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I spent all day today at work devouring the knowledge inside several issues of VeloNews. From stage charts to topography, climbers and sprinters and time trialists, team Let's ride home and write a preview!compositions and notable absences, I covered all the bases as I rapidly brought myself back up to speed... and it is about time! So here you go, all you fans out there -- a special Tour de France preview edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America...
 
 
But we're going to do this a little differently. It is easy enough to pump out a bunch of static lists and spit out the bare facts. It is quite another to really see what is going to make the 2008 incarnation of the world's biggest bicycle race spectacular. As I pedaled home, several failed starts to this column scrawled on a legal pad in my backpack and the shadows making me introspective, I decided to take a different approach to this preview. After all, a non-traditional sports fan ought to be taking a non-traditional look at the world of sports. In that spirit, here are the half-dozen things I think are going to have the greatest impact on this year's race...
 
 
 
6. The absence of a prologue 
 
For the first time since 1966, the Tour de France will start without a short prologue time trial. Instead, the riders will push off on July 5 from the Atlantic port of Brest on a 197.5 km (122.5 mi) road stage along the windswept Breton coast. On the first day, there will be three intermediate sprints and four fourth-category climbs...
 
... but why is this all important? What does this matter, and how will it have such an impact on the race? Well, here's how. First, because there will be climbs and sprints along the way, there will be an awarding of all the Tour's jerseys -- yellow for the leader on time, green for the sprint-points leader, polka-dot for the best climber, and white for the best young rider -- from the end of the first stage. This makes the finish, for the town of Plumelec at the opposite end of the first stage, that much more valuable in that they will have four champions on the day crowned in their town.
 
Further, in recent years we have seen a time-trial specialist or a general-classification leader take the prologue and assert a stranglehold on the race from the very beginning. Lance Armstrong was a specialist at this, using the prologue to shave valuable seconds on his time and to start right away in carving out an advantage over his rivals. This year, just about anybody could be wearing the yellow jersey on the stage in Plumelec, which will make for more drama from the beginning...
 
 
 
5. No more time bonuses 
 
Coupled with the absence of the prologue, the decision of Amaury Sports Organization to do away with the intermediary and end-of-stage time bonuses for each stage's top finishers will have a decided effect on a race which has come down to mere seconds in the past few years. With such a wide-open race, it will be increasingly difficult for riders to best their foes in the race to end up in Paris with the lowest aggregate time elapsed.
 
What does this mean for fans? No longer will followers of the Tour be faced with the complex question of just how long it ACTUALLY took a rider to finish the race. As race director Christian Prudhomme stated in an interview for the official race guide, "Personally, I prefer things in real time. I like the idea that a winner's overall time in Paris corresponds with the actual time it took him to complete the race route." Now this preference will become a reality...
 
Riders, however might not like this fact. Last year, twenty-three SECONDS separated the victor from second place, and only eight more seconds separated second from third. The previous year, first and second were separated by thirty-two seconds. Without these time bonuses, how would these races have fared? Ultimately, that is of little importance; what IS important here is that an increasingly-tight contest is about to get even tighter as riders realize that no amount of stage victories will gain them breathing room -- only breaking away and TAKING that time will win this year's Tour.
 
 
 
4. UCI/ASO split
 
This race, for the first time since the foundation of the Union Cycliste International, will be run outside the control of the international governing body of the sport. A long-time spat between the organizers of the sport's biggest race and the powers at the sport's international government, which stemmed largely from the unilateral creation of the ProTour by the UCI, has come to a boiling point and led ASO to withdraw its race from the UCI calendar. The French Cycling Federation is taking sanctioning control over the race. Honestly, as far as the day-to-day operations the race should still run fairly smoothly despite these changes...
 
However, this does mean that mechanics are bound not to the official UCI rules concerning road and time-trial bicycles but rather a fourteen-page rules document put out by ASO detailing their guidelines. Ultimately, most of these rules look exactly the same as those under which UCI governs other races. The crux here, though, is that many of these rules are open to interpretation and it remains to be seen how things like time-trial positions, such a cause for aggravation in last year's prologue start in London, will be interpreted now that the UCI definitions are not sacrosanct. Between enterprising mechanics, inspectors with perhaps a different set of subjective standards, and riders already prone to attempting to gain any edge possible, this could potentially have weird effects on this race.
 
One place where cooperation HAS been fostered between these two disparate organizations, however, is in ASO's benefit from the UCI's introduction of biological passports. Blood markers are traced with each in- and out-of-competition test, and anomalies allow the doping control specialists to better pick up on discrepancies in the data to more effectively root out cheaters. As ASO accepts this standard, and individual teams increasingly begin to implement their own additional internal testing programs, a precedent is set that allows for better detection of rule-thwarting...  
 
 
 
3. Petacchi out, Boonen in 
 
One of the most exciting races within the race that is the Tour de France is the perennial battle for the maillot vert, the green sprinter's jersey awarded to the rider with the most accumulated points earned from placing high at the end of each individual stage. Annually, the world's top sprinters congregate on the roads of France to challenge each other in the fastest sprints in the sport. Reaching upwards of seventy to eighty kilometers (43-50 miles) per hour in the final 200 meters, these riders will stage a daily struggle to gather up as many points as possible.
 
