For many of the nearly 200 riders due to start the 2006 Tour de France, it was the biggest race of their year. It would go down as possibly the weirdest race in modern history. There was a feeling that anything could happen at any time during the course of the three-week event.
Not every rider in the race was in with a chance of winning. In fact there were only about ten contenders for the overall lead, while some other riders were just looking to claim one of the other jerseys, stage wins, or just survive the hardest three weeks of their life.
The controversy kicked off a matter of days before the Tour began. A Spanish report into suspected blood doping was released and the teams with riders named in the report agreed to remove those athletes from the race, and not replace them.
The two overwhelming race favourites, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, were on that list of names. Ullrich had won in 1997 and finished second a number of times; he had recently won the Tour of Switzerland, a warm-up race for the Tour de France. Basso, who has finished second twice, had just come off the back of winning the Giro d'Italia and fans were wondering if he could claim a Tour and Giro double. Another pre-race favourite, Francisco Mancebo, was also thrown out.
The Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov was more unlucky. Just a week earlier, his team, Liberty Seguros, had won a court case allowing them entry into the Tour. The ruling followed claims by Tour de France organisers that the team was bringing the race into disrepute (based on drug allegations dating back to the days before Vinokourov had joined Liberty Seguros). The Spanish investigation named four members of Vinokourov's team, and, due to rules stating that a team has to start with six riders, Vinokourov was out.
With Lance Armstrong retired and Ullrich and Basso protesting their innocence elsewhere, the race was left with only one rider who had finished on the podium before - Ullrich's T-Mobile team-mate, Andreas Klöden, who had finished third in 2004. In theory, the race should have been his to lose. And this is how he lost it.
Lance Armstrong's old team, Discovery, had in theory, a number of potential winners. In George Hincapie they had a man who supported Armstrong almost all the way to his record number of victories. In Paolo Savoldelli, they had a twice-champion of the Giro. And in Yaroslav Popovych, they had a man marked as a great talent for the future and a potential leader. They wanted another race winner, and by having perhaps the strongest squad, they should have been able to pull it off. Of course, like all good plans, it went to pieces in spectacular fashion.
Before the important part of the race, the bits with hills and time trials, there is a week or so of riding along the flat roads of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, where the sprinters try and grab stage wins and secure the green jersey for the most consistent finisher. After the super-fast Italian, Alesandro Pettachi injured himself in the Giro, the big favourite was the World Champion Tom Boonen from Belgium. It was generally considered that last year's winner, Thor Hushovd of Norway, only won the competition because everybody else either failed to make it to Paris or had points docked for bad behaviour. Boonen had his whole team working for him to make sure he got over the line first every day. Stage wins and the green jersey were Tom's aims. We'll see how he rather fouled that up as well.
The Prologue - 7.1km Strasbourg
The Tour de France starts with a short 10km individual ride against the clock in the city of Strasbourg. This helps to put time gaps into the race and give the race a legitimate leader for the first proper day of racing. This short time trial is a specialist discipline, and two of the favourites were British.
David Millar was riding a few days after his two year drug ban had ended and was targeting a win. Olympic track champion Bradley Wiggins was riding his first Tour De France and this was the ideal distance for his talents. Wiggins placed 16th and Miller a place behind. The surprise winner was sprinter Thor Hushovd, separated by .73 seconds from American George Hincapie in second place.
The First Week Proper
Stage 1 - 184.5km - Strasbourg to Strasbourg
For the favourites for the overall win, the first week of the Tour De France is mainly about riding around near the front of the peloton1 and avoiding the crashes. The first week is for the sprinters to get stage wins, points and perhaps sneak into the yellow jersey for a stage or two.
Hincapie sprung the first surprise of the Tour when he finished third at an intermediate sprint point. The top three places at sprints and over the finish line give small time bonuses as well as green-jersey points. With his little bonus Hincapie would take over the yellow jersey if Hushovd missed out on a top-three spot at the end of the stage.
He missed a top-three finish, but what Hushovd did manage to hit on his way to a ninth-place finish was a large novelty hand being waved by a spectator. He collapsed at the end of the stage with blood spilling from his arm. He was taken to hospital where he was stitched up and ready to race the second stage.
