Wednesday, July 25, 2007

TdF Stage 16: Are We There Yet?

Can we at least see rock bottom from here? Please? Everyone was dying for it to happen, if only Michael Rasmussen could disappear, we could all be relieved. But oddly enough, this made me cry more than anything. (Although honestly, Cofidis had me sniffling already, so I was ripe for releasing some stress.) As Discovery said, no one is smiling tonight. It's a horrid situation, and it is small consolation that at least it happened before Sunday. And before Saturday, so we can at least have one "real" race for yellow.

Unlike some previous leaders, Rasmussen was far from a lock in the final TT, so I think whoever wins shouldn't have too big an asterisk by their name. But if you're going to win the Tour, you really wouldn't want it to be this year. I don't know, we'll have to see how the remaining days go. If this is finally the end of the departures, maybe some joy can be salvaged. If I was doing anything illegal at this Tour, I would slip away now claiming fatigue from today's tough stage, and not risk taking my team and the sport down with me.

What I cry for, aside from the sport in general, is the teammates. I didn't feel it as much for Astana, because Vino was the reason the team existed and all ambitions were subservient to his. But Andreas Kloden's remarks today remind me that the sadness is felt just as heavily there. Cofidis, though, I wept for that tragedy this afternoon. I don't know the rest of the guys, I don't know if they're all clean, but I have no reason to think they aren't. And so I can't fathom the betrayal by Cristian Moreni (who has admitted to taking testosterone, at least we have that closure).

How many chances do you get to finish a Tour? How many chances do you get to be the best-placed Frenchman, as Sylvain Chavanel was at the end of today? And Bradley Wiggins, so proud to ride in a Tour that began in his homeland. It was the first Tour for some, and now they can't say they finished it on their first try. Was it the last for anyone? Stephane Auge busted his ass to get in a breakaway today, and suffered a long time before being caught up. All the while L'Equipe was breaking the news (don't even get me started on that). And who can forget the great sportsmanship between Auge and Chavanel around the mountains jersey back in the first week? That was a beautiful example of team loyalty. And now they get to leave with a team branded by the worst kind of team betrayal.

These riders had the skill, heart, and good fortune to get through the mountains, and Paris was in sight. But now they are forced to leave at the team sponsor's request. It's probably a good thing that Moreni was taken away by the gendarmes, I'd be afraid if I were him. Which is not to accuse any of his teammates of being violent, but one does get lost in a moment when presented with such a crushing blow. I can't begin to imagine.

And Rabobank. The remaining riders are allowed to start tomorrow if they want. I wonder, will any of them want to? They will be either completely deflated and wondering about the point of it all, or good and pissed and defiant and come out heads raised high. Because I think everyone knew the score there. They were sympathetic figures, it was clear there was no joy on the team, but they did their jobs unreservedly. Thomas Dekker has the spotlight of being a future hope riding in his first Tour, and then had the pressure of working like a dog for the yellow jersey, and he rose to the occasion. He hung in there and put in the extra kilometer each day, until he could give no more. Michael Boogerd, in his last Tour, did the same, giving his all, and getting up the next day and doing it again. And how about Denis Menchov? At least Levi could still sort of work for himself after Contador's rise. Menchov became a full domestique, following Boogerd and Dekker in their devotion to the jersey. Now, to be fair, he blew up himself, so it wasn't like he sacrificed his chances, but still, he's a Grand Tour winner dragging a questionable teammate up the mountains.

With the rider protest this morning, and who knows what is going on tonight in hotel rooms, and what tomorrow will look like, it is good to see the riders rising up to take a stand. I don't judge them for not doing it this strongly in the past, how can I say what those dynamics were. But so many are trying so hard to keep it clean now, the anger is there and the limits are being set. It's not just going to be suspensions or warnings anymore, I think it's going to be complete ostracism by your colleagues, and you won't be welcomed back in the peloton, no matter what the UCI says.

The way some guys are still going at it, who can say what it takes to get through to the remaining dopers, but I have to think this kind of rider against rider firmness will make an impact. And taking your whole team with you, that's got to make someone think twice, doesn't it? This is how it changes, but that doesn't make it fair that these innocent casualties of the past couple days are the guys that have to pay the price in the process.

