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The Tour de France - Prologue to the Prologue
submitted by Dave Balkin on 7/1/06

pixelThe Tour de France starts tomorrow with a 7.1KM time trial and whoever wins it will own the right to wear the legendary yellow jersey for as long as he and his team can hold on to it. A sprinter/time trialist generally wins this opening short test and with flat stages for the first week or so there’s every likelihood that tomorrow’s winner will wear it for a week.
pixelMy bet is on David Millar a Brit who is just returned to the sport after a two year ban for taking EPO. He’s had his license for just 5 days and is a changed man. He’s taken the anti-drug pledge just in time as the sport and this great race has just been diminished by a massive doping scandal.=
pixelThe numbers change from moment to moment but at least 9 tour riders including pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Francesco Mancebo and Alexander Vinokourov are out of the race. As we all know Lance won last year but the men that finished second third and fourth behind him are also out
pixel The banishment wasn’t done by any of the sanctioning organizations because it will months before the trials are concluded and guilt or innocence is adjudicated. But no matter, the teams themselves are determined to clean up this sport once and for all. There’s a gentlemen’s agreement among all teams that inflicts the harshest possible penalties for apparent guilt and in this kangaroo court a paper trail implication is enough. To make matters more difficult, by agreement, the banished riders can’t be replaced.
pixelIronically, Vinokourov was not implicated in the doping scandal but 5 of his Astana—Wurth teammates were and that left them with only 4 riders which by rules aren’t enough to field a team so he’s out too.
pixelVino was my choice to win and as good a choice as any. He can do it all and is fun to watch because he’s always on the attack and most of the time takes no prisoners.
pixelUllrich was implicated in the scandal and T-Mobile immediately suspended their superstar and by most expert opinion the favorite to win the race now that the specter of Lance is only an unpleasant memory.
pixelBasso just won the Giro d’ Italia and was going for the double; that’s winning the first two Grand Tours back to back. It’s so hard to do that few attempt it although it has been done a few times in the past. Basso had a solid chance with a month to recover and train just for this event. Most of all his team was strong and his team manager Bjarne Riis, a former TDF winner is an alleged mastermind and confident in his rider with a plan in place.
pixelIt all broke a week ago and is still unfolding. Operation Puerto was a Spanish police action against illegal drug use and it filmed dozens of riders entering a blood processing clinic. Some said they were visiting other doctors in the same building but bags of blood were seized with rider identification and also other incriminating evidence. 56 riders at last count were implicated.
pixelIt’s hard to put a positive spin on any of this but I’m going to try. First of all there is no sport that works harder to rid itself of illegal performance enhancement than cycling. If our mainstream sports policed themselves as rigorously there would be a host of big name players in baseball, football, basketball etc. announcing their retirement.
pixelThe history of cycling and particularly of stage racing is laced with drugs. In the early days the use of stuff that made you stronger or faster was primitive by today’s clinical standards but was looked upon as a godsend and became ingrained in the culture. As late as the 1960’s amphetamine use was so widespread that riders openly popped pills. Racing 275 days a year, an inhumane regimen, was common and there was no other way to put on a good show. It’s hard to believe that’s how they thought but that was then.
pixelThe temptation is huge because in no sport does performance enhancement work anywhere near as well. The glory and financial rewards are immediate. That’s because regulating the motor by using drugs is tantamount to removing a restrictor plate and that’s almost always the winning edge. If any of baseball’s pumped up sluggers couldn’t hit a curve ball they’d be bums and out of a job in short order no matter how strong.
pixelNone of the American riders are near the stink and that improves our chances of seeing yet another one of us on the podium’s top step. Our leading contender, all racing for different teams are Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Bobby Julich and David Zabriskie. Zabriskie wore yellow last year by winning the prologue and then holding it until he crashed a few stages later.
pixelSome are picking an all-American podium but I have my doubts that any of these guys are complete enough to do it. Still my man Vinokourov is out so I’ll pick George Hincapie because Discovery knows how to focus on winning and its manager Johann Bruyneel, with or without Lance, is the best in the business. Stay tuned.


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