As for Boonen, his team led him out slightly too early. He was left trying to sprint from 300 meters out, seemingly got distracted by a camera flash and finished outside the top ten. The stage was won by Frenchman Jimmy Casper, which meant that journalists had to leave their regular obituary of French cycling for another year. Aussie Robbie McEwen came in second with the veteran German, Eric Zabel, trying to make up for his team-mate Alessandro Petacchi being injured, behind him in third place.
Stage 2 - 228.5km Obernai to Esch-sur-Alzette
Stage 2 saw a two-man break last for 187km before being caught. This break allowed David de la Fuente to stake his claim for the ‘guy who wears the King of the Mountains jersey until we reach the real hills' role by topping all of the stage's small climbs first. The race was brought back together in time for Boonen to show that he still hadn't got his sprint worked out properly, as McEwen appeared from nowhere in the last 50 meters to take the stage. Hushovd regained the race lead thanks to time bonuses for his third places at the finish and at one sprint on the road. Time bonuses also meant that McEwen and Boonon had rocketed up the leaderboard, while Bradley Wiggins finished a few minutes behind the rest of the field.
Stage 3 - 216.5km Esch-sur-Alzette to Valkenburg
This was a stage that took the race from the Luxembourg border, through Luxembourg, Belgium and a little bit of Germany before ending in the Dutch Alps2. The organisers decided to try and cause a bit of havoc by sticking in the short and steep climb of the Cauberg just 2km from the finish. Another of the pre-race favourites went out when Alejandro Valverde crashed and broke his collarbone.
The final climb caused the expected fun, then the main group split up. They had spent most of the day chasing down a breakaway group, whose last survivor Jose Luis Arrieta was caught just before the climb. T-Mobile's Matthias Kessler used the Cauberg to break away and win, followed five seconds later by his Australian team mate Michael Rodgers. The pair did wonders for T-Mobile's morale, after having Ullrich and another team-mate Oscar Sevilla removed from the race.
The field was split on the climb and there was just enough of a gap between the two groups for Tom Boonen to claim the yellow jersey in his native Belgium, one second ahead of Michael Rodgers. Of course, temporarily having the yellow jersey was nice, but Boonen wanted stage wins and to ride the green jersey into Paris. He actually had claimed the lead in the green-jersey competition, but the rules dictate that you wear the yellow jersey ahead of the green if you are winning both.
Stage 4 - 207km Huy to Saint-Quentin
When the riders finished stage four in Saint-Quentin, for the second time Robbie McEwen was in the lead. Bradley Wiggins had showed his face early on, joining in a breakaway that lasted most of the day. Eventually the breakaway group was dragged back, with Wiggins too exhausted to hang on to the bunch and finishing over two minutes behind.
Once again, the sprint was lined up for Boonen before McEwen appeared from the shadow of his team-mate Gert Steegmans and beat everybody to the line. McEwen claimed the green jersey with his second win. Thor Hushovd's quest to retain his green jersey was dealt a massive blow, as he was disqualified from the stage results (but not the race as a whole) for blocking in the sprint.
Stage 5 - 225km Beauvais to Caen
The race had started to get a pattern going now: The bunch would ride along, let a breakaway go and catch them just before the end. Then a bunch sprint would be set up for Boonen, who would surprisingly be beaten and then sulk up to the podium to collect his yellow jersey.
The main players in this stage were Samuel Dumoulin and Bjorn Schroder, who escaped from a larger group with 40km gone and were caught less than 5km from the end, and Oscar Freire, who beat Boonen into second place.
Stage 6 - 189km Lisieux to Vitré
It's a shame that the strict diet plans of the riders left them unable to indulge in the calvados of Lisieux or the cheese of Pont l'Evêque - which the Tour had passed through the previous day. And the upcoming individual time trials meant most of the riders seemed quieter than normal. The breakaway in stage six consisted of Magnus Backstedt, Florent Brard and Anthony Geslin, and it lasted 110km. It was caught 4km from the line where the sprint was again set up for Boonen, who again was beaten by McEwen. And again, knowing it was likely to be the last time, he appeared sulky as he was awarded the yellow jersey with accompanying flowers and cuddly lion.
