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Monday, July 3, 2006

Hot tip:  What's the fastest way to see great photos from the Tour de France?  Click on our Yahoo photo gallery link and you'll find some great shots from the current stage in progress!  These AP/AFP photographers are equipped with full mobile capability for transferring their photos from the road...
Hincapie in yellow
Discovery Channel snubs L'Equipe

George Hincapie
George Hincapie
2005 Dauphiné Libéré

In yesterday's stage 1 of the Tour de France, American George Hincapie, of the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, used the final intermediate sprint to earn a two-second bonus, enough to grab the yellow jersey of overall race leader.  It was sweet revenge for Hincapie who was just an intermediate sprint away from taking the yellow jersey in the 1998 Tour.  Hincapie, one of the most complete riders in the peloton, has also worn yellow in the Dauphiné Libéré, in 2005 (photo).

French sports daily L'Equipe now finds itself in the awkward position of not getting daily rider updates (injuries, etc.) from the team of the race leader.  But Discovery Channel isn't expected to defend the lead for very long this early in the race.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

July 2, 2006

A French Revolution!
From gory to Gloria to glory?

The 2006 Tour de France got underway yesterday afternoon and last night all of France celebrated, cheered, drank and honked their car horns.  Thousands poured onto the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, thrilled that Frenchman Thomas Voeckler had won cycling's biggest race!

No, let's not get ahead of ourselves.  The French of course were celebrating France's victory over Brazil in the World Cup quarter-finals.  The celebrations continue today, in glorious weather, and "I Will Survive," the Gloria Gaynor song that came to symbolize France's first-ever World Cup victory (also over Brazil) in 1998, the year of, ahem, the Festina doping scandal, can be heard through the windows of automobiles everywhere.  French boys with blue Zidane jerseys were out early this morning working on their moves.  Everyone is asking, "How can Zidane retire after the skill he demonstrated last night?"

And that was just the quarter-finals!

There's a line in that song that reads, "Go on now, go walk out the door, just turn around now, 'cause you're not welcome anymore."  That's probably how Ivan, Jan, Francisco and the other riders prevented from starting the Tour feel today.  You're no longer welcome, off you go.

Off with their heads was more like it.  Though the riders' teams unanimously agreed to pull their stars from the competition (they really had no choice because all ProTeams signed an ethics charter requiring them to remove from competition riders who are under investigation for doping), based on evidence presented to them of athlete involvement in the "Operacion Puerto" doping scandal in Spain, the timing and manner in which this has all been carried out was ugly and questionable.

Predictably, the final pre-Tour week began when French dailies Le Monde and L'Equipe continued their assault on retired 7-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, cutting and pasting selected (and contested) testimony from a recent court case in the U.S. that resulted in Armstrong receiving not only the $5 million in bonus money due from SCA Promotions for winning the 2004 Tour de France, but an additional, astonishing $2.5 million in punitive damages.  L'Equipe closed out last weekend by dragging 3-time Tour champion and Armstrong foe Greg LeMond out of storage and dusting him off for yet another round of assaults on Armstrong.

LeMond wasn't all that was dusted off in France this past week.  The French guillotine, which had gone unused since 1971, coincidentally the year Armstrong was born, was also pulled from storage and put to use as cycling's top stars were lined up at the Tour start in Strasbourg and "decapitated" while the world watched.  The French government, Tour organizer Amaury Sport Organization (A.S.O.), and of course the French media, all played a role in the timing of these public "executions".

Make no mistake, if the suspended riders were involved in the doping operation in Spain, then they need to be removed from the sport, at least temporarily, not the least of which for their own sake.  They will, we hope, understand that eventually.

As with any  revolution, this is going to be painful.  More heads are going to roll.  But the executioners had darned well better be sure their own houses are clean.  There is no telling where all of this is leading...

Friday, June 30, 2006

Note:  Our Guide to Live Online Coverage of the 2006 Tour de France will be up before tomorrow's prologue.

Basso, Ullrich, Sevilla, Mancebo, Beloki out of Tour
More suspensions to come

Well, we said over a month ago, on May 25, that: "Depending on who all is involved, this (Operacion Puerto) scandal could have a major impact on the remainder of the 2006 pro cycling season..."

The impact will of course go beyond 2006 as some of the top riders in the sport, including Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Francisco Mancebo, are facing bans, including up to four years from ProTour races.  Ullrich, who had been looking to add a second Tour win after his victory in 1997, may instead see his career effectively over.

