These riders could help change tide at Tour
Youth always engenders hope for the future, and that's just what the 2007 Tour de France needs after a string of crippling doping scandals have brought the once-majestic race to its knees.
After yellow jersey holder Michael Rasmussen was hounded out and prerace favorite Alexandre Vinokourov failed tests for a banned blood transfusion, it was hard for U.S. cycling fans to take anything positive (no pun intended) out of this year's Tour.
If the Tour has shown anything over the years, however, it is its doggedness to bounce back from adversity. Whether it's suffering through poor weather and broken bones or overcoming more serious challenges such as the scandals and fan incredulity, the Tour peloton always rides on, literally and figuratively.
If there's any reason to be optimistic, it's a gaggle of young riders coming up through the ranks who seem to have broken from the sport's doping past. The future of the sport depends on whether this new generation of riders can truly leave cycling's errant ways in the past.
Here's a look at the major revelations of the Tour:
Country: Spain; Age: 24; Team: Discovery Channel
Tour best: Overall title, Stage 14 victory, best young rider.
• No one could have imagined the unsung Contador would become the first Spanish rider to win the Tour since Miguel Indurain won the last of his five consecutive maillot jaunes in 1995, not even Contador.
Contador, whose name loosely translates to "accountant," didn't need a calculator to add up his razor-thin 23-second margin of victory, the second smallest in Tour history. The Tour sophomore took flight in the hardest climbing stages, caught the favorites by surprise, then hung on in the final time trial to become the youngest winner since now-disgraced Jan Ullrich won it at 23 in 1997.
The lithe climber has his own comeback story to match the cancer battle of Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour winner everyone already is comparing him to. In 2004, while racing in a small race in northern Spain, Contador crashed hard, and only quick action by a race medic prevented him from choking on his own tongue. Doctors later discovered he had a blood clot in his brain.
Contador still sports a visible scar across his temple that reminds him of brain surgery and the long convalescence that followed. While in the hospital, Contador took inspiration from Armstrong's biography, "It's Not About the Bike."
"I was just hoping to return to a normal life and not even thinking about racing again," Contador said. "When I realized what Armstrong overcame, my difficulties lost some of their gravity. I began to dream again in my own possibilities."
Contador already is touted as the best Spanish rider of his generation, and he delivered on his promise in 2005 by winning the weeklong Setmana Catalana, a mountain stage at the Tour de Romandie and a time trial stage at the Tour of the Basque Country -- all impressive results that boded well for the future.
But Contador's budding career nearly was blotted out last year when his name appeared in police documents as part of the Operacion Puerto blood doping ring. A Spanish judge later cleared him of any links to illicit doping practices, but doubts continued to plague him throughout the Tour.
"I was on the wrong team at the wrong time," he said. "I am a clean rider." Time will tell whether that pledge holds water. The beleaguered Tour can only hope so.
Juan Mauricio Soler
Country: Colombia; Age: 24; Team: Barloworld
Tour best: King of the Mountains jersey, Stage 9 victory, 11th overall at 16:41.
• Nicknamed the "Condor of Colombia," the Tour rookie lit up the mountain stages with daring, risk-all attacks that secured him the polka-dot jersey as the race's best climber.
Soft-spoken Soler harks back to the days when sons of Belgian miners and French farmers would chase their fortunes on two wheels. Literally raised on beans and rice in the towering Andes of central Colombia, Soler is the son of poor farmers and received his first bike from a charity.
His fearless persistence on the steepest roads reminds everyone of the famous Colombian escaladores from the heyday in the 1980s, when "Lucho" Herrera and Fabio Parra put the Euros on guard.
"To come to this Tour was a dream, and I paid back my team's confidence with a victory," Soler said after winning Stage 9. "Now I want to come back someday to win the Tour."
Although Soler might be modest, that hasn't stopped him from dreaming big.
Country: Germany; Age: 24; Team: T-Mobile
Tour best: One day in maillot jaune, Stage 7 victory, 36th at 1:30:37.
• Hailed as the savior of German cycling, Gerdemann is part of a new wave of riders who put clean racing before everything else. An outspoken critic of cycling's dirty secrets, the urbane rider could single-handedly help save the sport in Germany, where national TV boycotted broadcasting the Tour this year in light of new scandals.
Gerdemann's gutsy stage victory in the first stage into the Alps gave him the yellow jersey and helped give cycling a much-needed dose of credibility back in Germany. "Winning clean is possible, and we hope German fans do not abandon our sport," Gerdemann said. "The new generation of riders deserves a chance."
Gerdemann is a solid time trialist with improving climbing legs, and many believe he could become the second German to win the Tour. Everyone's just hoping he doesn't follow the path of the first German Tour champ, Ullrich, whose legacy has been stained by links to the Puerto scandal.
Country: Italy; Age: 26; Team: Lampre-Fondital
Tour best: Stage victories in 17 and 20, 75th overall at 2:38:55
• Big and brawny, Bennati has been nipping at the edges of a breakthrough the past few seasons. Once part of the lead-out train for retired superstar sprinter Mario Cipollini, the 6-foot-1 Tuscan snagged his first career Tour stage victory by coming out on top in an all-day breakaway in Stage 17 on the hilly road from Pau to Castelsarrasin. He confirmed his arrival with a win in the prestigious final sprint on the Champs-Elysées.
A fast-twitch sprinter who lags off the back of the pack in the steep climbs in the Alps, Bennati wasn't a factor in the dangerous, high-speed mass gallops of the first week after going down hard in the nasty pileup in Stage 2. "I was pretty beat-up, and I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make it," Bennati said. "I kept going because I still believed I could win a stage."
Bennati, who turns heads with his matinee idol looks, vows to come back next year to battle for the prized green jersey, awarded to the sprinters chasing bonuses at hot sprints and the finish line.
"This Tour gives me even more motivation in the future," he said. "It takes some time to really be able to know the Tour, its speeds, its distances; they're harder here than any race. I love the Tour."
And the Tour, so it seems, loves him, too.
Country: Spain; Age: 24; Team: Euskaltel-Euskadi
Tour best: 23rd at 49:24.
• No one beyond Spain's hilly Basque Country knew much about the diminutive climber before the Tour, but that changed after Txurruka (pronounced: chu-rrro-ka) worked his way into some high-profile breakaways to win the super combatif award that goes to the Tour's most aggressive rider.
In the Basque language, his first name means "dream," and the pint-sized climber fulfilled more than one by scoring a spot on the Tour podium on the Champs-Elysées.
The skinny climber -- once called "bolito," or little ball in Spanish, because he was so fat as a baby -- came into the 2007 Tour as the lightest rider in the peloton at 123 pounds.
One of the most promising of the newest generation of up-and-coming Basque climbers, Txurruka dreams of winning a Tour stage one day in the Pyrenees, where the narrow roads are clogged with rowdy Basque fans who pour over the French-Spanish border.
"This Tour makes me more ambitious to return to win a stage," Txurruka said. "It would be a dream to win a stage in the Pyrenees or one of the Tour's mythic climbs. I hope fortune is with me in the future."
Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.
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