If you read the biggest media outlets' coverage of the 94th Tour de France, to be concluded tomorrow in Paris, you would no doubt agree that this race will be remembered for years to come. Wire services, ESPN, all the Euro sporting press... everyone was locked into the doping scandals that, they said, were the story of the race and a threat to its existence. Scandal after scandal rocked the sporting press, to the point where yesterday the hounds went after the mere (untrue) rumor of a positive test, generating outrage almost out of habit. 2007 was the year all hell broke loose on the roads of France.
For me, I agree that all hell broke loose. I agree that this race will be remembered for years to come. But not for the reasons you hear about on SportsCenter. This was an unbelievable race, from start to end, a beautiful spectacle for any number of reasons, and as years go by the drug matters will be placed in their proper perspective, as in a sideshow.
Now, don't get me wrong: the issue of doping is as grave as they say. And on some level I really appreciate the overblown doping coverage, if the end result is to ratchet up the pressure on the sport to the point that meaningful progress in the doping wars won't get put off for another season. And I agree, the removal of two teams and the yellow jersey was a shock to any fan's system.
But looking at the podium tomorrow in Paris, it's not clear to me that this will matter. If you want to know what happened in this Tour, on the road, I'd say it had less to do with doping and more to do with some great racing.
The highlights of this race include: the closest three-way finish in history and second-closest victory margin ever; a dramatic penultimate time trial where all three podium places were completely up in the air; a complex GC picture that could only narrow the intrigue from ten potential winners to three; a great time trial champion who brought honor on both his rainbow and yellow jerseys in week 1; the possible dawn of a new green jersey patron; the tragic, courageous saga of the Rabobank front line; and the emergence of two great young climbers who won't be wearing their normal jerseys tomorrow.
I don't think this can be overshadowed by the doping as the story of this race. Sinkewitz and Moreni can be written off as minor players who got busted and disappeared with nary a trace, the latter costing his team some face but not too much. They had no impact on the race. Vinokourov's ejection and Astana's disgrace subtracted the instigator element and its champion, but Vino had long since departed from the GC, while Kloden merely followed wheels. We can regret they weren't tossed out before the race began, but their impact on it was limited to two forgettable solo stage wins.
The one element of the doping scandals that cannot be erased from this Tour is Rasmussen. Unlike Vino, his attacks and stage wins shaped the overall picture. It's easy to say that had Vino never arrived in London, the race wouldn't have turned out any differently. You can't really say that about Rasmussen: if ASO hadn't failed to do its due diligence and prevented him from starting the Tour (F-U Prudhomme), it's impossible to say how things would have turned out.
Think about stage 15: when Vino attacked, he was marked by a handful of minor players but none of the favorites. When Rasmussen attacked (or was attacked), it was game on. Other than stage 8 when he was ignored and allowed to take most of his eventual margin, Rasmussen's attacks and replies were integral to the storyline of every mountain stage. You can't airbrush him out of Stage 15 and assume Contador still puts 56 seconds into Evans that day. Same goes for the 1.53 Contador gained over most folks the day before.
Or can you? Looking at the Podium, we know with absolute certainty these were the three strongest. Could Evans have found those 24 seconds he needed on the climbing stages had Rasmussen not been there? I say no. Evans finished every mountain stage as fast as he could, climbing at his own pace after the climbing specialists disappeared up the road. As for Contador, if anything, fighting with the Chicken cost him energy and time. Without ~:> around, surely an in-form Accountant would have been just as eager to put time into Evans & co., and when he accelerated alone rather than with Rasmussen, he could have settled into a more efficient pace to the finish.
Nobody will ever know, of course. And nobody will ever know if you could remove Rasmussen and give Leipheimer the win and a 20 second bonus on stage 16, rather than second and 12", not to mention third on stage 14 and 8" he didn't get. Like the Florida election mess, had people known it would be so close, there are dozens of things they could have done differently and changed the course of history. I'm guessing we would still be celebrating the brilliant Contador and a valiant, historic Aussie runner-up, but we don't know.
So maybe the outcome is this: after a great, action-filled, dramatic, intriguing race, we have the three best riders to celebrate, and the order in which we celebrate them is arbitrary. We had distractions and sideshows, but those tell us much more about the state of the sport than the 94th Tour de France. We had racing that didn't smell especially dirty, surely a turning point for the sport as it finds its determination to do even better. And we had a more exciting outcome than anything since a spent, gutted Fignon crumpled to the Champs-Elysees curb that fateful afternoon 18 years ago. How can we still refuse to celebrate?
The one asterisk: if you believe Rasmussen's story, then the Tour was stolen from him and it's a complete disaster. I have a feeling we will eventually know the truth about this, and it won't favor the Chicken. But this must be acknowledged.