VAL D’ISERE, France (AP) – Call it a race for recognition.
After Monday’s rest day, the Tour de France heads into its last ride through the Alps in the ninth stage Tuesday with the race finally starting to take shape – and a new crop of contenders emerging.
Michael Rasmussen of Denmark will wear the yellow jersey after winning Sunday’s eighth stage, and he’s entertaining notions of taking it home with him instead of the polka-dot jersey of the Tour’s best climber that he won the last two years.
The void left by retirement and doping allegations clouding the sport have sidelined many cyclists who dominated the race for the past decade.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong retired, Floyd Landis is fighting doping allegations from last year’s Tour, 1997 winner Jan Ullrich retired amid doping allegations, and 2005 runner-up Ivan Basso was suspended for two years after admitting to “attempted doping.”
Their former lieutenants now want to make names for themselves.
Two of Ullrich’s former support riders, Astana team members Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloeden, are seen as top contenders, but both are nursing injuries from crashes in the frenzied fifth stage. Carlos Sastre of Spain, once a workhorse for Basso, is Team CSC’s leader.
American Levi Leipheimer, a former teammate of Armstrong and current Discovery Channel leader, also is a threat. He has said his most prized victory so far was the Dauphine Libere in 2006 – the year after Armstrong ended his career. Armstrong won the Dauphine twice.
“Maybe there’ll be some young guys coming up like him, but it doesn’t look like it,” Leipheimer said Monday. Armstrong, he said, was “a one-in-a-billion specimen.”
Among the youngsters who could be the face of the future of cycling is 24-year-old Linus Gerdemann, a German who once idolized Ullrich. Gerdemann, a vocal proponent of clean cycling, won Saturday’s stage and wore the prized yellow shirt until Rasmussen took it Sunday.
Nearing midpoint, the Tour is still anybody’s race.
Vincent Lavenu, who manages the AG2R team, said 10-to-12 riders could be considered podium contenders, and “for the first, second, and third places, I don’t know.”
It’s a sharp departure from the Armstrong era, when the American seemed to have the race well in hand early in his record run of Tour titles from 1999-2005.
Any feeling of recovery from Monday’s day off is likely to vanish quickly: Riders scale the Iseran and Galibier passes – ascents that are among the hardest in the three-week race – in Tuesday’s 99.1-mile stage from the Val d’Isere ski station to Briancon.
Rasmussen will be looking over his shoulder.
Among the likely contenders, Sastre is 3 minutes, 35 seconds behind Rasmussen, Kloeden is 3:46 back, Leipheimer trails by 3:53, and Vinokourov is 5:23 off the pace.
Other hopefuls include Alejandro Valverde of Spain in fourth, 2:51 back. Cadel Evans of Australia trails by 2:53 and French veteran Christophe Moreau is 3:06 behind.
Many competitors expect the field to winnow in three tough stages in the Pyrenees starting Monday, and a time trial a day before the July 29 finish in Paris.
The drama surrounding an uncertain finish can only be good news for a sport struggling to overcome a clouded image following revelations and claims of doping among riders past and present over the last 14 months.
Landis’ 2006 Tour victory still remains unsettled. In recent months, several former and current riders – including Erik Zabel of Germany, who is riding in the Tour – admitted using the banned performance enhancer EPO in the 1990s. Bjarne Riis of Denmark, who won the 1996 Tour, admitted in May to using EPO.
Fans seem to intrigued despite such controversies.
About 4 million spectators lined the course route for the first stage in from London to Canterbury, British officials said, the first time that cycling’s premiere race started in England.
The French public television stations airing the Tour said the TV audience on Saturday and Sunday was the highest for a first weekend of the race since 2003.