Doping spectre haunts Tour

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American George Hincapie leads the Tour de France after an opening weekend where the action could not manage to overshadow the doping scandal that triggered the withdrawal of the race’s star riders.

On Monday the Tour leaves Strasbourg and begins to snake across northern France towards Brittany in long, flat stages often characterised by brutal cross-winds that can cause havoc, leading to frequent crashes.

The favourites Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Francisco Mancebo (third, second and fourth last year) were withdrawn by their teams on Friday because of links with a Spanish doctor at the heart of a doping investigation. Alexandre Vinokourov (fifth last year) is also not racing after five of his team-mates were also named in the investigation, leaving the nine-man team short of the six riders necessary to start.

With none of last year’s top five racing – Lance Armstrong, the winner, retired after that race – the field has been left wide open and with the withdrawals, team directors have had to do some frantic tactical rethinking.

Ullrich’s departure could be an opportunity for teammate Michael Rogers, a 27-year-old Australian. Currently World Time Trial champion, he was seventh in Saturday’s Prologue and could mount his own challenge, freed from having to support Germany’s Ullrich.

“People were talking about an open race before but, wow, now it is really going to be a open race,” said American Levi Leipheimer, 32, leader of the Gerolsteiner team, a three-times top-10 finisher at the Tour.

But it was his compatriot Hincapie who got the early glory. The only one of Armstrong’s team-mates to have ridden all of the Texan’s seven victorious Tours, the 33-year-old Discovery team rider last year won a stage himself, sparking speculation about what he could achieve alone.

“Am I the new ‘patron’ of Discovery? Well, I’m in very good shape and we’ll have to see,” he said yesterday.

But more pundits are touting Floyd Landis, 30, leader of the Phonak team. Famous last year for a increasingly vitriolic spat with Armstrong, his former team-mate, this year Landis has won a series of prestigious races and observers have commented on a new maturity. A technical problem with his bike meant he was six seconds late in starting the Prologue, but he demonstrated his form by still finishing in the top 10.

But it is not just Americans challenging for the victory. Hincapie’s Discovery team-mate Yaroslav Popyvych, 26, from Ukraine, took the best young rider jersey last year and is also considered a future winner.

Spanish fans have faith in Alejandro Valverde, also 26. The latest to be tagged with the “next Indurain” label (after Spain’s five-time Tour champion), Valverde, in only his second Tour, has been described by Armstrong as “the future of cycling”.

Iban Mayo of the Basque Euskatel-Euskadi team could also shine. Following two injury-struck years, he won a stage last month in the Dauphiné Libéré and declared he had “emerged from the dark tunnel”.

Britain has two riders. Bradley Wiggins of Cofidis and David Millar of Saunier Duval and a former Prologue winner, finished 16th and 17th on Saturday – respectable results for two time-trial specialists.

It was Millar’s first return to racing after a two-year doping ban. He has vowed to prove it is possible to win “clean” – a message that will resonate particularly well with this year’s Tour.

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