Friday, June 30, 2006

"Crazy Shit Going Down" at Tour de France

Operación Puerto, a doping investigation by Spanish authorities, is wreaking havoc on the 2006 Tour de France. Things are coming to a head just as the biggest race of the year is set to start on Saturday. Tour organizers have taken an ever-tougher stance against performance-enhancing drugs since 1998, when a drug scandal nearly shut down the race. With that in mind, they have advised the teams that any rider implicated in Operación Puerto will not start the Tour de France. Note that this does not follow the American system of law -- these riders haven't been found guilty of anything yet. They are being removed from the race to avoid controversy over the results in case they are convicted in the future.

Early this morning, the T-Mobile team announced that Jan Ullrich, a perennial favorite for victory, has been suspended. I went to sleep for a few hours and awoke to learn that Ivan Basso, 2006 Giro di Italia winner and 2005 Tour runner-up to Lance Armstrong, is also out of the race, as is 2005 fourth place finisher Francisco Mancebo. With Armstrong retired, that means the top four riders from last year will be absent in 2006. Although 2005 fifth place finisher Alexandre Vinokourov has not been mentioned in Operación Puerto, his team has the most riders implicated. Tour organizers would like to send his entire team home. At the very least, several riders would be eliminated, putting Vinokourov at a disadvantage (the Tour organizers are not letting teams replace the suspended riders; they must compete shorthanded).

These shocking developments should benefit Americans Levi Leipheimer (sixth last year) and Floyd Landis (ninth last year). Their teams, along with Armstrong's former team, Discovery Channel, do not have any riders involved in the scandal (actually Landis' team has two, but neither were on the Tour's starting list). The entire character of the race will change because the teams of the favorites, especially T-Mobile and Basso's CSC, were expected to do most of the work to control the race. Now that burden will fall on other teams.

When Discovery Channel took over sponsorship of the U.S. Postal Service team, Armstrong promised them he would race one more Tour de France, either in 2005 or 2006. I am sure he is very happy that he chose 2005 and retired because the winner of this year's race will be qualified forever with "but he beat a weakened field." At this point, I can only hope that the evidence against these riders is rock solid. If they turn out to be wrongly accused, no judge can go back and award them a start in the race many have based their entire season around.

So where did the quote in the title of this post come from? That's what I said this morning when I read the headlines about Basso and Mancebo.

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