Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shadow of a Doubt

I can’t think of another sport that would dismiss its leading player based on suspicion of misbehavior, with no actual proof.

Technically Michael Rasmussen was removed for lying to his team about where he spent time training in June. He said he was in Mexico. Other riders saw him training in Italy. Nobody accused him of anything else. His team sponsor shut down his winning ride—and the publicity it was bringing them—for lying to them.

I can’t think of another sport where players are required to report their whereabouts to authoritites 365 days a year, or where they’re subjected to random out-of-competition blood and urine testing for performance enhancers.

I had nothing against Michael Rasmussen as a rider, though of course if his ride was boosted through illegal training practices he needs to be gone. If he got pulled from the best ride of his life strictly because he lied to his team, it’s an unfortunate lesson about the importance of honesty.

Rasmussen outrode Team Discovery yesterday as they threw everything they had at him. No major equipment glitches, no disruptions from crashes or injuries—it was just a head-to-head ride through a grueling stage to see who could ride the best. The five top riders led the charge up the last mountain to the finish, other riders dropping off as the climb got steeper. Cadel Evans gave it a mighty try. Carlos Sastre actually attacked early and led by a decent gap for most of the race, right up until the big fight started on the final slope.

I think it was Cadel Evans who said something after the race about how he’d love to have been in a better position, but he had no regrets because he thought he and his team had turned in the best race performance they had in them. I think the folks on Discovery must feel the same way. The individuals and the team have performed just about flawlessly at the best level they can. Whether they come in 10th or 1st, I don’t think they come away with any complaints that they didn’t do their very best.

With Rasmussen gone, the new top standings are:

1 Alberto Contador (Discovery) 76:18:25
2 Cadel Evans (Predictor - Lotto) 1:53
3 Levi Leipheimer (Discovery) 2:49
4 Carlos Sastre (CSC) 6:02

That leaves Sastre pretty much out of the top three. He’s not going to make up three minutes of gap in the next two days or in the time trial. In the next two days (flat stages where the peloton rides en masse and the cameras spend a lot of time showing us the picturesque countryside), none of the top 10 positions are likely to change at all.

The closest margin is between Leipheimer and Evans—under a minute. Evans beat Leipheimer by 1:25 in the most recent time trial. Levi can ride hard in time trials, but if he wants to move up to second place, his work is cut out for him.

Evans beat Contador in the most recent time trial by 1:04. In the final time trial, they’ll both try to do even better.

A few years ago, Jan Ulrich in the final time trial lost serious time to Lance Armstrong by riding too hard, too fast on a road left slippery by rain. Ulrich fell. Armstrong had been out riding the course before the race began and knew every corner. You never know what you’re going to see in a time trial.

But barring any surprises, this starts to look like the final order we’ll see as the race ends in Paris.

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