Our feelings about the ASO’s rejection of Team Astana notwithstanding, the 2008 Tour de France will nonetheless be a spectacular drama. It seems a rotten shame to hold the race without the previous year’s winner, especially if he hasn’t been conclusively convicted as a doper. There were far stronger rethe ASOns to have kept Pedro Delgado out of the ’89 Tour than to keep Alberto Contador out of this year’s race.
To be fair, it seems the ASO is taking the long view on reforming cycling into a clean event. Whatever unfairness happens this year, may have happened last year … or the year before, may be tolerable in their view if it ensures the survival of the world’s largest annual sporting event.
There are two ways to look at the situation: The first is that as the pinnacle of cycling events, the Tour de France is incomplete if the previous year’s winner isn’t there for reasons other than injury or retirement. Similarly, the event is incomplete if the season’s most consistently performing team in stage races isn’t there. It seems worse still if that champion is from that team. If the best aren’t present, how can it be a true test of the best?
On the other hand, the Tour de France is a privately held business venture. It’s not unlike a restaurant. The restaurant owner has the ability to choose who is served. We’ve all seen signs that say, “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” The ASO might as well have put up a signs that says, “No dope, no suspicion of doping.”
We may not be able to fathom why the ASO cares so much about doping when there were such clear signs of it in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Patrice Clerc and company seem to want a clean race now. The only way to make sense of Astana’s non-invitation is forget about Vino, Kashechkin and the others, but rather to consider this a referendum on Johan Bruyneel; Lance Armstrong has suggested as much. And while winning the Giro bolstered the team’s argument that they are the best stage race team, the fact that Contador won the race after arriving in something other than finely tuned form only served to further the ASO’s belief that Astana races on bread and water … and a little something else.
And yet, the race will go on. The obvious GC contenders are Cadel Evans, Allejandro Valverde, Denis Menchov, and the brothers Schleck who both seem more destined to greatness than Carlos Sastre. Kim Kirchen is an unproven commodity in Grand Tours and seems unlikely to wind up on the podium. World Time Trial Champion and new Swiss National Time Trial Champion Fabian Cancellara seems bound to wear yellow for a few days.
Damiano Cunego might make a convincing run at the polka dot jersey, but to do so, he’ll have to get through Mauricio Soler first. Ricardo Ricco might provide some fireworks in the early mountain stages, but he seems rather young to make it to Paris among the leaders in his second Grand Tour of the year.
But what of the Green Jersey? With no Boonen and literally no help for McEwen, it will be interesting to see what teams have both the power and the will to marshal forces on the front to shut down breakaways while keeping the bunch strung out in the closing kilometers. It seems likely to be a battle between Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert
And the disappointment doesn’t end with no Contador, or Boonen. Levi Leipheimer, while too old to have been considered a real threat for the win would have been competitive nonetheless; this year was arguably Leipheimer’s last chance to have a strong ride. David Zabriskie is one of the only riders who could have competed head-to-head with Cancellara in the time trials and unfortunately, he’s still recovering from his crash in the Giro. And then there’s Mr. Non-selection, Tom Danielson. It’s a shame that he’s never been able to put together the form and fortitude necessary to even attend the Tour de France. Heck, at least Vaughters started it a few times.
There are absences enough from this year’s Tour to frustrate any fan. But that’s no reason not to watch. Pantani and Ullrich missed the ’99 Tour and it turned out to be a great race—even if you weren’t a fan of Armstrong’s.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International