared there was no wrongdoing. “He writes training programs for me.” No scripts? Lucky! Because it all became apparent soon afterwards.

Consider of it what you will, an ironic twist of history trivia or a tenuous link to unite the also-rans, but here’s a tale with a twist. Near Albi, the city where Evans would miss out on a chance to stand on the podium, a man known as Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse was born. He landed in Botany Bay on 24 January 1788. It was a good year for exploring. Conditions, it seems, were excellent for sailing and the Frenchman found this lovely alcove along the coast and a hot summer’s day. It just so happens that only six days prior, an Englishman accompanied by what’s known as The First Fleet had done likewise.

Six days. It’s a hypothetical, but what would Australia have been like had Monsieur La Perouse not possessed a penchant to look around as he floated along this antipodian coastline. If he’d been a bit quicker, things might be different here.

Seven days. That was the interval separating the time trials at the Tour and a lot transpired between Cadel’s unrecognised coup in Albi and Leipheimer’s celebrated victory in Angoulême on the penultimate day. The Discovery recovery was complete. A year after limping into the French capital with little to show for its efforts, the team of Johan Bruyneel was in charge again.

Levi was fast. So was Cadel. Again the Aussie was the second fastest in the race against the clock. And Alberto? Well, he was not just a climber either. Like another yellow jersey wearer from this year’s edition, one who also flies in the mountains, the race leader after 21 days grew wings for the last real test. Fifth for Contador.

It’s hard to do when talking about cycling these days, but let’s forget about doctors and their medications for a moment and look at the 2007 Tour purely from a sporting point of view. It was a tight and enthralling contest, the second smallest margin between first and second, and never before has the trio on the final podium been separated by less than a minute. It could have been much closer. It doesn’t take long to realise that the result could have been so much different after 22 days of drama this year.

Even if we ignore the cheats – the doping fraudsters who hogged the headlines in the midst of an enthralling battle – it could have been a tighter fight than the famous battle between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon in the year of France’s bi-centenary. Victory went to the American on the final day in 1989 by a meagre eight seconds.

Had all stage winners been awarded the 20-second bonus, Cadel and Levi would have been just three and 11 seconds shy of Alberto. If that had been the case en route to Paris on the fourth Sunday of the 94th edition, perhaps racing would have been the focus. Instead it was doping. Just when we thought we’d heard it all, along comes another edition of the Tour to surprise us.

Do they ever learn? The race was constantly interrupted by a scourge that cycling has been fighting for a considerable time. While administrators of other sports continue to deny that there are problems with performance-enhanching products, the leader of the world’s premier bike race wasn’t immune to scrutiny and subsequent chastening. At a time when elation should have been the dominant emotion, the fastest man in the Tour was tossed out by his team. Rasmussen had already won two stages – the premier rendezvous in the high mountains and the Queen stage to the feared Col d’Aubisque – but a day after his second triumph he was absent from the sign-on.

The yellow jersey was not present in the peloton during the 17th stage. The sign of success had become a burden for the Dane who had previously been king. The former mountain bike world champion had twice won the climber’s crown at the Tour and he was destined for the GC throne in his fourth appearance. But he should never have been there.

Dishonesty cost him dearly. He was beaten by foolishness. “I do not have a problem,” said Rasmussen when questioned about a situation that arose a day before the time trial in Albi. “I received a warning from the UCI and the Danish anti-doping agency for not updating my whereabouts information correctly. I accept that and there’s no more to the story.”

Wrong! Bang a gong, let’s move along. His absent-mindedness was more significant than he initially believed it could be.

Without failing a doping control, without a crash and while in charge of the general classification, the future Tour king was forced to abdicate because of suspicion surrounding his whereabouts in the lead-up to the race. He was going to win in July but he failed to alert the authorities about his vagabond lifestyle in June. Rasmussen was told to go home… wherever that may be. His native Denmark? No. His wife’s hometown in Mexico? It’s possible. The hills of his adopted Italy? Likely!

His story is covered later in this issue, but Tour history might have been altered had he not been present.

