Tour de France: Armstrong sees yellow in the hills

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As if seven days of a Tour de France beleaguered by crashes, injured riders and a series of torrential rain storms were not enough for this troubled event, yesterday the familiar old bugbear of doping raised its head yet again.

As if seven days of a Tour de France beleaguered by crashes, injured riders and a series of torrential rain storms were not enough for this troubled event, yesterday the familiar old bugbear of doping raised its head yet again.

News broke that a little-known Belgian team worker, Christophe Brandt, had returned a positive 'A' test for methadone after the second stage, to Namur ­ won by, piquantly, his Australian team-mate in the Lotto-Domo squad, Robbie McEwen.

The all-too-familiar scenes from former doping affairs then repeated themselves at the start. The team involved turned up as late as possible, presumably to avoid questions from the press, the rider in question was suspended as a precautionary measure, and Brandt said he "cannot explain" how the methadone came to be in his sample.

Regardless of what Brandt actually consumed, the race followers were left with a singularly bad taste in the mouth. Nor have matters been much more pleasant for the 176 riders who remained in the race after yesterday's stage, won by Filippo Pozzato of the Fassa Bortolo team after he sheered off the front with four others on the severely undulating finale at Saint Brieuc in deepest Brittany.

While Pozzato was delighted at being the first Italian to take a stage in the Tour this year, most of the peloton have lost time or hit the deck at one point or another, with 29 injured and 11 already abandoned.

"You look around the peloton and all you can see are bandaged-up riders," said the Spanish rider Iban Mayo, winner on L'Alpe d'Huez and sixth overall last year, but now trailing the leaders by more than five minutes after he crashed on the third stage, to Wasquehal.

Mayo's battle for the 2004 Tour is, he says, "completely finished", but neither can another potential contender, Tyler Hamilton, say it has been much easier going. His squad came within a whisker of collapsing in the most crucial stage of the first week, the team time-trial, when he had only four team-mates for company in the final kilometres due to crashes and punctures.

Then, on stage six, in a pile-up which saw more than 160 riders blocked in close to the finish at Angers, Hamilton somersaulted over the handlebars, smashing his helmet to pieces in the process. Team sources revealed that another rider's pedal had dug into his back, tearing off a large strip of skin and leaving a sizeable, painful bruise.

The sprinters, generally the major protagonists of the first week, have been equally unfortunate: Mario Cipollini, who ruled the roost in the bunch gallops in the late 1990s, quit, suffering from an old injury in his right leg that flared up again after some early crashes.

The rider widely tipped as his successor, the four-times 2003 Tour stage winner Alessandro Petacchi, pulled out because of torn ligaments in his shoulder from yet another pile-up. Not even Lance Armstrong has remained unharmed. The Texan, who usually manages to avoid crashes, went down early on Friday's stage, scraping his right knee and tearing his shorts. He complained later of a stiff hip.

Strategically, though, Armstrong is in an excellent position, given that his prologue in Liège ­ second behind Pozzato's team-mate Fabian Cancellara ­ was followed up by a convincing victory for his squad in the team time-trial on Wednesday. As a result, Armstrong moved into yellow for the first time in 2004 and the 54th time in his career.

The Texan then took the tactical decision to allow a break of five riders with little chance of challenging him beyond the Pyrenees to go clear the following day. The young French national champion Thomas Voeckler was the principal beneficiary, moving into yellow as a result with an advantage of 9min 35sec over Armstrong. The Brioches-la-Boulangère rider is determined to defend his lead for as long as possible, but has already admitted that he has no chance of holding the gap beyond the mountains. If Armstrong's masterplan works out, the American will take over once more.

After today's relatively uncomplicated stage, straddling Brittany from Lamballe in the north to Quimper on the south coast, a lumpy stage through the Massif Central on Wednesday with nine classified climbs then precedes the first two decisive stages in the Pyrenees. The two mountain- top finishes, at La Mongie and the Plateau de Beille, were both won by Armstrong in 2002, and all the signs are that he will be in a position to repeat his back-to-back victories of two years before.

But if he is heading for a sixth consecutive victory, Brandt's positive is another sign the battle against doping is still going badly askew.