YESTERDAY'S day before the Grand Départ of the Tour de France was unusual: it was dominated by doping, but not, as has been the case in recent years, with scandals.
A succession of teams and riders rolled into the Parc Expo in Brest and outlined – in varying levels of detail – the steps they have taken to try and ensure that there is no repeat of last year's race, when the cumulative effect of drugs scandals led one French newspaper to declare "La Mort du Tour" (the death of the Tour), while another devoted its front page to a death notice, announcing that the French sporting institution passed away on 25 July 2007, aged 104, "following a long illness".
Both newspapers are back, incidentally, but the problems the Tour faces this year, so far at least, revolve around who is in charge, with the race starting today in Brest against the backdrop of a troublesome and – for many – tedious dispute with cycling's world governing body, the UCI.
The Tour, owned and run by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), has been at loggerheads with the UCI for several years, but the feud came to a head last year when ASO accused the UCI of trying to sabotage the Tour by allowing Michael Rasmussen to start the race. Rasmussen missed out-of-competition tests prior to last year's race, a fact that only came to light during the Tour; and, even more embarrassingly, while the Dane was in the leader's yellow jersey.
Since then, the feud has taken a turn for the worse, with ASO declaring that this year's race will be run without the UCI – a scenario equivalent to the World Cup, if it were independently owned, refusing to recognise Fifa.
Instead, the Tour will be held under the rules of the French Cycling Federation (FFC), with drugs testing carried out by the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD), a move that has enraged the UCI president, Pat McQuaid. "It is very disappointing that the biggest player in the sport refuses to respect order, refuses to respect regulations," said McQuaid. "(The UCI's] role is to lay down the rules and regulations of the sport. Yet these guys refuse to respect that."
While McQuaid describes the feud as a power struggle, and there is some truth in this, the reality is that it also stems from the doping problems, with ASO arguing that the UCI adopted a head-in-the-sand approach in the 1990s.
The man in charge of the UCI during the period was Hein Verbruggen, a Dutchman who consistently denied that a doping culture existed, and who criticised those – such as Scotland's Graeme Obree – who claimed otherwise. Obree and others like him, said Verbruggen at the time, "are guys at the end of their career who can no longer hang on. I found (their claims of widespread doping] cowardly, there is no other word." These days, Verbruggen is one of the most powerful figures in the IOC, and chairman of the co-ordination committee for the Olympic Games in Beijing.
This year's Tour marks the ten-year anniversary of the Tour's nadir, when an employee of the world's No1 team, Festina, was stopped on the France- Belgium border with an enormous stash of doping products. The 'Festina Affair' exposed the reality of organised doping within teams, and was the catalyst for the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but, ten years on, the problem remains.
That said, there is a degree of optimism. Jonathan Vaughters, the American in charge of David Millar's Garmin team, claims change is in the air. "I can't predict what is going to happen this year," said Vaughters. "But I would say my sense, my gut feeling, is that there's a very positive cultural shift in cycling, and I'm really proud that we were a catalyst and an instigator of that going on."
What has certainly changed – and Vaughters is justified in claiming some credit for this – is that the culture of silence is no more. While ten years ago the D-word was taboo, now there is discussion about little else. Riders who dismiss questions on doping, or are evasive, are given short shrift. The Italian Damiano Cunego, one of the favourites for this Tour, says he will sport a tattoo of a yellow smiley face – the symbol of a new 'Doping Free' campaign – on his arm.
Few can argue that attitudes have changed in the ten years since Festina, when the 1998 Tour witnessed sit-down rider protests over their treatment at the hands of raiding police officers. One of the few survivors of that Tour, Jens Voigt, reflected yesterday on the changes. "Since then we've travelled a long way," said the German veteran who rides for CSC-Saxo Bank.
"To go any further people would have to move in with me," he continued. "I am controlled by four different bodies; I have to give my whereabouts information three months ahead. If I go anywhere for more than two hours – to the movies with my wife, to the zoo with my kids – I have to plan it. I have five kids at home, but the next step, if we want to take it, is to move in with me."
Voigt didn't mean that as a serious option, and there is a feeling that the limit has been reached – and in some cases exceeded. The Belgian cyclist Kevin van Impe, for example, was visited by dope controllers while at a crematorium making arrangements for the funeral of his baby son, yet the officers demanded that he give a sample or be penalised for missing a test.
Voigt is among those who believe that, while scepticism might remain high, this year's Tour will be as clean as it can ever be. "This Tour can be better," he said. "Believe me – it will be better."
Quiet man Evans reluctantly accepts favourite status from Australians
WITH the defending champion, Alberto Contador, absent, this year's Tour de France appears to be the most open in years. Yet for most people there is one clear favourite: the man who was second last year, and who admits that the "mathematical logic" of his progression – eighth in 2006, fourth a year later, then second – confirms his status as favourite.
That man is Cadel Evans, bidding to become Australia's first ever Tour winner. But Evans, an increasingly prickly character, accepts his favourite status with apparent reluctance. Speaking in Brest yesterday, ahead of today's first stage, which isn't the usual short prologue but a 197km road stage to Plumelec, he dwelt longer on the pressures that come with being favourite than about the business of winning.
"Before all you (press] guys came I was pretty calm and relaxed," he muttered in response to the question of whether he was relaxed. "I don't answer my phone as much as I used to because otherwise my days would be gone. It sounds like, back in Australia, the anticipation's building, and I'm pretty proud of that, especially because it means people staying up until three in the morning."
But yes, Evans eventually admitted, he is ready. "Every year we've been trying to build up to our best level, and it looks as though that's where we are now," said the 31-year old. "It's been a fast progression, but also a pretty steady one."
It was left to Robbie McEwen, Evans' countryman and team-mate, to try to paint a more sympathetic portrait, and to clear up the "misconception that Cadel doesn't want to talk too much, and doesn't like to give insights into how he feels. He just doesn't want to give them to everyone in the world". At this, Evans interjected: "It's called personal space. And invasion of it."
As is almost mandatory for Tour contenders, Evans has an interesting past. He grew up in the outback of the Northern Territory as the only child of a single parent, which might explain his apparent preference for solitude. Aged seven, he was kicked in the head by a horse and almost died; he had surgery to separate a part of his skull touching his brain; but after seven days in a coma he returned to his BMX. These days he lives with his Italian wife Chiara, a pianist, in Stabio, the Swiss town near the Italian border.
Another certain to make an impact is 23-year old Mark Cavendish from the Isle of Man. Cavendish, fresh from two stage wins in the Giro d'Italia, said again yesterday that he is the fastest sprinter in the race and expects to target "four or five" flat stages in the first week.
"I don't talk bullsh*t," said Cavendish. "If I think I'm the fastest I'll say it – I'm just stating facts."
Most expect Cavendish to withdraw from the Tour to save himself for the Olympics, where he will team up with Bradley Wiggins in the Madison, but he was having none of that. "I'm here to finish, not to pull out after a week.
"For the British public the Olympics is a big thing, but in cycling it's all about the Tour. It's much harder to win a stage of the Tour. But I'd like to win both."