This comment piece was written prior to Riccardo Ricco’s positive test for EPO

It is very likely that the Tour de France will reach the Alps on Sunday with just a single second splitting Cadel Evans and Frank Schleck.

There’s less than a minute between the first five overall but it seems to be taken for granted how close this race is shaping up to be. A Tour this close is without precedent in the recent past.

Ignoring the 2007 and 2006 races, which can now only be seen as a pair of farcical anomalies, the lead has only changed hands in the final mountain range seven times in the past 22 years.

Three of those occasions were when less acclaimed riders were only overturned by the eventual victors late on. Greg LeMond overhauled Claudio Chiappucci in the Pyrenees in 1990, Pascal Lino succumbed to Miguel Indurain in 1992 and Thomas Voeckler was finally swept aside by Lance Armstrong in 2004.

In 1987 and 1989 there were epic battles in the Alps – first with Jean-Francois Bernard giving way to the Stephen Roche versus Pedro Delgado battle – and then when LeMond and Laurent Fignon went head to head before setting up their showdown on the Champs-Elysees.

But to have five riders going into the last week so close to one another – and with the possibility of others joining the fight too, is absolutely astonishing.

Years of methodical racing have perhaps taught us that the Tour is a process of elimination, where one rider slowly saw off his rivals with successive identikit attacks until the yellow jersey was his. It seemed that a template for winning the Tour de France had been patented and that every future champion would have to follow it.

The see-saw battle between Floyd Landis and Oscar Pereiro should really be struck from our memories as an irrelevance, and last year’s drama was largely false too.

This time, though, the template has been ripped up. Anything could happen. And it’s been a long time since that has been the case. Evans is not secure in the lead. He’s coping with effects of the injuries he suffered in that crash on the road to Bagneres-de-Bigorre. CSC still have a couple of cards to play. Denis Menchov has not made a move yet. Christian Vande Velde is still hanging in there. And then there’s the climber, Riccardo Ricco, who could make significant gains in the Alps.

Of course, there is one scenario that is more likely than any other – that Evans remains the most consistent and clinches victory in the time trial, but it is by no means a given.

If ever there was a warning about the dangers of idolising the wrong people, it’s Riccardo Ricco.

Ten years ago, an impressionable 14-year-old fell in love with cycling because of the exploits of Marco Pantani.

Like so many, he was blown away by the beauty of Pantani’s mountain climbing. Pantani’s was not a pretty face, but the way he got onto the drops of the handlebars, with his back perfectly flat, and his bike swishing beneath him had an elegance all of its own.

What young cyclist dreaming of winning the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia wouldn’t want to be like Pantani?

The 14-year-old Ricco grew up and became quite brilliant at mountain climbing himself. He turned professional and in this Tour de France he has done more than simply ape Pantani’s style.

He’s often climbed in that position, but there was something almost self-conscious about the way he put his hands on the drops, got out of the saddle and powered away on the Col d’Aspin. He reduced the mountain to a molehill in the way we all yearn to see done.

The performance drew gasps at the time and plaudits later, and why shouldn’t it have done? It was a breathtaking piece of riding by a young talent who could one day win the Tour de France.

But later, when Ricco talked so effusively about how he wanted to emulate his hero, Pantani, was I alone in feeling a deep unease?

Yet again, we have a rider, one who has joined the professional ranks during a turbulent and controversial era, utterly failing to understand the significance of his words.

Riccardo Ricco, the would-be superstar who wants to be like his hero, Marco Pantani. Marco Pantani who, in all probability abused EPO for much of his own career and who developed a dependence on recreational drugs that contributed to his death in his thirties.

Ricco is a complex rider. He is arrogant, outspoken, engaging and entertaining. He can be loved or hated. He can appear sulky and petulant one minute, yet display a boyish wonder the next. He’s a potential poster boy for the sport, but he needs to cut his ties with his hero. Cycling needs to grow up too and realise that doping is a repetitive pattern. Idolise the dopers and there is no moral code to follow.

