ANGOULEME, France &
Battered by scandal and doping embarrassments, the Tour de France might actually have stumbled upon a sliver of good news.
A competitive finish.
Alberto Contador of Spain and Cadel Evans of Australia could win or lose the race during Saturday's time trial. The race ends Sunday in Paris along the Champs-Elysees.
A slim margin of — minute, 50 seconds separates the two riders, each going for a first victory in this event and suddenly thrust into the spotlight after the ouster of former overall leader Michael Rasmussen.
"Tomorrow is the most difficult day of my career as an athlete," Contador said after Friday's 18th stage, which was won by Sandy Casar. The French rider won the 131-mile stage despite crashing after hitting a spectator's dog.
The 24-year-old Contador would be the Tour's youngest winner since Jan Ullrich in 1997. A victory for Evans would be a big lift for sports-mad Australia, where rugby and cricket hold sway.
For the past two days, the Tour has teetered on collapse. Three riders were kicked out in the space of 30 hours &
two for doping and one positively lying. No further doping scandals hit the 104-year-old race by Friday night.
That left Contador and Evans to concentrate on Saturday's a 35-mile race against clock from Cognac to Angouleme.
"In this time trial, everything can change &
my entire life can change," Contador said.
Added Evans: "We will know all the answers out on the road tomorrow."
Evans' Predictor-Lotto sporting director Hendrik Redant said the 29-year-old rider is "very relaxed".
That can hardly be said of most everybody else in this year's Tour. The race has been reeling from Wednesday's withdrawal of Rasmussen, as well as other drug-related episodes. The Danish rider was kicked out of the race by his Rabobank team.
Denmark's cycling federation said July 19 it ousted Rasmussen for missing doping tests in June. He contended he was in Mexico, where his wife is from, in June. Former rider Davide Cassani said he had seen Rasmussen in Italy.
Reached by telephone Friday evening, Rasmussen's voice sounded strained as his young daughter cried in the background.
"I have no comments at this time," Rasmussen said before hanging up.
The Dane left a pack of dispirited riders heading toward Paris, burdened by the latest jolt to the sport. On Tuesday, Alexandre Vinokourov was ejected for testing positive for a banned blood transfusion after last Saturday's stage. Midway through Wednesday's stage it was announced Cristian Moreni had tested positive for testosterone. The Italian rider didn't deny it, and he was carted off by police.
Contador has a time cushion and in sporting director Johan Bruyneel, a cool head who helped Lance Armstrong to seven straight Tour wins.
The odds are heavily in Contador's favor, and Redant knows it.
"I saw him (Contador) this morning by the bus, and he seemed to be quite nervous," Redant said. "He is not allowed to fail now. He can only win. So for a young guy ... he has to stay calm. He's now the favorite."
Redant stepped up the mind games further.
"It's a big gap (1:50), but if you lose that you have a really big failure," Redant said. "He's a young guy, and it would be fine for cycling if a young guy like that can win the Tour. But it's a lot of stress ... and for him I hope he can cope with it. I know Cadel is very relaxed, he's very confident, and that's a big advantage of course."
Bruyneel turned the tables on Evans.
"Evans has to have a great day, and things would have to go really badly for Contador," Bruyneel said. "The best will win."
On the opening day of this year's Tour, with swarms of jovial fans lining the streets of London for the July 7 prologue, Contador beat Evans by a second. But that was only over 5 miles.
At the weekend's time trial in Albi &
won by the now-expelled Vinokourov &
Evans finished second and Contador was seventh. The time split was 1:04 in favor of Evans, meaning he has to better that by 47 seconds Saturday.
Saturday's clock race to Angouleme is flat and favors Evans, whereas last week's was hilly and suited to Contador.
Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel's leader until Contador reversed the roles in the Pyrenees, sits in third place, 2:49 back.
"Levi is also a good time trialer," said Chris Horner, an American and a teammate of Evans. "In all honesty any of the three could take the win. ... I'm hoping for Cadel of course."
The Tour took another odd twist Friday when Casar hit a dog and fell off his bike. He became the second dog-hitter at this year's Tour, following Marcus Burghardt in the 10th stage.
"I didn't see it coming," said Casar, who won a Tour stage for the first time.
Evans also had an unexpected encounter. He couldn't brake in time after crossing the finish line and smacked into a female spectator.
"I'm all right," Evans said, rubbing his shoulder. "The last two days have been good recovery from the Pyrenees."
Evans, Contador face off as dope-tainted Tour reaches climax
ANGOULEME, France &