These suspensions of course change everything at the top of the list of favorites for the Tour, which begins tomorrow.  Discovery Channel suddenly looks well positioned, as do Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis and Alejandro Valverde.  The race should be even more wide open now.  This Tour could be won by someone who gets a big lead in a breakaway on the flats in the first week.  So expect to see just about everyone who's not a favorite or teammate of a favorite for the overall looking to get into breakaways the first week.  Anything can happen, including more suspensions, entire teams being kicked out, police raids, rider protests, streakers, Elvis sightings, anything.  It's 1998 all over again....but all is rosy, of course, at the World Cup where aging stars have infinite energy in their legs...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Note:  We'll of course have our Guide to Live Online Coverage of the 2006 Tour de France up before Saturday's prologue.  We are in the process of completing final preparations for the Tour.

2006 Tour of Switzerland photos by Christine Grein
In our photo galleries section
2006 Tour of Switzerland photos by Christine Grein

We are excited to announce that we have a new contributing photographer at Christine Grein.  You'll find some of her latest photos in our Photo galleries section.  And if you have never seen Christine's "Capture-the-Peloton" website, then run, do not walk, run to see it.  Christine has a rare talent for capturing the riders in the peloton, all of them, at any time of day, before, during, after the race.  If she sees a rider relaxing with an espresso before race start, Christine gets the shots you won't often see elsewhere.  With many of her shots, you cannot help but grin.  And her database of individual rider images is just phenomenal!

Note:  We told you about OLN's "The Player" weeks before OLN even announced it.  Last week, they posted their official announcement of this "broadband channel dedicated to providing viewers 24/7 access to the network’s wide array of sports events and series."  We'll be updating our Archive media clips soon, including links to OLN content.   Click for more .

The Landis Way
Phonak Hearing Systems, 2006 Tour de France
Tour de France teams have started announcing their lineups.  So we'll start looking at some of them and speculate a bit on what they might do on the roads of France in July.  Today:   Phonak

On a cool Saturday morning in late March, 2004, Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong, teammates at the time with the USPS Pro Cycling Team, were negotiating their way by bike through the crowd to sign in before stage 1 of the Critérium International in the north of France.  The path, between two long rows of team buses and cars, was filled with riders, team staff, members of the media, and spectators looking for autographs.  The going was slow, not something either Landis or Armstrong are known for.

At a gap between two team vehicles, Landis suddenly hung a left into a grassy field before yelling back to Armstrong, "Short cut!"  Armstrong paused before saying "I don't think so, Floyd."  But Landis was gone, determined to find another way to the sign-in area.  Armstrong, the man who the previous July had had to go "cross-country" in a dramatic stage of the Tour de France that saw contender Joseba Beloki crash out of the race (the field where Armstrong demonstrated quick thinking and impressive bike handling is today marked with a sign), continued along the paved path to sign in.

Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong, 2004 Criterium International
Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong
on their way to the start line of stage 1,
2004 Criterium International

Floyd Landis likes to do things his own way and indeed later that season, after the Tour, announced he was leaving to join the team of Phonak Hearing Systems.

Landis rode as a team leader in the Tour for the first time in 2005, finishing a solid 9th overall, 12:44 behind Armstrong.  In 2006, not surprisingly he has chosen his own path once again by coming out strong early in the season, winning the Tour of California, Paris-Nice and Tour de Georgia stage races.  Then, just when we all expected him to show strongly at the Dauphiné Libéré earlier this month, as Lance Armstrong has always done (including overall wins in 2002 and 2003), Landis shut things down on the stage to Mont Ventoux where he was seen laughing within the final few kilometers of the climb (photo below), losing 9:30 on that stage before finishing the race in 60th place overall nearly an hour behind race winner Levi Leipheimer!

Floyd Landis and Chris Horner on Mont Ventoux
Floyd Landis and Chris Horner on Mont Ventoux
2006 Dauphiné Libéré

Welcome to The Landis Way, complete with his original time trial position.  Speaking of time trialing, despite his poor overall showing at the Dauphiné, Landis finished second to Dave Zabriskie in the 43km time trial of that race, an indication of very strong form.

Landis is the undisputed leader of the Phonak team for the Tour and the riders expected to support his bid to win are:  Victor Hugo Pena, Alexandre Moos, Koos Moerenhout, Axel Merckx, M. Angel Martin Perdiguero, Nicolas Jalabert, Robert Hunter and Bert Grabsch.

