Monday, 28 July 2008

A Very Good Tour

Well, regular readers will know my opinion of Cadel Evans in the Tour de France and so will understand how glad I was that he was not able to pull back the time on Carlos Sastre on the time trial on Saturday and so went on to ultimate victory. Sastre is very self-effacing a trait which appeals highly to British viewers but probably seems perverse to US or Australian ones.

Commentators say fans of the Tour de France divide into two camps, those who like to see a champion like Miguel Indurain or Lance Armstrong tactically and strategically take apart the opposition and those, including myself, who prefer an open race in which it is uncertain who will win and there are chops and changes throughout. The 2008 race was in the latter category, often with less than a minute dividing the top 5-6 riders and there were others such as Denis Menchov and Bernhard Kohl with maybe some more luck could have won. There were days when successful breakaways won for heroes like Marcus Burghart of Stage 18 or Sylvain Chavanel of Stage 19 and there were stages for sprinters, notably the four victories by Mark Cavendish, the best a British rider has done in a single tour. There was excellent tension, such as on the first day in the Alps when Sastre staked out his claim for victory by breaking away in Alpe D'Huez and then again in the final time trial as he rode excellently to hold on to it. Seven people held the yellow jersey throughout the race this year and even when it seemed a foregone conclusion that Cadel Evans would win, there were still surprises, it was really edge of the seat stuff.

The interesting thing is that the man who won the Tour de France last year, Alberto Contador was not invited to compete this year. This is because the Central Asian team, Astana that he rides for were barred in 2006 and kicked out in 2007 when Alexandre Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin and Matthias Kessler were detected as having taken drugs. The Astana team is now run by Johan Bruyneel and he has a strict drugs checking policy, but clearly the team has to serve its time in exile before the authorities will let it back in. I do hope so as a Sastre-Contador-Evans (plus Menchov and Kohl) battle will make for exciting cycling.

The thing that stopped 2008 being an excellent tour for me was the continued presence of drugs. Of course it was nothing on the scandals of recent years. In 2006 Floyd Landis was stripped of his victory of the whole race for drugs taking. Last year two leaders of the race, Alexandre Vinukurov was kicked out for drug taking and then Michael Rasmussen for irregularities around his drug tests. Last year whole teams went, this year Moises Duenas Nevado and Manuel Beltran were removed but their teams remained, following the removal of Ricardo Ricco who had one the 9th stage and the departure of the Saunier Duval team with the winner of Stage 10, Leonardo Piepoli and Juan Jose Cobo who came second on that stage. Effectively the Barloworld team funded from South Africa will dissolve after Nevado on that team was caught, as they are withdrawing sponsorship. This is the shame as Barloworld were one of the few non-European teams. Interestingly the new approach of the authorities targeting suspicious riders seems to have paid off, maybe in future they should be barred from even entering. Three teams in this year's race have their own drugs monitoring on top of the official one and I think in future any team being entered into the race must be compelled to adopt this approach.

The thing that effectively lost Cadel Evans the 2008 Tour de France was his team, Silence Lotto. They were almost invisible in the race and you can contrast this with the strength of the CSC team which put first Frank Schleck and then Carlos Sastre into the yellow jersey. A team even half as good as CSC would have allowed Evans to claw back Sastre's gain on Alpe D'Huez which was a model of team working with the two Schleck brothers policing the people pursuing Sastre and breaking up any pursuit. Evans had no-one to help him counter that and he also lacked the gall of someone like Armstrong, who knew that even when he was in the yellow jersey sometimes he had to attack rather than simply defend. Evans has come second in 2007 and 2008. He can win the Tour (though given his acid personality I hope he never does) if he can get even 2-3 decent team members around him. He has the all-round ability which he has demonstrated throughout this race, but he lacks that added spark of a team that can haul him up a mountain or break up his pursuers that both Sastre and Frank Schleck could call upon. The Tour de France was won by the CSC not only in actuality, but in terms of performance and they are an example in terms of how they work on the road (and their drugs screening policy) that other teams should really seek to copy.

Though the race is just over, I am very excited about 2009. I trust that it will be a clean race and one in which there will a whole host of exciting riders battling out for victory. That will be the sport of cycling at its peak. It has been a long, hard slog to reach, but I feel we are finally getting there and that is all for the good. Walking around my home town, I can see the impact that Cavendish's wins have already had on British cycling, there are so many more people (all men interestingly, maybe we need to bring back coverage of the women's Tour de France) and also children rather than wearing football strips, are in cycling caps and outfits. In the long-run this is not only good for the sake of cycling as a sport, but, I feel, for the health of the UK population.

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