It could have been even closer at the finish than it was on 29 July 2007. Not only did Leipheimer not benefit from the bonuses attained by other stage winners – from Rasmussen, Contador and the cheating Vinokourov to the men of the sprints and successful escapes throughout the race – he also suffered a penalty. It cost him 10 seconds. It doesn’t seem like much but he held onto a ‘sticky biddon’ for a moment too long in stage eight after suffering a mechanical. His gains from the team car’s tow on the Cormet de Roseland may have earned him more than the fine imposed and had he not been caught, he would have finished runner-up in Paris.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Leipheimer at the base of the yellow podium that is installed in the centre of  the Champs-Élysées. He’d just stepped down from receiving flowers for finishing third. He was content with his achievement but aware it could have been more. “I had a 10-second time penalty in stage eight, otherwise I’d have been the runner-up but it’s part of the race.

“I could count many other seconds I lost along the way other than that incident so I can’t be disappointed. There’s a difference between second and third but it’s not as big as that between first and second. I’m happy to be on the podium.”

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Levi has matured. This once-rejected member of Bruyneel’s posse was more composed than last year when he was at the helm of the German-registered Gerolsteiner team. In his final season in exodus from the squad with which he had begun his professional career in Europe he came to the Tour with high hopes. He’d cracked during the early challenges before recovering with bravado upon arrival in the high mountains of the Pyrenees. In the stage seven time trial he collapsed. His GC hopes were over. He finished 96th in a 52km race, 6:05 behind a man later caught tinkering in remedies he shouldn’t have been, 5:05 behind another man caught dabbling with testosterone, and 5:01 behind Sebastian Lang, his colleague at the famously clean Gerolsteiner team.

By stage 11 he was back in charge of his body and showing management why they had bothered giving him leadership duties when they had a German in the white jersey. Markus Fothen had placed seventh in the TT where Leipheimer had suffered although the latter finished second behind Denis Menchov at the top of Pla-de-Beret and ahead of some bloke called Landis in a three-up sprint.

Ibàn Mayo dropped out looking like a wilted salad that day in Spain. And a climber known as Chicken demonstrated how he understood his position in the chain of command from the Rabobank team. He fried himself in the valley leading to the twisting ascent to the ski station and did so for the sake of a Russian comrade and eventual stage winner.

Leipheimer tried showing his hand again but failed to make amends after his initial loss in Rennes. He got angry at times and one such instance was, ironically, after gaining the most votes in the the most aggressive rider classification. He thus stood on the Tour’s podium after stage 18 of the 93rd race.

“If I were here for the time trial,” he snapped during the protocol that day, “I wouldn’t have been in the echapée!”

At least Levi was more humble now that he was back in the company of Bruyneel. He contained his emotions and spoke very concisely about the achievements of this phenomenal team – one that was ultimately doomed despite all that lay in the Discovery Channel wake. Even though it would win again the ship sank faster than the Titanic once Captain Armstrong was no longer at the helm. The sponsors endured the clauses in their contracts and plodded through the 2006 Tour with a stage win for Yaroslav Popovych to show for the millions invested.

And then in 2007 a recruit from a team ruined by scandal came to the… ah, rescue? It would be nice to believe that was the case but Contador was a temporary solution to the problem of how to get out of the sport with image intact.

Discovery won. It also earned third place and the team prize, and it promptly disbanded. What a great reward!

Leipheimer had been the focus. He is a proud American, an oddly shaped man and a concise speaker but there will never again be another Armstrong. No matter how many chihuahua dogs she wraps under her arm while contesting the rejections of security guards at races, Odessa Gunn will never be recognised like the women in Lance’s life. Linda. Kristin. Sheryl… they all look the same but that never dampend the appeal of the mother, wife and lover trio who stood by Their Man as he took cycling to unprecedented highs in terms of popularity.

Levi was not the saviour of the post-Armstrong years. And while there’s a lot of appeal – and even a near-death experience for the latest champion of the Tour de France – not even that could assist in rebuilding a team built around one man. The recovery is taking place but Discovery is gone.

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Alberto Contador began his pro career as a 20-year-old when he joined Manolo Saiz’s ONCE-Eroski team in 2003. In September that year he scored his first victory, the final stage of the Tour of Poland. At 62kg and 177cm, he has the physique of a climber yet his maiden win was in a 19km time trial.

