As always, millions of rabid fans will clog the roads that weave through the picturesque countryside and along the mountain slopes. As usual, even more will watch the drama unfold daily on television or click online for updates. Still, this year's Tour de France promises to be different. It better be. Suspicions and admissions of drug use or blood doping have usurped the splendor of cycling's grandest event. Recent lowlights include organizers stripping the title from a winner (Floyd Landis in 2006) and teams sending prominent riders packing either before (think Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso in '06) or during (think Michael Rasmussen and Alexandre Vinokourov) the race. Tour director Christian Prudhomme wrote in an editorial that he has just one wish as this year's edition is set to begin Saturday: "May the race once again take center stage!" Longtime television commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, who again will call the race on Versus, said a multimillion-dollar drug-testing program can accomplish that goal. "We are now winning the battle, reducing the percentage chance of somebody cheating," said Sherwen, a former Tour rider. "There'll always be criminals in the world, but I think we will have the most open Tour de France in many, many years," echoed Liggett, "and the people who will be cheering more than anybody will be the riders."
Here's some more from Liggett and Sherwen:
What's your take on the exclusion of 2007 champion Alberto Contador, left, and Astana, which includes American Levi Leipheimer (third in 2007)?
Liggett: To the aficionados, there is some disappointment in the fact that Alberto Contador can't defend his title. … I think they made a bad decision to leave out Astana from riding the event because this is a team that's totally changed its identity. All that it's retained of the old team is the name. … There's nobody attached to that team in any form that's brought disrepute on the Tour de France these past two years, so I think they're wrong to leave them out, and it's a twist of irony and unfortunately for the organization that it is the No. 1 team of the year.
Sherwen: Alberto Contador won the Tour de France last year in very strange circumstances — because of the exclusion of Michael Rasmussen, who was probably going to go on to win and then was removed for the reasons we all know (missed drug tests before the race). (Contador) came back this year to confirm what a class rider he was by riding (and winning) the Tour of Italy at the very last moment. But in the long term of Alberto Contador's career, actually missing out on the Tour de France may well be a positive thing for his career because the pressure on a young man, as Alberto Contador is, going in as the defending champion could have slightly an adverse affect on him.
What does it say that both U.S. teams, High Road and Slipstream-Chipotle, have recently landed title sponsors, Columbia Sportswear and Garmin, respectively?
Sherwen: I think the reason that serious sponsors like that have come in is they have looked at the sport, they've looked at the popularity of the sport, they've look at the number of people on the side of the roads, they've looked at the number of people who are watching Versus and watching the story of the Tour de France unfold and are saying: "Yeah. These guys are doing a good job and we're going to stick with them."
Liggett: It's not just the American sponsors; it's been all good news these last four weeks before the Tour de France because you've also got Saxon Bank to back CSC.
So who's your pick to take home the yellow jersey in Paris on July 27?
Liggett: Cadel Evans (second to Contador last year), but it's going to be a tight race.
Sherwen: Cadel has got to be the No. 1 favorite but the great thing about a No. 1 favorite, they're there to be beaten. (Alejandro) Valverde is another big favorite of mine because he's going to be (in the mix).
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.
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