Friday, June 30, 2006

Tour de France, Redux

[photo caption] With seven-time winner Lance Armstrong (l) out of the picture, new Tour favorite Alejandro Valverde seeks to revive a deeply wounded Tour de France. (photo courtesy TheAge.Com)

The events of the past twenty-four hours have rocked the Tour de France to the core.

For the uninformed, several riders were barred from the Tour today, including favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich. Additionally, one team (Astana-Wurth) was forced to resign from the Tour because they would not be able to field a full roster according to UCI rules.

Here are some questions being asked and some best guesses as to their answers:

Why aren't teams being allowed to replace riders lost to "Operation Puerto"?
As an example, after rider Matt White broke his collarbone the morning of the 2004 Prologue, his team was able to replace him. The answer is fairly obvious: the Tour organizers were not going to permit Astana-Wurth from racing under any circumstances. The organizers found their loophole for carrying out this plan in the rider replacement guidelines, and Astana is out.

Francisco Mancebo was barred from riding the Tour and promptly retired; is Ullrich far behind?
No, Ullrich is not far behind. This was most likely going to be Ullrich's last Tour, and unless the big German finds it in him to suffer through one more season of trying to shed winter's weight, look for Jan to retire.

Where does Alexandre Vinokourov go from here?
The Astana-Wurth team is most likely going to fold in light of their seemingly intricate involvement in the "Operation Puerto" scandal. If the team indeed folds, Vinokourov would become a free agent and where he ends up could be anyone's guess. Both Liberty-Seguros and Discovery made significant plays for Vino's services last year, but will his potential involvement in the biggest smear on the sport since '98s "Festina Affair" scare off suitors this time around? And, at 32, Vinokourov is not getting any younger.

With Ullrich and Basso out, who are the new Tour favorites?
The oddsmakers were quick to tip Caisse d'Epargne's Alejandro Valverde as the new betting favorite. In reality, however, the Tour is now wide open. Here is a brief list of names you could reasonably expect see on the podium in three week's time (alphabetical order):
--Damiano Cunego (Lampre)
--Danilo DiLuca (Liquigas-Bianchi)
--Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto)
--George Hincapie (Discovery)
--Andreas Kloden (T-Mobile)
--Floyd Landis (Phonak)
--Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner)
--Iban Mayo (Euskaltel)
--Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
--Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery)
--Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)
--Carlos Sastre (CSC)
--Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery)
--Gilberto Simoni (Saunier-Duval)
--Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne)

In short, the field is wide open. Some critics are commenting on the ills facing the Tour. However, while today's events have most definitely put the race in flux, they have also set the stage for what should be the most contested Tour de France since the "Festina Affair" riddled Tour of 1998, a Tour won by the late Marco Pantani.

The Tour will rise again.


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