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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 July 2007, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Turning point for the Tour
A rider passes through Parliament Square during first ever Tour start in London

By Martin Gough

During the first week of the 2007 Tour de France, the 40th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson passed largely unnoticed.

Simpson, Britain's first world road race champion and first Tour yellow jersey wearer, collapsed from heat exhaustion, exacerbated by alcohol and amphetamines, on a mountain stage on 13 July, 1967.

"Eighty percent of the peloton don't know it's the anniversary of his death. That's the sad truth," said David Millar, one of five Brits in this year's Tour, just over a fortnight ago.

For much of the race it looked like the riders had failed to learn any lessons from Simpson's passing either.

Whispers about "cyclisme deux vitesses" - a higher speed for dopers than for those racing clean - undermined the first ever Tour start in London.

An estimated three million people watching two days of racing in the UK - making them a massive success - but suspicions persisted through what should have been the most open and exciting race in almost 20 years.

Bradley Wiggins flanks French champion Christophe Moreau
This year's Tour has lost all credibility - it's null and void as far as I am concerned

Bradley Wiggins

Arguably that is nothing new for the Tour, of which Simpson's sparring partner, five-time winner Jacques Anquetil, once said: "How do you think they cover that course... on mineral water?"

But over the last two years there has been a simmering tension - and a fortnight into the 2007 race it finally came to the boil.

Alexandre Vinokourov was found in possession of someone else's red blood cells after an apparently heroic time-trial victory - achieved with over 30 stitches in his shredded knees - and his Astana team were prompty asked to exit the race.

Michael Rasmussen snatched the yellow jersey with a cavalier mountain attack into Tignes and apparently secured overall victory with another escape up the Col d'Aubisque.

But later that same day he was withdrawn by his Rabobank team after a television commentator mentioned meeting him in Italy in June, when he had told his team and doping testers he was in Mexico.

And Britain's Bradley Wiggins was forced home with his Cofidis team after one of their riders, Cristian Moreni, tested positive for testosterone.

Rasmussen and Vinokourov
Rasmussen and Vinokourov left the Tour in disgrace
"This year's Tour has lost all credibility," said Wiggins, an Olympic track champion famous for being drug-free. "It's null and void as far as I am concerned."

The 2007 Tour de France will be a turning point, but it is still open for debate which way it will go.

Forty years after Simpson's passing, and nine years after cycling appeared to hit rock bottom with the very public Festina Affair, many feel this is the beginning of the end for the race's popularity.

For others, the reaction to the latest scandal has shown there is a willingness by the riders to rid the sport of its biggest problem.

In 1998, after the Festina team were thrown out of the race for doping, the peloton staged a protest against victimisation by officials and the police.

The champion who emerged that year, Marco Pantani, was only later found to have been a user of the blood-booster EPO.

606: COMMENT
Martin Gough

Nine years later, the final mountain stage was delayed by 13 minutes following another rider protest, this time calling for the cheats to leave the sport.

For 1987 Tour winner Stephen Roche, there is a new generation - including his 23-year-old son Nicholas - who have kicked the habits still practised by older riders.

"It's a matter of the generation that is going off at the moment - the 32- and 33-year-old guys - getting out of the peloton as fast as they can," Roche told BBC Five Live.

"We hope that the peloton will be clean after that."

There has to be action behind the grand words, but officials argue the building blocks of a clean future are already in place.

Testing is heavy and regular, although the Rasmussen saga highlighted a need for race organisers, sporting and national federations to deal more closely with each other.

Tom Simpson
Forty years after Simpson's death, lessons have still to be learned
Tour organisers ASO this year asked riders to sign an ethical charter and they are talking now about an "ethical passport" that secures the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

However, the ongoing scuffle between ASO and the International Cycling Union does nothing to make things more coherent.

Crucially, though, the air of suspicion that once hung over the entire peloton seems to be clearing around certain riders.

Said Wiggins: "The true heroes are guys like Sylvain Chavanel and Thor Hushovd, who are dragging their arses through the mountains, hanging on, getting dropped, and doing it clean."

With members of the older generation unceremoniously dumped, 24-year-olds Alberto Contador and Mauricio Soler have grabbed two of the race's three prestigious jerseys.

Brits Wiggins, Millar - reformed and evangelical after serving a two-year doping ban - Mark Cavendish and Geraint Thomas are part of the new guard too.

They will carry the hopes of the Tour into a new era.



SEE ALSO
Contador wins tainted 2007 Tour
29 Jul 07 |  Cycling
Where now for cycling?
26 Jul 07 |  Cycling
Tour is null and void - Wiggins
27 Jul 07 |  Cycling
Crowds turn out for Tour opening
06 Jul 07 |  Cycling


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