Tour de France: Millar sees puncture end hopes of yellow

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The Independent Online

An untimely puncture yesterday took the air out of David Millar's chances of wearing the yellow jersey in this year's Tour. In fifth place overall yesterday morning, the Scot had cheerfully predicted "carnage"on the day's short, sharp stage through the Massif Centrale.

An untimely puncture yesterday ended the Briton David Millar's chances of wearing yellow in this year's Tour. Fifth overall yesterday morning, the Scot had cheerfully predicted "carnage" for the short, sharp stage through the Massif Centrale.

Racing had barely got under way when Millar bounded off in front. The move was reeled in almost immediately afterwards. But on the long mid-race drag out of the town of Saint-Flour, Millar finally edged clear with four others. The five-man attack was hovering promisingly at the 25-second mark, with Millar making most of the effort on the front, when disaster struck in the shape of a front-wheel puncture. The time gaps were too close to make waiting for a wheel change an option. Instead the Garmin-Chipotle leader had no choice but to ride for 15 kilometres with the air slowly hissing out of the tyre – and simultaneously deflating his chances of taking the lead.

The break finally collapsed when the Danish squad CSC-Saxo Bank staged a ferocious mass attack. Millar's move was quickly absorbed.

Lingering hopes that Millar could stay in contention were scuppered by an unpleasantly steep two-kilometre climb close to the finish. A powerful acceleration by the leading contender Alejandro Valverde's Caisse D'Epargne squad split the bunch, and Millar was on the wrong side of the divide. "I warned my team-mates I wanted to go for the yellow jersey right from this morning." Millar said. "We knew it would be a very hard stage for the leader's team to control. I'd tried attack after attack to get clear and it was only after 50 kilometres that I got away. Then just at that point I punctured. I could have fallen off, but fortunately it was a slow puncture, so I tried to keep the move going."

While the stage win finally went to the Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez, both his victory and Millar's misfortune were overshadowed by the news that another Spaniard, Manuel Beltran, had failed a test for the banned hormone EPO. Race organisers confirmed that Beltran had returned an initial positive for the red blood cell booster – often at the centre of doping scandals in cycling – after the opening stage of the Tour from Brest to Plumelec. The 37-year-old rider in the Liquigas team was expelled from the Tour last night. For the moment, under agreements with organisers, his team will be allowed to continue racing.

Beltran was lying 26th overall at the time of his expulsion. Three years ago the veteran climbing specialist had already faced allegations of EPO use in the 1999 Tour – which he vigorously denied. A former member of the US Postal and Discovery Channel squads, and now close to the end of his career, Beltran's positive is a blow to the Tour's hopes that increased anti-doping measures this month could finally put the years of drugs scandals behind them.

With all the teams agreeing to pay fines of €100,000 (£80,000) in the case of a positive test, as well as sacking the implicated rider on the spot without waiting for the confirmation of a B test, the 2008 race had begun in a mood of unusual optimism. But Beltran's test, which was quickly followed by reports that French police had staged searches of the Liquigas team hotel last night, is depressingly familiar news for the Tour. Just as in previous years, there are worrying indications, too, that Beltran's positive may not be an isolated issue. Yesterday the president of the French Anti-Doping Agency, Pierre Bordry, said that around 10 riders had shown unusual values in their blood tests – values that "could be risky for their health".

It remains to be seen whether the Tour can shake off this latest scandal. But the Spaniard's positive, coupled with the sight of gendarmes at a team hotel – just like in the scandal-ridden edition of 1998 – is hardly an auspicious beginning for a race whose so-called "new beginning" is barely a week old.

Stage 7 results and standings

(159km, Brioude to Aurillac): 1 L-L Sanchez Gil (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne 3hr 52min 53sec; 2 S Schumacher (Ger) Gerolsteiner +6sec; 3 F Pozzato (It) Liquigas; 4 K Kirchen (Lux) Team Columbia; 5 A Valverde Belmonte (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne; 6 O Pereiro Sio (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne; 7 S Sanchez Gonzalez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi; 8 J Jufre Pou (Sp) Saunier Duval-Scott; 9 C Vandevelde (US) Team Garmin-Chipotle; 10 A Schleck (Lux) Team CSC-Saxo Bank; 11 J J Cobo Acebo (Sp) Saunier Duval-Scott; 12 C Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto; 13 R Ricco (It) Saunier Duval-Scott; 14 M Carrara (It) Quick Step; 15 D Menchov (Rus) Rabobank; 16 F Schleck (Lux) Team CSC-Saxo Bank; 17 S Devolder (Bel) Quick Step; 18 C Sastre Candil (Sp) Team CSC-Saxo Bank; 19 T Valjavec (Sloven) AG2R; 20 B Kohl (Aut) Gerolsteiner all same time. Selected: 50 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Chipotle +33sec; 145 M Cavendish (GB) Team Columbia +21min 53sec.

Leading overall: 1 Kirchen 28hr 23min 40sec; 2 Evans (Aus) +6sec; 3 S Schumacher (Ger) Gerolsteiner +16; 4 Vandevelde +44; 5 Menchov +1min 3sec; 6 Valverde Belmonte +1.12; 7 Millar +1.14; 8 Devolder +1.21; 9 Pereiro Sio; 10 T Lovkvist (Swe) Team Columbia both s/t; 11 Sanchez Gonzalez +1.27; 12 Sastre Candil +1.34; 13 F Schleck +1.56; 14 A Schleck (Lux) Team CSC-Saxo Bank +1.58; 15 B Kohl (Aut) Gerolsteiner +2.03; 16 M Monfort (Bel) Cofidis +2.07; 17 D Cunego (It) Lampre +2.09; 18 M Astarloza Chaurreau (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi +2.16; 19 Valjavec +2.19; 20 R Kreuziger (Cz Rep) Liquigas +2.20. Selected: 148 Cavendish +45.15. King of the Mountains: 1 D De la Fuente (Sp) Saunier Duval 28pts; 2 S Chavanel (Fr) Cofidis 27; 3 T Voeckler (Fr) Bouygues Telecom 27. Sprinters: 1 Kirchen 119pts; 2 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank 91; 3 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 90. Teams: 1 Team CSC 85hr 13min 26sec; 2 Columbia +2min 52sec; 3 Caisse d'Epargne +3:29.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.uk

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