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Eastenders on two wheels

For pure soap opera, only cycling – and in particular the Tour de France – comes close to matching Formula 1.

This year, they even shared a common glamorous venue, with Monaco providing the setting for stage 1 on Saturday, a 15.5km individual time trial around the streets of the principality.

Already, with just two of the race’s 21 stages complete, the key plotlines are simmering nicely.

The teaser: It wouldn’t be the Tour de France without a drugs scandal, and this year we got our dose (pun intended) before the race had even started, with Thomas Dekker falling foul of a positive drugs test at the eleventh hour, and sprint ace Tom Boonen being reinstated against the wishes of Tour organisers. That may be the end of the story on the doping front; being the Tour de France, however, I doubt it, with Lance Armstrong in particular being singled out for special attention by officials and media alike.

Family in-fighting: Speaking of Armstrong, his return to the Tour for the first time since 2005 has stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest of politics within the Astana team. Lance says he’s just racing to promote his cancer campaigns – a smokescreen which no one believes – but after more than three years in retirement and an injury-affected return, his real and ruthless ambition of claiming an eighth Tour win runs the risk of destabilising a team which already suffers from a case of too many chiefs. In addition to race favourite (and 2007 winner) Alberto Contador, both Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden placed ahead of Armstrong on stage one, and while Leipheimer will undoubtedly defer to Lance, Contador also has his loyal lieutenants within the team, and Kloden straddles the fence as a wild card who is himself capable of a podium finish given the chance. If the team doesn’t fracture during the race itself, Alexandre Vinokourov‘s stated intention to return to lead the team when his two-year ban ends after the Tour – which will be supported by the Kazakh sponsors – is liable to lead to wholesale defections from Astana. An implosion is inevitable: it’s just a matter of when.

The upstart: Mark Cavendish isn’t backwards in coming forward about anything, not least when it comes to proclaiming himself the fastest man in the world on two wheels. The thing is: he’s right. Towed to yesterday’s finish in Brignoles by a textbook lead-out train formed by his Columbia-HTC team-mates, Cannonball Cav delivered as routine a sprint win as you will ever see, his fifth career Tour stage win (and 41st overall), a total which he is likely to add to during the next three weeks – possibly as early as this afternoon.

The forgotten men: Beyond the media circus surrounding Contador, Armstrong and Astana, it’s easy to forget that last year’s winner, Carlos Sastre, and runner-up, Cadel Evans, are actually in the race, albeit in teams (Cervelo and SIlence-Lotto) which will struggle to provide the level of support needed to secure the yellow jersey. While both are relatively long odds to win the race outright, expect both these men to feature prominently in the narrative at some point – they may not become king, but they could easily play the role of king-maker (or breaker).

Anyhow, there are 19 stages and three weeks of racing still to come before the traditional finish on the Champs Elysées, with the penultimate stage finishing with the killer climb to the top of Mont Ventoux. Whatever story unfolds, expect drama, spills and thrills aplenty, because that’s what the greatest bike race in the world is all about.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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