Two sprinters in the past several years have defined the position in the sport. Alessandro Petacchi of Milram, long considered to have the fastest pure acceleration in the sport, has found limited success in past Tours, preferring to focus on his native Giro d'Italia instead. Tom Boonen, the former world champion and two-time (and current) champion of Paris-Roubaix, won last year's contest of the sprint titans. These two riders have been feuding on the road for the past several years, each trying to outdo the other at the finish line...
 
However, both riders have come into trouble for having tested positive for banned substances. However, one will go without punishment and be allowed to race in the Tour de France; the other has already received an abbreviated one-year suspension and will watch the race from home...
 
One rider tested positive for salbutamol, a steroid found in asthma inhalers. The other rider tested positive for cocaine, a long-known stimulant...
 
Yes, it is true. While Alessandro Petacchi is forced to sit at home and miss out on an entire season of racing -- for taking a few too many drags off his inhaler! -- Tornado Tom Boonen enters the Tour as the returning favorite for a second sprint title, arriving in Brest with a nose full of stimulants and a slap on the wrist. Why is this happening, you ask?
 
... because a quirky rule keeps drug testers from being allowed to punish cocaine use out of competition. Yes, that's right, folks -- as World Anti-Doping Agency spokesman Frederic Donze told VeloNews, "Cocaine is not prohibited when detected out of competition." So a rider can have one too many asthma attacks, and he will be forced to decide whether to either open his bronchial tubes and get a clear breath of air or to forgo the medicine and remain eligible to race... but a rider can snort all the coke he wants and, as long as it is out of his system by race day, come away with nothing but a blemish on his image.
 
If Tom Boonen ends up winning this year's  maillot vert, there will certainly be some quarters questioning the validity of his accomplishments, and they should. The fact that standards are not concrete on what does and does not constitute a doping offense could have serious ramifications on a race which has already been plagued by them in its recent past...
 
 
 
2. Spaniards attempt to keep streak alive 
 
... just ask Oscar Pereiro, the 2006 Tour champion who was retroactively granted the title after Floyd Landis' appeals of his positive test for elevated exogenous testosterone levels ended in defeat. Or perhaps you could hunt down last year's champ, Alberto Contador, who was solidly ensconsed in second place before Rabobank expelled and terminated the contract of the man who to that point had been leading the entire race, two-time King of the Mountains Michael Rasmussen. Following Floyd Landis' triumphant resurrection after seeming dead in the race in 2006, it appeared that the United States was going to continue its stranglehold on the race which had begun with Lance Armstrong's surprise victory in 1999.
 
However, the past two seasons have ended up seeing Spain instead take its first two Tour crowns since Miguel Indurain won his last of five consecutive from 1991 to 1995. The Spanish assault will continue this season as several countrymen vie for the chance to become the next Tour champion in the streak. Alejandro Valverde enters as the prohibitive favorite of the bunch. Having bested Lance Armstrong at his own game, taking the mountaintop finish ahead of the Texan at Courcheval in the 2005 Tour, Valverde has long been touted as a future Tour winner.
 
Others with a shot include Oscar Pereiro, the 2006 champ who will most likely be working as a lieutenant for Valverde this time around on the Caisse d'Epargne team; Carlos Sastre of Team CSC, the wiry climber who was bumped up to third in the 2006 Tour after Landis' ignominious disgrace; and I would certainly not be surprised if either Euskatel-Euskadi or Saunier Duval, the two Spanish-registered squads, had a few tricks of their own to foist on this race... 
 
 
 
1. Astana absent... but not by choice
 
... however, the Spaniards will have to make their attempt for three in a row without the defending champion. After the 2007 season, Alberto Contador was forced to seek a new squad after the Discovery Channel team disbanded. Ultimately signing with Astana, a team with a dicey past but a promising future including internal testing programs and the same essential management as the Discover Channel team which guided Contador to the previous season's victory, Contador set his sights on defending his Tour crown. Levi Leipheimer joined Contador and carryover Andreas Kloden from the previous year's team to form a leadership triumvirate who all had stoon on the final Tour podium in Paris.
 
However, the ghosts of Astana's past have snuck up with a vengeance. Remembering how ASO allowed Astana to enter last season's race after a disastrous 2006 attempt ended as soon as Operacion Puerto began, having been promised that the team was clean only to see it pull out after its star and leader Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping, the organizers decided that enough was enough. The Kazakh-based squad, sponsored by a consortium of business brought in by Vinokourov, has been denied entry as ASO attempts to protect the integrity of its race.
 
Yet at the same time it handcuffs its legitimacy by forbidding the defending champion from defending his title. The French organizers, led by Christian Prudhomme, is in quite the quandary...
 
 
 
 
Add all these stories up, and what does one get? A lethal combination that is sure to work itself into one exciting bicycle race. Be sure to set your alarm clocks early, folks, because Versus will be bringing EARLY-MORNING coverage of this race to everyone live daily. If you can't bear to wake up with the sunrise, be sure to catch some of the replays on the channel throughout the day. Cycling.tv will also offer great online broadcasts of each stage for those who cannot get to a television. You might be rooting for Silence-Lotto to pull an unprecedented feat and land its two Australian riders (Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen) in the yellow and green jerseys respectively. You might be rooting for George Hincapie to blossom in his first attempt at the Tour outside the U.S. Postal/Discovery team structure. Perhaps you wish to see a bright new star to emerge resplendent. However you cut it, though, this race should undoubtedly be a contentious and highly-contested event...
 
So many storylines and only twenty-three days in July to solve all the mysteries on the road. This Non-Traditional Sports Fan, for one, hopes you all get out there and catch some of the action!

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