ANOTHER UPDATE: Tour leader Rasmussen fired from team and the Tour de France for lying about his whereabouts in June. I don't know what to say anymore.
UPDATE: Vinokourov tests positive for blood doping, and Astana withdraws from the Tour. Just when you think the worst of it is over, it isn't. I'm really surprised that riders still try blood doping considering how easy it is to be caught with modern testing. Especially if you're Vino and know you have a good chance of winning a stage which triggers an automatic test. It makes no sense to me. None. Obviously this takes Kloden out of the race and will lengthen the period in which detox is the lead story in cycling.
I know Tour de France viewership is down because of all the doping scandals and allegations (not to mention the lack of one famous Texan). I wondered if I'd have any interest in watching the Tour this year in light of everything. Was I just a Lance Armstrong fan or did I enjoy the sport?
Observing my own behavior this past week it's the latter. The mountain stages, in particular, glue me to the TV for hours at a time (time trials are called the "race of truth" because each man rides alone, but I prefer the character-revealing powers of gravity and the confrontational nature of riders slowed to a mortal pace).
In the most recent two stages, rising star Alberto Contador, just 24 years old, has announced himself to the cycling world in a big way by coming at yellow jersey holder Michael Rasmussen with a relentless wave of vicious accelerations. After almost having died in 2005 from surgery for a blood clot in his brain, Contador has proven himself to be Discovery Channel's best GC contender this year, able to explode away from a group on the climbs the way putative team leader Levi Leipheimer cannot (but in a way that is reminiscent of a retired Discovery Channel rider by the name of Lance Armstrong). In the overall classification, Rasmussen sits in first place, Contador in 2nd.
Those who would like to latch on to the Tour are just in time to see Wednesday morning's stage, one that will likely prove decisive. That morning the riders will face their last day in the mountains, concluding with a leg-wilting climb up the Col D'Aubisque. Though Contador seemed fresher in attacking Rasmussen the past two days, he probably can't make up a 2' 23" deficit to Rasmussen in the time trial on Saturday, so Wednesday morning is his final opportunity to close that gap down to a manageable size. Contador has already announced that he's riding for the top floor of the podium and is willing to die on the side of the Aubisque to get there. Said Contador:
On Wednesday, I am going to play for it all. Second place doesn't matter. I am going to risk all to win. If I end up in sixth, it doesn't matter.
Cadel Evans, in third place, is down 4' 00" in the overall and likely has to shrink that gap so he has a shot to overtake the lead in Saturday's time trial, a discipline in which he is far superior to Rasmussen. Leipheimer in fourth at 5' 25" back and Kloden in fifth at 5' 34" are the two others with any chance of catching Rasmussen, but like Evans they both need to close the gap down Wednesday morning so their superior time trialing can reel in the rider they call "The Chicken" (I think Rasmussen looks more like an albino praying mantis).
Realistically, though, Contador is the only man with a fighting chance to overtake the top spot. Rasmussen knows it's coming, and the only question for him is whether he will yield.
All this is to say Wednesday morning is likely to be the most exciting stage left in the Tour. Set your DVR's as the stage will start at 4:30am PST on Versus (formerly OLN, or the Outdoor Life Network).
For unique insight into each day's stage, visit former Lance coach Chris Carmichael's Tour de France coverage page at his endurance sport coaching company's website. You can sign up to receive the report as a daily e-mail if you're willing to sign up to create an account.