By John Wilcockson
The Tour has bad memories of Brive-la-Gaillarde, where Thursday’s stage 17 begins. It was here in 1998 that the Festina team was excluded from the Tour de France in a late-night announcement by race director Jean-Marie Leblanc. The decision was made after firm evidence came through that the Festina team –- then ranked No. 1 in the world –- had used an organized system of doping, and that the team had intended using the cache of drugs seized from a Festina team car the previous week. This year, there have been no drug scandals, and only one rider has tested positive since the race began. That was the Euskaltel rider Iker Flores, who is believed to have tested positive for EPO after the prologue. The results of a second analysis on Flores’s urine sample are expected on Friday. Meanwhile, the peloton will take with them from Brive bad memories of Wednesday’s frightening crash in nearby Tulle. The mass pileup on a fast descent accounted for five riders being forced to abandon with broken bones, and many others with painful wounds. Crashes continue to be the main reason why riders are still dropping out of this Tour: 43 of the 189 starters have now fallen by the wayside.
Hopefully, there won’t be any similar incidents on Thursday, on a stage that heads northeast across the hills of the Massif Central from Brive to Montluçon. Hot, humid weather is forecast, with temperatures in the mid- to high-80s, and with the chance of a late-afternoon thunderstorm. Wet conditions would certainly make everyone wary. As for the race itself, the pattern of the past two stages is likely to be repeated, with early attacks forming until the least dangerous combination of riders emerges in the winning break. There are still 10 of the 21 teams without a stage win, so we can expect plenty of action. Among the riders looking for an opening will be Piotr Wadecki (Domo-Farm Frites), Patrice Halgand (Jean Delatour), Jan Svorada (Lampre-Daikin), Jon Odriozola (iBanesto.com), Paolo Bettini (Mapei-Quick Step), Massimiliano Lelli (Cofidis) and Jacky Durand (La Française des Jeux). This hard-fought Tour has put the focus back on racing, with tales of courage replacing stories of doping. And none are more courageous than those who battle through the pain of another crash.
DETAILS OF STAGE 17: Brive-la-Gaillarde to Montluçon, 194km.
Intermediate sprints at St. Hilaire-les-Courbes (64.5km) and Budelière(171.5km).
Cat. 4 climbs at Forêt de la Feuillade (87km), and Rozeille (125.5km).