Victor Hugo Pena
Victor Hugo Pena
Axel Merckx
Axel Merckx

Floyd Landis is aiming to win the 2006 Tour de France.  While winning is a long way from his 9th place overall last year, Landis should be considered a contender for overall victory and certainly the podium.  The race is considered wide open this year with Armstrong's retirement and there is no telling what can happen with race favorites Ivan Basso (trying to achieve the rare Giro-Tour double after winning the Giro) and Jan Ullrich (dealing with the pressure now that Armstrong is gone, as well as wanting to clear his name in the wake of newspaper reports in Spain suggesting he may be involved in the doping scandal there).  Indeed, anything could happen in this Tour.

Will they play ZZ Top through the speakers lining the Champs Elysées this year, on the last day of the Tour?

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Getting your money's Würth?  
Astana-Wurth, 2006 Tour de France
Tour de France teams have started announcing their lineups.  So we'll start looking at some of them and speculate a bit on what they might do on the roads of France in July.  Today:   Astana-Wurth

The Astana-Wurth team (formerly Liberty Seguros-Wurth) has received approval to pursue ProTour activity "for now."  The decision , from the UCI ProTour Council President, pertains only to the team's financial situation.  The UCI ProTour License Commission says it does not yet have enough information to rule on the question of ethics in the wake of team owner Manolo Saiz's alleged involvement in the "Operation Puerto" doping scandal in Spain.

Astana-Wurth team car at the 2006 Dauphine Libere
Astana-Wurth team car at the Dauphiné Libéré

Astana-Wurth thus remains something of a hot potato and the question remains:  If this thing explodes, who will be holding it when that happens?  The Tour de France start in Strasbourg is just one week away and the French government has tried to pressure Spanish authorities to release information about the case so that the Tour can be spared a possible repeat of the 1998 Festina Affair.

Tour organizer A.S.O. was quick to uninvite the Communidad Valencia team, which it had selected as one of two wild cards, despite the fact that to date none of its riders have been implicated in the scandal.  Having made that "strong" stand, they just as quickly dumped Astana-Wurth into the lap of the UCI.  Now, unless the UCI can wave a magic wand and transform Astana-Wurth into a football (soccer) team, cycling's governing body finds itself yet again fully responsible for everyone's favorite punching bag, cycling, even as FIFA's World Cup proceeds reportedly without conducting a single blood test.  (Ironic how the sport with all the money to do drug testing somehow avoids it while a much poorer sport like cycling continually gets beat up for supposedly not doing enough.)

Given the never-ending political battles between the UCI and A.S.O., if the UCI comes to the conclusion that Active Bay, the company that holds the ProTour license for Astana-Wurth, must have its license revoked, can we expect the UCI to go out of its way to spare A.S.O. and the Tour a July nightmare?  Not on your life.  The raison d'etre of the UCI ProTour is largely to grow the sport and strengthen the races not under control of A.S.O.  Though a July black eye would be bad for everyone, perhaps some wouldn't mind seeing A.S.O. squirm a bit.  And it would not be the send-off that longtime Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc wants; he will retire after the race.

Somewhat lost in all of this, as usual, are the athletes themselves, starting with Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov.  Now we don't know if "Vino" has ever had an extra cup or two of coffee before a bike race but we do know this:  when Vino had the chance to bolt in the wake of this scandal and sign with a team guaranteed a spot in the Tour, he instead decided to try and keep the team together (and spare dozens of jobs), most of whose members he barely knows, by bringing in Kazakh sponsor Astana.  Though Vino's best chance to win the Tour is to have a team like Astana-Wurth fully behind him, he is still taking a personal risk.

With the above out of the way, what might we expect Astana-Wurth to do at the Tour, assuming they're on the start line and do not get booted mid-race?

First of all, the riders expected to support Vino's bid to win the Tour are:  Andrey Kashechkin (Kazakhstan), Jorg Jaksche (Germany), Luis Leon Sanchez (Spain), Isidro Nozal (Spain), Allan Davis (Australia), Alberto Contador (Spain), Joseba Beloki (Spain), and Assan Bazayev (Kazakhstan).

Andrey Kashechkin
Andrey Kashechkin
Jorg Jaksche
Jorg Jaksche

Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador

Vinokourov, who will be 33 this year and has given himself two years to win the Tour, is undisputed team leader.  He finished third overall in the 2003 Tour, the most thrilling Tour of the Armstrong era, so he no doubt thinks he has a legitimate shot at the top step of the podium.  He missed the 2004 Tour due to injury, then finished 5th overall in the 2005 Tour, with two stage wins, including the final stage to the Champs Elysées.  But in-fighting at his T-Mobile team and not having the team behind him for the overall classification (a certain Jan Ullrich was team leader afterall) led Vino to transfer to the team formerly known as Liberty Seguros-Wurth.

