It has been said that in the ideal Tour de France, only one rider would be left on his bike at the end of the race. The Tour is about pushing riders to their limits and seeing who survives.
189 riders started the Tour in London on July 1. Only 141 riders finished today's stage. One will wear the yellow jersey when the Tour arrives in Paris on Sunday.
Because race leader Michael Rasmussen was disqualified, no rider wore the jersey today on the road. Only after today's stage, was the yellow jersey awarded to Alberto Contador.
There are many ways to lose: A rider can be dropped by the peleton, crash in an early stage sprint, miss the road in a descent, crack on a mountain stage — or be kicked out for a doping violation.
Michael Rasmussen, who had worn the jersey for nine days, was kicked off his team yesterday for lying about why he missed doping tests in May and June. He had claimed he was in Mexico, but was found to have been training in Italy.
Because of the dark history of doping in recent years, race organizers, and the teams themselves, have taken a sharp stand against cheating. Riders are tested during each event and in between. Leaders are subjected to more tests. If you win a stage, you give a sample. If baseball were this strict, commissioner Bud Selig wouldn't have to meekly mutter that Barry Bonds is "innocent until proven guilty."
Rasmussen was booted, not because he tested positive, but because he lied about why he missed several tests. If Washington were this diligent about telling the truth, Alberto Gonzales would have been fired by now.
Alexander Vinokourov, the pre-race favorite, was disqualified for testing positive for blood doping. He was found to have another person's blood in his body last week. In this, the crudest method of cheating, someone else's red blood cells are injected into a rider's blood vessels. It is dangerous; the added volume of red blood cells can block a person's arteries.
Vinokorouv's team, Astana, and another team, Cofidis, are out of the tour because of doping violations. Vinokourov had impressed fans with his gritty determination to keep riding despite an accident early in the Tour that required nearly sixty stitches. But any favor he may have found among the fans has been erased by his willingness to cheat.
Another rider, Michael Rogers, was the leader on the road when he crashed in stage 8. He tried to keep riding and broke down in tears when he couldn't; he had separated his shoulder. This is a tough sport.
Alberto Contador, who is considered young at age 24, has thrilled fans with his repeated attacks in the mountains. His teammate, Levi Leipheimer, who paced him up the slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees, is being rewarded for his perseverance with a probable podium finish. Rarely do teammates end up on the podium together; the sacrifices required to put a rider in yellow end up costing a team leader's lieutenants time. I don't think any of Lance Armstrong's teammates (and he rode with some talented riders) joined him on the podium for any of his seven wins. Cadel Evans sits between them in second place, and could take the jersey with a strong time trial performance on Saturday.
Some European papers have called for the Tour to be cancelled. I don't agree. 141 riders have made it thus far. The peleton has covered nearly 2,000 miles and crossed two mountain ranges. Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer lead the race, having already spent more than 80 hours in the saddle. Others who were picked to win have fallen by the wayside. These three have been proven to be the strongest honest riders left upright in the Tour, and deserve to stand on the podium in Paris.
Photo: Reuters/Thierry Roge