Thrilling Tour de France lifts doping gloom

Floyd Landis’s thrilling Tour de France victory did much to dispel the air of gloom hanging over cycling’s showpiece event after it began engulfed by another doping controversy.

“Our only favourite is named suspense,” said outgoing Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc, dreaming of a wide-open race after the retirement of Lance Armstrong who held the Tour in his grip for seven years.

His wish was granted as the race remained unpredictable until the 19th of the 20 stages run over 3 653km in scorching heat, save a few drops of rain in Brittany.

The yellow jersey changed shoulders a record 10 times and had seven holders.

American Landis claimed it three times and lost it three times before securing it decisively in the penultimate stage.

The 30-year-old son of a Mennonite family from Lancaster county in Pennsylvania also produced one of the greatest efforts in the race’s history when he won the last mountain stage from Saint-Jean de Maurienne to Morzine.

“Floyd went like an eagle on the first climb and against that you can’t do anything,” said Spanish rider Carlos Sastre, no mean climber himself.

Leblanc’s successor Christian Prudhomme added: “Landis’s performance not only left its mark on the 2006 Tour, it also left its mark on the whole history of the race.”

Landis Phonak team director John Lelangue was also instrumental in raising the intensity of the race.

“Lelangue brought a lot of freshness to the race. He persuaded Landis it was possible to attack from the start of the stage and resurrected fairy-tale cycling, old fashioned cycling, mythical cycling,” Prudhomme said.

“When the action is of such quality, it can only delight media, supporters, organisers,” added Leblanc.

Before ending in euphoria, the race had to survive the biggest doping scandal since the Festina affair which rocked the 1998 Tour and brought cycling to its knees.

On the eve of the prologue, pre-race favourites Ivan Basso of Italy and German Jan Ullrich were forced to pull out and were suspended after being named in a doping investigation in Spain.

Ullrich, winner of 1997 Tour, and Basso, who was eyeing a Giro-Tour de France double, both denied any wrong-doing.
Ullrich was later sacked by his T-Mobile sponsor while teammate Oscar Sevilla and manager Rudy Pevenage were suspended.

AG2R rider Francisco Mancebo, fourth in last year’s race, was another rider to be withdrawn by his team. A whole team, Astana-Wuerth, led by Alexandre Vinokourov, had to quit. The peloton was reduced from 21 to 20 teams and from 189 to 176 riders. The race started without the top five riders from 2005.

“It was not a calamitous start,” Leblanc pleaded in his summing-up press conference on the eve of the last parade on the Champs-Elysees.

“It was a peaceful start relieved of the poisoned atmosphere which preceded the prologue and when the road opened up in front of us, the race developed peacefully,” he added.

Asked if he had a message to deliver about doping after being crowned king of cycling, Landis said: “In this sport, we proved that more than any sport we try to prevent doping and try to solve the problem.

However, he also admitted: “Cycling has a reputation that doesn’t seem to want to go away.” - Reuters

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