Tour de France: Vintage race of delicate power shifts leaves fans enthralled

Only 73 seconds cover the top five riders in what may be the greatest showdown in history. By Alasdair Fotheringham
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At 95 years old and counting, you would have thought a venerable sporting institution like the Tour de France would have seen it all. But with the race's five leading riders clustered within 73 seconds at the head of the classification four days from Paris the 2008 edition is breaking into spectacularly new, and exciting territory.

"It's certainly never been this close before between so many riders, so close to the finish," says Philippe Brunel, the leading cycling journalist at the Tour's semi-official newspaper, L'Equipe. "The tension and interest have hit a high point."

For some, the greatest ever Tour remains 1989, when Greg Lemond captured the yellow jersey from Frenchman Laurent Fignon by a mere eight seconds on the final day, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower – the race's smallest winning margin.

Others cite Eddy Merckx's long-range attack when wearing the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees in the 1969 race which ended with "The Cannibal" taking the stage by more than 12 minutes. "The vintage ones tend to have two scenarios – either there is one rider who blitzes the field, or there is a showdown right up to the finale," Brunel adds. A classic of the latter kind was 1987, with Irishman Stephen Roche and Spaniard Pedro Delgado's ding-dong battle up until the final time trial.

As in the best sporting cliffhangers, the first fortnight of the 2008 Tour has had one delicate power shift after another. It moved first in favour of Australian Cadel Evans, who took the jersey by one second from Frank Schleck on the race's first summit finish at Hautacam.

But then at Prato Nevoso on Sunday, in an action packed, rain-lashed final ascent, the pendulum swung back in favour of Schleck. His advantage, though, is just seven seconds over Austrian Bernhard Kohl, and eight on Evans.

Just behind the trio are two more experienced contenders – Spaniard Carlos Sastre, and Russian Denis Menchov – both with serious options on taking yellow in Paris. Part of the reason why the race is so uncertain and so spellbinding is that after 2006 Tour victor Oscar Pereiro span over a crash barrier in the first Alpine stage and ended up in hospital with a broken wrist, there is no former winner left in the race.

"We just don't know which way to look," says race leader Schleck's team manager Bjarne Riis. The public clearly don't feel the same way, with TV audiences up by a daily average of 200,000 in France alone.

This is also a Tour where future generations are having a real impact, with 23-year-old Manxman Mark Cavendish – four times a stage winner – at the top of this list. Schleck's brother and team-mate Andy, now holding the Best Young Rider's jersey is another tipped for greatness.

Yet another innovation is the 2008 Tour's truly international character. Only two of the five leaders, Carlos Sastre and Frank Schleck, are from countries with a real cycling tradition. Australia has never won the Tour and nor have Russia or Austria – the latter country with just two journalists on the race following Kohl, out of a total press corps of 2,000.

Not so new are the doping scandals. But indirectly at least one of them has benefited the racing, with the removal of the one dominating rider in the mountains, Italian Riccardo Ricco, after testing positive for EPO. On the climbs, the rest all seem equally balanced – for now.

Asked if the tougher anti-doping tests have contributed to the uncertainty, Brunel concedes with a wry smile that, "It's possible". Brunel argues that if Evans wins the Tour after riding defensively throughout, the race will have turned out to be a damp squib.

But that is only one of five options – and it is precisely this race's near-total uncertainty so close to the finale, that has given the 2008 Tour a real aura of sporting greatness.

Tours de force: Five stirring races that sealed event's place in history

1964: The home favourites battle

In arguably one of the great tours, Jacques Anquetil, winner of the last four, looked destined to make it five. However, Raymond Poulidor, who was a revelation, looked to snatch a first Tour win from his rival Frenchman. As usual Anquetil won both time trials but Poulidor dominated on the climbs and, after dropping Anquetil on the Puy de Dôme, it seemed Poulidor was set to take the yellow jersey for the first time in his career and go on to win. Anquetil, though, had other ideas and won by 55 seconds. Poulidor never did win the race, but earned three second-place and five third-place finishes.

1969: Merckx grabs all three jerseys on debut

On his Tour debut, Eddy Merckx performed the still unequalled feat of winning the yellow jersey (overall leader), the green jersey (best sprinter) and the red polka-dotted jersey ("King of the Mountains"), securing him the first of his five Tour victories. The Belgian's victory was so strong and so consistent he earned the nickname "The Cannibal".

1978: The emergence of Hinault

The '78 Tour will be remembered for the debut of the Frenchman Bernard Hinault, who emulated the great Merckx by winning on his debut. Hinault's talent was clear after he took the eighth stage in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande. After another stage victory in St Etienne, a battle ensued with Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, who led until the individual time-trial stage from Metz to Nancy. Hinault took the time trial ahead of Zoetemelk, snatched the yellow jersey, and kept it all the way to Paris – the first of five Tour victories.

1987: Roche comes back, collapses, comes back again

"That looks like Roche – it is! It's Stephen Roche!" proclaimed Phil Liggett, as the Irishman somehow emerged ahead of the race leader and climbing specialist Pedro Delgado in Morzine, closing the gap between the two ahead of the crucial time trial in Dijon. But the drama occurred after the race when Roche collapsed and was given oxygen while Delgado, with a reluctant look on his face, received the yellow jersey. Roche recovered, established a lead over Delgado thanks to a second place in the time trial and took the Tour.

1989: The closest race

French hero Laurent Fignon was set to win another Tour but America's Greg Lemond was staging his own comeback, the lead changing hands numerous times, with by the final stage only 50 seconds separating the duo. Lemond made up 58 seconds to win by a mere eight – the smallest winning margin ever in the Tour. There hasn't been a time trial to end the Tour since.