(OUTSIDE, JULY 2006) "Tour dominance by LeMond and Armstrong has given the Euros fits for two decades. And … their suffering has only just begun."
What a difference a year makes. Thanks to drug tests and aging, 2007 marks the first time in a decade that no Americans are expected on the Tour podiumthough Levi Leipheimer is emerging as a dark horse. With the signing of Italian Ivan Basso, Lance Armstrong's U.S.-based Discovery Channel team looked set to dominate once again. But Basso asked to be released from his contract this spring, a week before shocking the cycling world by admitting to his role in a drug scandal. The race will now probably be between Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov and Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Carlos Sastre. BRUCE HILDENBRAND recently had them size up one another's chances.
Alexandre Vinokourov, 33
"Vino" entered last year's Tour as an outside favorite. But five of his Astana teammates were caught up in Operation Puerto, leaving the squad without the required number of riders and robbing the race of one of its most colorful figures. Vinokourov's wildly aggressive style makes him a fan favorite, but it also leaves him vulnerable to energy bonks. "In a three-week race, he always has one bad day," says Valverde. But with teammates like former Tour podium finisher Andreas Klöden and Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli, he should be able to ride a more tactical race.
Alejandro Valverde, 27
Team: Caisse d'Epargne
Lance Armstrong suggested that Valverde was the future of cycling after the Spaniard beat him on a mountaintop finish during the 2005 Tour. But the future's been slow in coming. Valverde dropped out with knee problems three days after beating Armstrong and exited last year's Tour after breaking his collarbone in a crash. Still, there's not a rider who isn't afraid of Valverde when he's healthy. "He needs more experience in the Tour," says Sastre. "But he's impressive. You never know what he can do."
Carlos Sastre, 32
Sastre is the only one of the contenders here who finished the 2006 Tour. More impressive, he completed all three grand tours (Italy, France, and Spain) last year, finishing 43rd, fourth, and fourth, respectively. "I don't know how he manages to do that," says Vinokourov. "He is always on the course, in the flights, attacking." This is the first time Sastre will enter the Tour as an undisputed team captain, which should only improve his chances.
Notes on a Scandal
Operation Puerto continues to shine a needed light on cycling's drug problem. The investigation of a massive Spanish blood-doping network saw riders from around the worldincluding favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrichbounced from last year's Tour. When Spanish law forced authorities there to shelve investigations, other countries forged ahead. German investigators matched Ullrich's DNA with bags of blood from Puerto raids, and in May, after Italian authorities requested his DNA, Basso confessed to breaking the rules. He now faces a two-year ban from cycling. An additional 49 riders were also linked to the scandal this spring, bringing the total to 107. The question now is whether Puerto will be the moment when pro cycling seriously confronts its dark side, or just another footnote in the sport's descent into self-parody and cynicism.