Week Two was to begin with a time trial and then head south into the mountains. This should be the time when the race favourites showed their faces. But with the time trial being over 52km, there was probably as much chance of Thor Hushovd getting a repeat win as there was of Satan snowboarding to work.
From the top ten overall, there were four sprinters, while all the rest could claim to be major contenders for the time trial. Among them were Time Trial World Champion Michael Rogers in third place, George Hincapie in fifth, Paolo Savoldelli in seventh, American Floyd Landis in eighth, and former Best Young Rider, Russian Vladimir Karpets, ninth. T-Mobile also had another former World Time Trial Champion in the form of Serhiy Honchar of Ukraine, who was tenth, 37 seconds behind. David Millar was only a few places and a few seconds further back and was talking up his chances.
Stage 7 - 52km Time Trial Saint Grégoire to Rennes
The time trial turned out to be a show of strength from T-Mobile. Had Ullrich been riding, he would have been the overwhelming favourite for the stage. But when it came to the time trial discipline, the team hardly lacked depth. Michael Rodgers came in fourth, German Patrik Sinkewitz was sixth and Andreas Klöden came in eighth. It was Serhiy Honchar who provided the ride of the day, powering around the course in 61 minutes, over a minute faster than everybody else, enough to get him the yellow jersey. Honchar had previously finished second in the Giro d'Italia, so he could obviously climb a bit. Perhaps this tour had found a yellow jersey wearer who could take it to Paris?
T-Mobile's German rivals were Gerolsteiner, and they did reasonably, with Germans Sebastian Lang in third and Markus Fothen - a contender for the best young rider - in seventh. Their main race favourite, American Levi Leipheimer, had an awful day, losing six minutes. Other Americans had days to forget with Team CSC's Bobby Julich crashing out and David Zabriskie, a stage favourite, also losing two minutes. George Hincapie lost nearly three. The only American to really perform was Floyd Landis who came in second, only a minute behind Honchar. This was an even better result, considering that Landis's normal time-trial position had been declared illegal3 just moments before he was due to go off. David Millar finished over three and a half minutes back.
So Honchar was leading the race with Floyd Landis in second, and then came Rogers and Sinkewitz. Other possible favourites that were highly placed included Klöden in sixth, Austrialian Cadel Evans in eighth and Russia's Denis Menchov in ninth. Much of the talk now was how T-Mobile would handle having the yellow jersey4 when they are already two men down and had two potential winners, in Rogers and Klöden, who are not excepted to join in with the chasing. Also, which one of their riders would be the team leader when the mountains arrived?
Stage 8 - 181km Saint Méen-le-Grand to Lorient
This was a quick trip into the cycling heartlands of Brittany before everybody jumped on a plane to Bordeaux ahead of the World Cup Final, which was being played in Berlin that evening between France and Italy. People must have been in a rush because they forgot part of the script. The standard breakaway got going about 45km in, with Frenchman Sylvain Calzati finding enough strength to ride off the front of it with 30km to go. He was not going to be caught and spent most of the last kilometre celebrating with his team manager. Two of his breakaway colleagues finished just over two minutes back, ten seconds ahead of the main field, led over by Robbie McEwen.
Having a Frenchman win the stage probably slightly offset the disappointment in the football5. Or at least it might have if Calzati had not revealed that he was supporting Italy.
Just when people were thinking that the Tour could not get any more strange, Floyd Landis called a press conference to announce that after the end of the Tour he would undergo hip-replacement therapy. X-Rays showed that most of his hip bone was just dead tissue and he was in pain when he rode. It also went a long way towards explaining his bizarre riding style.
Stage 9 - 169.5km Bordeaux to Dax
This was a (comparatively) short dash through the pine forests of Les Landes, familiar to readers of Mauriac as a flat featureless expanse of pine trees. This flat stage was the last before the mountains, so all eyes were on the sprinters.