I never got to make a real comment on Alexandre Vinokourov, though that seems so beside the point now. But I wasn't furious with him yesterday. I shook my head and laughed in disbelief at the stupidity of it all. Some immediately painted him as an evil-doer and couldn't wash their hands fast enough. But that's the thing, he wasn't a bad guy. People loved and respected him. David Millar talked of his class and beauty even while devastated by the news. Phil and Paul appeared to love him like a son. This is not to say he shouldn't be condemned, or that he didn't horribly betray his team, but just to say it's complicated.

I can't say I was shocked. He's old school, he was with heavily doping teams (the old T-Mobile, Liberty-Seguros), and came out of that Eastern bloc system. But you hope that people realize that time is over, that it just can't be done anymore. It just goes to show you how ingrained it is. For some riders, there may be nothing for it, the change will never come. Vino has denied it, it should be noted, but two positives from two different days on what is said to be a straightforward test does not bode well. I don't have hardness in my heart for Vino, I can be funny that way, just sadness at what we and he lost, and at what must be in his head to do such a thing.

It would be a really pointless exercise to go into all of the what-ifs, but just considering the scope of that is gut-wrenching. And something the other contenders will have to struggle with, to keep it at bay and focus on the future. But all Levi and Cadel and others gave under the pressure of Rasmussen, the way they had to race, what they might have lost, where they might have been, it's overwhelming. I believe Levi and Cadel are in a good position to get to where they should rightly be. Go Cadel, go Levi, one of you in yellow in Paris will go a long way.

I don't think Alberto Contador will wear yellow tomorrow, surely that will be one of several symbolic statements made. I'll be curious to see what else is expressed, and how.

It's largely pointless to comment on today's stage, I've found myself not paying much attention to my second viewing this evening, because so much of it doesn't matter or is frustrating to think about. But a few things still come through. Kid Contador finally looked like one today, young and vulnerable. I hope that's a good sign. Juan Mauricio Soler looks straight out of Triplets of Belleville, at least that still gives me a laugh! And have I ever loved Al Trautwig more - well, okay, I've never loved him period - than this morning when he so rightly put the Tour's woes in complete context with the rest of what's going in sports today. Who knows if anyone will see it that way after today, but at least he said it. Chris Horner (who I rarely mention, but I have been delighted with his success) and Christian Vande Velde (likewise) had great statements on Versus tonight (given this morning of course). I hope that pride and "let's move on without the garbage" attitude carries the day tomorrow and through Sunday.


cat2bike said...

Julie, I know how you feel about Vino. There's a weakness there, that I wish wasn't; but I feel the same way about Jan Ullich. Re: Boler, he just makes me laugh!! I'm glad he won the jersey today, so there is no doubt about his accomplishment. Personally, I'd like to see the Rabobank riders show up. They worked their guts and hearts out, for someone they weren't crazy about for the good of the team. And Rabobank, is one of those really great teams, that give s back to cycling and runs a developmental team in Holland, too. And we still have the TT.

Phil said...

I may regret saying this but I think we have hit bottom or pretty close to it. I think the clean riders will become more insistent and any infraction is likely to get a rider out of the Tour.

What do people think of the TV coverage on VS? I think the commentary is good but they didn't tell us Chicken Man was being booed even at the finish. I think they should be forthcoming. Once again, it's journalists and the internet that break stories. I would love a rookie to win but not sure. It will come down to the TT tomorrow.

Julie said...

Phil - he's not a rookie! (see comment on a previous day) Unless you're using that as a general term for a young guy, but it's not his first Tour.

I could hear the booing pretty clearly on the broadcast, maybe we could hear it even better than the commentators could. The broadcast booths weren't at the finish yesterday, because of the location, they were down the mountain. I wonder how high they have the volume up while they're trying to talk and look at computers and so on.

Al and Bob have been okay since their first disastrous night. I've enjoyed Frankie and Robbie dropping by, it adds a lot. But I always also watch P&P from the morning.

If (big if) Contador's blood clot in his brain came from drugs, let's hope the near-death experience made him swear off for life.