Finishing 5th in the Tour, especially without a team behind you, is nothing to sneeze at.  If he is equally strong this year, and with Armstrong retired, Vinokourov is right to believe that he's got a shot at victory, especially with a team fully behind him.  The plan this season was for Vino to focus 100% on the Tour and for him to race less with emotion and to be more patient.  Attack less, ride more defensively.  It's not the Vino we've known and it's hard to imagine him, approaching 33, beating Basso and Ullrich, but he's got to try.

Will the UCI and A.S.O. let him?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Can they hold the Mayo?
*please don't write in, we've already nominated this for most corny and overused title
Euskaltel-Euskadi, 2006 Tour de France
Tour de France teams have started announcing their lineups.  So we'll start looking at some of them and speculate a bit on what they might do on the roads of France in July.  Today:   Euskaltel-Euskadi

With other teams seeing transfers on a regular basis, Euskaltel, the "all-Basque team," pretty much looks the same year after year, a rarity in professional sports today.

Euskaltel will of course be led by climbing sensation Iban Mayo (seen on Mont Ventoux in above photo).  Mayo will be backed by Iker Camano, Unaï Etxebarria, Aitor Hernandez, Iñaki Isasi, Iñigo Landaluze, David López, Gorka Verdugo, and Haimar Zubeldia.

Iker Camano, Euskaltel-Euskadi
Iker Camano
Inigo Landaluze, Euskaltel-Euskadi
Inigo Landaluze

The days where Euskaltel were anything approaching a threat for overall victory in the Tour de France (Zubeldia and Mayo finished 5th and 6th, respectively, in the 2003 Tour where Mayo also won the stage to Alpe d'Huez) seem long gone.  Though Mayo, who pushed Lance Armstrong to the limits in the 2003 Dauphiné Libéré, went on to win the 2004 Dauphiné, shattering American Jonathan Vaughter's record up Le Mont Ventoux in the process, he disappeared for two years.  (He didn't finish the Tour in 2004 after barely even surviving the cobblestones of the first week, before finishing 60th in 2005.)

Disappeared, that is, until his win to La Toussuire at this year's Dauphiné in a stage that is nearly identical to stage 16 of this year's Tour.

Iban Mayo, 2006 Dauphine Libere
Iban Mayo is smiling again, the day after winning
stage 6 of the 2006 Dauphiné Libéré.

Iban Mayo is back.  The swashbuckling Basque climber, his injuries behind him, has matured, and he is smiling again.  And with everyone talking about Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, Mayo, never comfortable with the limelight, is now perhaps at his most dangerous.

Realistically-speaking, what can we expect from Mayo in this year's Tour?  Can he pull a surprise and reach the podium or will he have to settle for seeking a stage win or two and a possible top-10 overall?  What can we expect from anyone in the first Tour post-Lance?  We just don't know but the days of pure climbers with limited time trialing who are a threat in the Tour seem gone.  If the CSC team of Ivan Basso, for example, is able to lock down the race à la USPS/Discovery Channel, then Mayo may not get much chance to show what he can do unless he finds himself well out of contention for the overall and is allowed to get away for a stage win.  But if the race proves to be somewhat uncontrollable, then Mayo may find an opening to do some damage.  He will lose significant time, chunks of minutes, to riders like Basso and Ullrich in the two big time trials so if he is going to have a shot at the podium, he will have to be on form for the early stages in the Pyrenees and then on back-to-back stages to Alpe d'Huez ( stage 15 ) and La Toussuire ( stage 16 ), both climbs where he has already proved himself.  If Mayo is in good shape after stage 16, and has good recovery, stage 17 to Morzine via the beyond category Col de Joux-Plane will also be to his liking ahead of the final time trial , a whopping 57km test against the clock that will reveal the final podium of the 2006 Tour de France.  Will it include Mayo?  Unlikely, but if he's even in the running, it will be an exciting Tour...

Note:  If you're interested in getting an inside look at the amateur ranks, the France regional reports (in French) are often fascinating as the cameras get inside the team meetings to discuss strategy or analyze successes or failures.  Example: The VC (Velo Club) Pomme Marseille team report, just added to the Archive media clips.

Note:  A cycling fan in Denver wrote in to point out our incorrect "EST" designation for broadcast times, given that most of the U.S. is now on Daylight Savings Time.  It was suggested that we refer to the given U.S. times as "Eastern Time" from now on, and that's just what we'll do.  Thanks Will!  Sorry for any confusion.

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