During this Tour he has been plagued by rumours, much of which has to be considered unfair at this stage. He has always had a certificate from the UCI accepting his naturally high haematocrit level and permitting him to race. Unfortunately, the 50 per cent rule is now anachronistic, a tool of a time when EPO could not be detected and the governing body needed something to try to keep abuse of the substance in check.

Ricco should not be under a shadow of suspicion because he has a naturally high haematocrit. Sport is not a level playing field, but it should be a natural one. Otherwise should we begrudge another rider an exceptional lung capacity? Of course not.

If reports are to be believed, the dope testers have been all over Ricco like a rash and there has not been a positive test.

And let’s hope that he understands he sets an example to the 14-year-old boys and girls who are watching him on television.



The first week of racing was fantastic, and Christian Prudhomme and his team should be applauded for ripping up the formula of the past decade or so and giving the Tour a fresh look.

There has not been a dull day so far and the route has encouraged all-out racing every day. The sprinters have had their opportunities, but they didn’t get it their way at Nantes and Nicolas Vogondy almost held them off in Chateauroux.

The Massif Central has really shaken the race up, giving the overall contenders something to think about other than simply keeping out of the wind and avoiding crashes.

Next year the prologue will be back, with a spectacular course on part of the grand prix circuit in Monte Carlo. What a fantastic start that will be.

Between now and the unveiling of the route in October there will be speculation about which direction Prudhomme takes the race. Surely he won’t take it north, into the Alps, straight away – that would be madness and could kill the Tour in the first week.

In the past few days the increase in the number of Australian fans on the Tour has been noticeable.

They are everywhere, with their kangaroos and flags, green and gold hats and ‘Yell for Cadel’ t-shirts.

It’s rather like the American invasion at the end of the 1990s, and it made me look forward to the day when it is the British who flock in their tens of thousands to the Tour to see the proposed British pro team with its riders capable of challenging for stage wins and the yellow jersey, because those days could be only just around the corner.



TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: STAGE REPORTS

Stage 11: Arvesen wins

Stage 10: Evans takes yellow jersey by one second

Stage nine: Ricco wins in the Pyrenees

Stage eight: Cavendish wins again in Toulouse

Stage seven: Sanchez takes action-packed stage

Stage six: Ricco storms to win

Stage five: Cavendish takes first Tour win

Stage four: Schumacher wins TT and takes race lead

Stage three: Dumoulin wins stage from break

Stage two: Hushovd wins chaotic sprint

Stage one: Valverde wins

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: NEWS

Analysis: Tour de France rest day summary

Cavendish battles through Pyrenees

Evans suffers but takes yellow jersey [stage 10]

Analysis: Hautacam shakes up 2008 Tour

Ricco silences critics with solo attack in Pyrenees [stage nine]

Cavendish talks about his second stage win [stage eight]

Beltran heads home but doubts remain about other Tour riders

David Millar: the dope controls are working

Manuel Beltran tests positive for EPO at the Tour

Comment: How the Tour rediscovered its spirit

Doping back in Tour de France headlines

Millar: close but no cigar in Super-Besse [stage six]

Super-Besse shows form of main contenders [stage six]

Millar to go for yellow [stage six]

Team Columbia’s reaction to Cavendish’s win [stage five]

Cavendish talks about his Tour stage win

Tour comment: Why Evans should be happy [stage four]

Millar: Still aiming for Tour yellow jersey [stage 4]

Who is Romain Feillu?

Cavendish disappointed with stage two result

Millar too close to Tour yellow jersey

Stage 2 preview: A sprint finish for Cavendish?

Millar happy after gains precious seconds in Plumelec

Valverde delighted with opening Tour stage win

Comment: Is Valverde’s win a good thing for the Tour?

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: PHOTOS

Stage 11

Stage 11

Stage 10

Stage nine

Stage eight

Stage seven

Stage six

Stage five

Stage four

Stage three

Stage two

Stage one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: BLOGS

Life at the Tour part three

Life at the Tour part two

Life at the Tour part one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: GUIDE

Tour de France 2008 homepage>>

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All the riders (start list, list of abandons)>>

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