So if you haven't already heard, a crazy Tour has just gotten crazier. Nobody has seen anything like this since the Festina affair in 1998. First Patrick Sinkewitz of T-Mobile had an "A" sample test positive for testorone. Then during the 2nd rest day, double stage-winner Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) had an "A" sample that supposedly indicates he got an illegal blood transfusion, sparking his entire team to withdraw from the race. At the start of Stage 16, a number of teams (including Cofidis) staged a protest about doping in the sport. Then at the finish line of Stage 16, Christian Moreni (Cofidis) was taken away by the police and it was announced that he had tested positive for testosterone. Moreni apparently has admitted his guilt and the entire Cofidis team withdrew from the race.
Now this: race leader Michael Rasmussen has been fired from Rabobank and removed from the Tour de France by his team for violating team rules. Apparently, Rabobank feels that Rasmussen lied to them about his whereabouts in the weeks before the Tour started, a situation that caused him to miss random drug screenings. The double stage winner, who dominated the finale of Stage 16 and seemed to be on his way to a Tour victory in Paris, is now simply gone from the race. There will doubtless be many more revelations about this in the days, weeks, and months to come. This is indeed a very dark day for the sport.
The mainstream news media, which thrives on rumors, half-truths, and scandal, will use this as another occasion to trumpet how cycling is dying because of drug revelations. Fortunately, most of those mainstream media boobs don't know the first thing about the sport of cycling. Cycling is trying to reorganize itself in the face of a modern sports culture where various forms of scientific performance enhancement (both legal and illegal) are pervasive. There are problems with the scientific reliability of some doping tests. At the same time, tests are necessary because many riders are clearly trying to cheat. The overzealous proclamations of anti-doping witch-hunters and the feigned innocence of those who try to cheat make the situation even more confusing.
However, pushing through this dark time and holding on to our love of the sport is essential now more than ever. The methodology and usage of scientific testing in the sport will improve. The structure of teams and their sponsorship deals will adapt, and riders will be monitored much closer to home. Though it seems to some like an Orwellian nightmare, I think the testing programs of teams like Slipstream, CSC, and T-Mobile are definitely the future of the sport. The confessions of men like David Millar, Bjarne Riis, and Erik Zabel will only make the sport stronger. I am one of those in the camp that believes some men are being pilloried unjustly because of inconsistent, under-developed, or flawed scientific testing procedures (see the Floyd Landis case). However, cases like Floyd's will also push the sport to develop better procedures that should make the testing and prosecution of riders more even-handed and accurate.
Those who know me would never call me an optimist. I mean, I've spent the last ten years of my professional life writing about how most nuclear apocalypse stories are too optimistic (among other things). But I think that cycling will get through this, and will be a much better sport because of the current turmoil. Cycling is dealing with its demons much more than football, futbol, baseball, basketball, and just about any other sport you can name. We have to keep cheering for those riders who are still in the race and celebrate what is still right about the sport. There are a lot of clean riders out there, and we have to stay behind these riders all the way to the finish line. We have to assume the riders left are clean until proven otherwise. If we don't, then we are just punishing the good guys for the mistakes of the cheaters. Loving during the tough times is what being a fan is really all about.
In that spirit, here is the new, post-Rasmussen Jambon report for Stage 16.
Golden Hams of the Day
Ham-Gazers of the Day
- Denis "The Menace" Menchov (Rabobank). The one-time winner of the Vuelta a Espaņa was a monster on the climbs today. He blistered the pace up the penultimate climb and reduced the Yellow Jersey group to a mere dozen riders. Then on the final climb he set the pace again on the lower slopes, shredding the weaker riders to set up his team leader. That Rasmussen was in such a great position to rock the top of that climb was due largely to Menchov. You have to feel for the guy: he gave up his own viable GC aspirations to work for Rasmussen, who is now out of the race. The current scandal should not overshadow how well Menchov has ridden in this race, and how unselfish of a teammate he has been for the past week.
