We note with interest not that the Spaniard Alejandro Valverde won the last major tuneup, the Dauphiné Libéré, prior to cycling's grandest event, Le Tour, but instead that Valverde has been barred (based upon circumstantial evidence) from racing in Italy for 2 years. For the not-so-die hard Tour fans, the Tour always sequeways briefly into one of the surrounding countries for a stage or two or half. This year, Le Tour crosses into Spain, Switzerland, and briefly into Italy. Unless Valverde, who finished 2nd in last year's tour, can convince the Italian Cycling body to lift the sanction or can convince Amoury Sports, the sanctioning body of Le Tour, to let him run the 80 kilometers (albeit in the Alps) of this year's race he won't be riding. And there will be more talk of doping in cycling as one of the premier athletes is barred it's most prestigious event. Some might say that with Lance in the mix, there will always be talk...but talk is cheap and tests are expensive. Amoury Sports has announced that this year's Tour will the most tested in history; they'll have more drug tests than an Olympic weightlifting event.
As importantly though in the Dauphiné Libéré results is the 2nd place finish of Caudel Evans just ahead of the pre-Tour favorite, Alberto Contador of Astana. Evans had a good chance to win last year's tour and finished second. Denis Menchov, winner of this year's Giro will be grinding for another Grand Tour win. This alone pretty much guarantees that fireworks will be erupting on the mountain stages during this year's tour.
Regardless of what the American press would have you believe it is very unlikely that Lance Armstrong has the form to stay abreast of these riders when the deep attacks come. I expect him to shine for moments but 3 weeks is a long time to race and this year the Tour has packed some storied climbed into the package. Two days before the finish the riders will be forced to summit Mont Ventoux, considered by some to be the most difficult climb in France.
Photo: (top) Alejandro Valverde, 2008 Vuelta a España, 9th stage, Alto Gallego, Spain courtesy of Tesksman, Wikimedia Commons.