Sprinters are never the biggest stars of the Tour de France, but sometimes it's pretty close. Mario Cipollini was a human media vacuum unto himself, and his four consecutive stage wins in the 1999 Tour were as memorable as his Julius Caesar outfit. Alessandro Petacchi's nine stage wins at the 2004 Giro look more monumental, in retrospect, than Damiano Cunego's overall title. Erik Zabel's six consecutive green jersey titles put him on as big a pedestal as Armstrong, for a while.
So it's hardly a mere sideshow to see Mark Cavendish snag his fourth sprint victory at this year's Tour. Given all the other news, it's probably just what the sport needs right now.
The cruelest aspect of the Ricco expulsion is the fact that Ricco came from the new generation, the one that was supposed to be clean. This assumption made it far easier to write off the scandals of the past -- that's just what they had to do back then; today things are different. Well, one bad apple and all, but the Ricco case does pierce the assumption that all the young guys are clean. Truth is, they're a big improvement, but the battle isn't over.
In all likelihood the yellow jersey will go to one of the veterans of the Tour, not exactly symbols of the new clean cycling, even if they're clean themselves. So it's imperative that the new generation stand up for itself ASAP and make the case for the new way. I don't know his whole background, but Cavendish seems like a pretty solid standard-bearer: there isn't any reason to suspect a guy who chugs up hills like he does, and his presence on Team Columbia means he's being tested internally six ways from Sunday. Add in four wins at the Tour at the ripe age of 23 -- placing him in elite company -- and you've got a terrific story to cleanse at least some of the stench of the last 36 hours.
Not that I think Cavendish needs to start stumping for Clean Cycling or for the young guys; his job is to keep winning. Also, the story might not last -- he's due to disappear soon and get ready for the Olympics, a forgiveable priority for the world Madison champion and representative of a track-mad nation. But it's nice to think about a positive story emerging at this Tour, and I'm all the more anxious for my new Columbia jersey to show up this weekend.