If yesterday was about hips and pelvises, today was about Knees. Christian Knees went off the front of the bunch at just 7km, and he was joined by two more riders 10km later. They managed to build up an eight-minute lead before being chased back and caught on the outskirts of Dax. All eyes were on Boonen again, and his tactics almost worked, as McEwen was boxed in against the barriers until 100m to go. As we know by now, nothing was going right for Boonen in the final metres of a stage and he was passed by Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel, before a flying McEwen almost shot past them all. In the end Freire won from McEwen and Zabel. It looked like the World Champion would have to wait till after the Pyrenees.
The Pyrenees normally separates the wheat from the chaff. There would be no place to hide for the race favourites, and it was time for the real climbers like Basque Iban Mayo and Dane Michael Rasmussen to stake their claims for the King of the Mountains.
Stage Ten - 190.5km Cambo-les-Bains to Pau
When the Tour hits the Basque country two things are bound to happen. The first is that Basque separatists will attempt to interrupt the race in protest; the other is that Iban Mayo will puncture the hopes of a (wannabe) nation by putting in an abject performance. The memories of Mayo powering up the mountains to stage victories in 2003 looked like dreams from another lifetime as he hauled his bike into the finish along with most of the sprinters and non-climbers over 20 minutes back.
The stage had just two major climbs before a run into Pau. Looking at the layout of the mountain stages, with few mountain-top finishes, one could say that it was designed for Jan Ullrich to finally win another Tour. Rather a shame that he wasn't there to see it. A break went away early and, although it split up, Cyril Dessel of France and Juan Miguel Mercado of Spain managed to stay away over the big climbs and into the finish. Dessel, who had led over all the climbs, was beaten at the end by Mercado, but it didn't matter as it was becoming obvious that Honchar and the peloton were so far behind that Dessel would take the yellow jersey6 and the King of the Mountains jersey. Four other members of the break arrived before the main field - led in by Bennati and Zabel - arrived almost seven and a half minutes back.
Most of the favourites held positions relatively close to each other, expending as little energy as possible before the next day's stage
Stage 11 - 206.5km Tarbes to Val d'Aran-Pla-de-Beret
Now this is where the real fun started. The stage had five major climbs. Forget being eased in gently - the first three climbs are dubbed 'The Ring of Death'. The Col du Tourmalet is the tallest pass in the Pyrenees at 2,115m, and it is quickly followed by the Aspin and the Peyresourde. After the race crosses the Portilon and finds itself in Spain, it has one more climb, the Puerto de Beret before the finish at Val d'Aran. In total there were 62.6 km of climbs which rise for a combined 4,000 meters. And on top of it all, there was fog, clouds and rain to make the journey just that bit more fun.
This marked the point where many of the favourites started to lose the Tour. First to go was Iban Mayo who had just enough time for a lively exchange with cameramen before retiring. The Discovery trio of George Hincapie, Paolo Salvodelli and Yaroslav Popovych all lost large amounts of time to the mountains. As for T-Mobile, well, nobody really knew what they were doing. The day before they had managed to pump the pace so hard that they had blown their own yellow jersey out of the back of the bunch on the last climb - a massive faux pas in the racing world. Now they piled on the pressure, trying to get the favourites to crack. However, one by one the pink shirts of T-Mobile failed to take the pace and dropped away; the last to fall was Klöden.
Attacks were coming thick and fast at the front of the race, and some of the world's best cyclists were strewn across the spectacular scenery. Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer and Denis Menchov were the first group to hit the finish, with Menchov out-sprinting Leipheimer and Landis for the win. Aussie Cadel Evans and Spanish climber Carlos Sastre were just 17 seconds behind. The Dutch national champion Michael Boogard was just over a minute behind. Klöden arrived with Basque rider Haimar Zubeldia and Fränk Schleck of Luxemburg. Landis had started the day four minutes and 45 seconds behind Dessel. Considering the amount of energy that being out front most of the previous day had required, it was a valiant effort for Dessel to drag himself over the line four minutes and 45 seconds after Landis. However, Landis's eight-second time bonus for third place meant that he took the yellow jersey.
Over the next week and a half, it would become clear that the one minute, 31 seconds that Klöden lost to Landis could have lost him the race. But not to worry, Landis would do his best to throw away the race soon enough.