- Alberto "Cobra" Contador (Discovery Channel). Now, suddenly, the Cobra finds himself in first place in the Tour de France with only a few days left until Paris. Contador gave it his all today: he attacked repeatedly up the final climb before getting dropped by the Yellow Jersey. His legs didn't have the same pop that they had in the earlier mountain stages, but he still gave it a go. He ended up finishing 3rd on the stage, but he managed to take 8" out of Evans and added an additional 8" for a time bonus. This means that Contador's GC lead is now 1' 53" on Evans. If there is a team in this race that knows how to protect a Yellow Jersey in the final week, it is Discovery Channel. They will have Hincapie, Popovych, and the rest of the boys to control the race until Paris. If things stay as they are, it will all come down to Saturday's big 55.5 km time trial. Contador still has to save his energy over the next few days and ride the time trial of his life to win this thing, but for now his lead is in very good hands.
- Levi "Button Fly" Leiphiemer (Discovery Channel). Okay, so Leipheimer's attacks on that final climb weren't exactly blistering. He went to the opposite side of the road and just raised the pace a bit, maybe taking his butt off the saddle once or twice in the process. But hey, that's the type of climber he is, and those many attacks did a lot of damage. Sure, he didn't win the stage, but he took 2nd and managed to snake time on all of his GC rivals who will still be in the race tomorrow. Most importantly, he is now in 3rd on GC at 2' 49" behind Contador and 56" behind Evans. His spot on the final podium is looking pretty secure, but which step he stands on will come down to the time trial on Saturday.
- Cadel "Hellraiser" Evans (Davitamon-Lotto). Evans didn't attack once today, but that's probably because he was on the rivet once again as the superior climbers took shots at one another. Evans didn't panic on the final climb when he got dropped, as he just set a steady pace and fought the whole way to the finish line. His 4th place limited the damage to his rivals and kept him in the hunt for the final victory. Evans took 1' 04" out of Contador in the Albi time trial, but that one was shorter and had a climb on it. The flatter and longer course the riders will face on Saturday will give Evans a serious shot at taking the 1' 54" he needs to pass Contador. Yep, despite all the controversy, this Tour is still going to come down to an exciting three-way race for glory that might rival the Lemond-Fignon finish of 1989 in drama.
- Carlos "Sassy" Sastre (CSC). Well, he gave it a shot. Sastre went into that early break, doing most of the work on the final section of the course as he tried to climb his way up the GC. Though he was finally caught and passed by some of his rivals, he still finished the stage in 8th at 2' 12". Sastre will now be in 4th on GC at 6' 02", and he'll have a major tussle with Zubeldia of Euskaltel-Euskadi to try and hold that spot in the final time trial. But you have to love a guy who goes out and risks everything like Sastre did today.
- Mauricio "Solo" Soler (Barloworld). Soler went in the early break, racking up mountains points and racing himself into the Polka-Dot Jersey. He finished the stage in 5th at 1' 25", an outstanding result for a guy off the front most of the day. Even if Rasmussen was still in the race, Soler would still have been 10 points up in the mountains points competition. As it stands now, Soler is so far ahead that he just has to stay in the race and upright until the finish line in Paris to take home the final Polka-Dot Jersey. Not a bad result for a guy and a team who some considered out of their league in this race.
- Nobody. Did you see the profile for today's stage? Levi Leipheimer called it one of the toughest (if not the toughest) Tour stage he'd ever seen. It was hot, the racing was hard, the climbs were long, and anybody who made it to the finish line and wasn't disqualified for various reasons deserves a big pat on the back. Now the men left in the race just have to keep themselves out of crashes and controversies until the finish in Paris. Then they can celebrate a job well done, regardless of what the tools in the mainstream news media have to say.
Locutus, a.k.a. Patrick Sharp, is the author of the new book Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture from the University of Oklahoma Press.