Tour de France 2012: Wait a Schleckond

Yes, it’s a bad pun, but circumstances mean I haven’t been able to use ‘Andy Schleckond’ this year, so an oblique reference to Frank’s troubles will have to do. And in case you missed the news last night, Frank Schleck is now out of the tour after an ‘adverse analytical finding’ from a doping control on Saturday. The lab found traces of a diuretic in his sample, and while that’s not a banned or performance-enhancing substance in itself, it’s on a controlled list because it can be used to mask use of other substances.

As I understand it, the principle would be to take some performance-enhancing substance, then consume lots of liquid and a diuretic to wash traces of it from your system, and then more liquid to rid the system of traces of the diuretic. RadioShack have said that none of their medical staff possess or use Xipamide, the substance found in Frank’s sample, and things don’t look good for him. However, they will now test the other half of his sample to see if he gets the same result – for testing, a sample is divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’, with the B sample being tested after the A has come out positive to guard any contamination or false positives.

The knock-on effects from this could have quite an effect on professional cycling. There have already been reports that the whole RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team is in financial trouble with stories of riders not being paid, a sponsor that’s not interested now Lance Armstrong’s finally retired (and possibly in trouble of his own) and a team that’s not functioning as a cohesive unit, with the Schlecks and team boss Johann Bruyneel openly disparaging each other. This could be the nudge that sends the team over the edge, and other teams are already circling RNT riders with juicy contracts, while there are also stories of yet another new Schleck-focused team being established with the sponsorship of Alpecin shampoo. The reverberations from this could kill one team and strangle another at birth.

Back to the race itself, and it’s the first of two big stages in the Pyrenees. Four climbs in all, and after an early sprint, expect the big men to struggle for most of the day while the leaders and the grimpeurs head off down the road. For Nibali, Evans and Van Den Broeck, today and tomorrow are the last chance they’ll have to take time out of Wiggins and Froome. There’s tests for other riders too – Kessiakoff will be looking for King of the Mountains points, while other riders will be wondering if they can gain a handful of minutes to move up a few places in the overall classification. It’ll also be interesting to see if Rolland and Pinot battle to be the leading French rider, and if Rolland is allowed to get away to try and claim the polka dot jersey.

For the leaders, though, the question isn’t whether there’ll be attacks but when and who’ll launch them. Nibali and Van Den Broeck have looked the most likely to in the previous mountain stages, while Evans has shown signs of weakness. Will Tejay Van Garderen be ordered to escort him again if he gets into trouble, or will he be allowed to push on, especially as Pinot is challenging him for the young riders’ white jersey?

There’s lots of TV coverage today – ITV4 are showing it from noon, while Eurosport start at 9.30, giving us plenty of time for Sean Kelly to umm and talk about bonifications. The riders set off from Pau just after 10am UK time, with the leaders expected to reach the finish in Bagneres-du-Luchon around six hours later.