On 12 April the next year he crashed after blanking out on the opening day of the Vuelta a Asturias. The reason for the accident soon became apparent; he was diagnosed with a cerebral cavernoma. A large scar across his head that hair fails to disguise is a vivid reminder of the brain surgery that was required to save his life. “There was a lot of doubt about how I would be,” he said about the aftermath of the operation, “but now I’m back on the bike and that’s when I’m happiest.”

When he said this, he’d just beaten Rasmussen to 10th place in Loudenvielle and gained 54 seconds on Cadel Evans. The stage was won by Vinokourov, the man Contador lined up beside at the team presentation of the 2006 Tour. They never got the chance to compete that year because some of their colleagues were associated with the doctor who was at the centre of Operación Puerto.

Before that he’d finished 31st in his Tour debut. That was the year he made his comeback, one that began in Australia.

Contador won the famous Willunga stage of the 2005 Tour Down Under, finishing hand-in-hand with a yellow-clad Luis Sanchez. The Liberty Seguros team claimed first, second, third (Allan Davis) and fourth (Javier Ramirez) in a race that signalled the start of the Spaniard’s renaissance.

Neil Stephens did the translation that day and he explained that it was a special occasion: the first win since the operation.

He’d opened the door that would ultimately lead to the Tour’s podium. Once there, however, questions surfaced about another operation. Had he also ventured inside a puerto that led to Dr Fuentes’ clinic as team-mates of his had done?

“His name appears on several occasions on the court and police documents,” said Werner Franke, a German who has collaborated on a number of books devoted to the subject of drugs in sport. “All of this has been concealed… [and] the name Contador was erased from the list of suspicious riders.”

It was the potential of allegations such as this that prompted the UCI to insist on riders signing a charter stating they would make their DNA available should they be implicated in any doping scandal. When asked why the governing body didn’t simply make a comparison with the blood found in Fuentes’ fridge, the president Pat McQuaid explained: “We are blocked… once the court of appeal takes a decision we will know if and when, if ever, we can access the blood samples.”

So, is Contador’s victory in doubt? “It’s not fair to suggest that,” said McQuaid, “until adequate evidence is found.”

A Spaniard copped the wrath of the UCI in the closing months of the 2007 season, but it was not Contador. A legal battle over an alleged cover-up of Alejandro Valverde’s connection with the blood doping ring soured the lead-up to the world championships. None of this had an impact on the status of the latest winner of the Tour. He was enjoying the privileges of his new-found fame, handling it with humility and grace.

This is the new Contador, a survivor and an animated racer who claimed the stage to Plateau de Beille. History tells us that the winner at the top of this climb also takes the title. Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong both reached the Pyrenean peak first and then arrived in Paris wearing the maillot jaune. But Alberto had to wait for his main rival to falter.

On the bike Rasmussen refused to concede. He obliterated the field and, in a final act of defiance, led the two podium-bound Discovery riders to the summit of the Col d’Aubisque. And then he was gone. Clad in white as the leader of the youth classification, Contador was destined for yellow by default.

“It’s not the way that we had hoped to take the yellow jersey,” said Bruyneel of the inheritance. “Rasmussen was stronger but now Contador is the leader of the Tour.”

Early this July there was a lot of talk about the chance of Spain getting another champion. Oscar Pereiro has since been declared the winner from last year, but he is officially the sixth Spaniard to claim the title. Before the announcement was made, Contador had earned his success. He accepted his accolades from the centre of the Champs-Élysées, not at a ceremony in a room in Madrid 425 days after being declared the best clean rider.

One rider to escape the New Indurain title was Contador… until he won Paris-Nice (just as Miguel did in 1989 and 1990), But this was a new style of rider; he attacked on the hills.
The fourth five-time winner plodded up the climbs marking his rivals and stomped all over them in the time trials. The closest anyone got to Indurain during his reign was Gianni Bugno in 1991: three minutes 36 seconds. The next time one of his compatriots won he danced on the climbs, and survived the time trials.

Contador is not the new Indurain. He’s the champion of a new era, a time when victory is achieved by a fistful of seconds. It’s heart against heart and we expect the composition of the blood to come from their own being. No enhancement.

They survived cancer and brain surgery, and credit must go to the two men of Discovery who are still considered Tour de France winners… even after they stood on the top step of the podium on that famous avenue in Paris.

- Rob Arnold


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Author: design@ride

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