Wednesday, July 5, 2006

TOUR UPDATE

Photo journalist Franck Fife (AFP/ Getty Images) captures the peloton during Wednesday's Stage 4 of the Tour de France as it sweeps into northern France from Belgium. I've been enjoying the Tour's developments thus far and blogging daily updates at The Tour de France for the Rest of Us.

Here's what's interesting to me about it...so far:

1. Five days...four lead changes. Belgian Tom Boonen is the first to keep the Yellow Jersey for more than a day.

2. Three Americans are poised as favorites, not just possible contenders, to win the race. George Hincapie is just 5 seconds behind Boonen. Floyd Landis is down just 7 seconds. Levi Leipheimer is well within striking distance. All three are former Armstrong teammates now leading their respective teams.

3. Alejandro Valverde, the race favorite after the big three--Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, and Francisco Mancebo--were pulled out of the race by their teams on doping allegations, crashed and broke his collarbone in Stage 3. Valverde's misfortune is also the Americans' opportunity.

4. Australian sprint specialist Robbie McEwen has won two stages thus far. He will surely fade in the mountains, but in the tradition of the Italian "Lion King" Mario Cippolini, sprinters like McEwen, Boonen, Stuart O'Grady, and Eric Zabel provide most of the excitement in the first week of the Tour. Their hard-charging bunch sprints in the last kilometers of a stage are deathly-dangerous, contentious, and just plain awe-inspiring to watch.

5. The race is not diminished without the riders barred on suspicion of doping. Would it be better if Basso, Ullrich, etc. were riding? Who knows? But no one is dominating, or looks like they will dominate, this year's race. So, it's quite interesting. There was some discussion among pundits about an asterisk after this year's race results. Perhaps the asterisk will go by the names of the riders who took the risk of questionable or unfair drug and blood manipulation--not on the race itself.

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