Tour de France: From Tour de farce to Thor de force

Little-known Norwegian sprints to Prologue win in the absence of last year's leading lights
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After a build-up to the Tour wrecked by drugs scandals, Thor Hushovd's victory in the opening prologue provided the first "normal" upset of this year's event - as in one to do with racing, not doping.

A respected sprinter who won the green points jersey in last year's Tour, and who briefly led the race in 2004, the Norwegian turned on the power on Strasbourg's broad, tree-lined avenues to add another yellow jersey to his collection.

Sprinters often turn in reasonable performances in short urban prologues like yesterday's 7.1-kilometre effort - the terrain is similar to their usual hunting grounds, the finishes of flat stages - but even Hushovd admitted winning the Tour's opening prologue had been unexpected. "If anybody didn't dare dream of this happening, it's me," the Credit Agricole rider said.

Second behind Hushovd was the American George Hincapie, with his compatriot Dave Zabriskie - the winner of last year's opening time-trial - third.

Despite their renowned time- trial skills, neither of Britain's two participants, the Olympic champion Bradley Wiggins and Scotland's David Millar, could come close to Hushovd's performance.

In his first Tour, Wiggins finished less than a 10th of a second ahead of the more experienced Millar, the pair taking 16th and 17th places res-pectively. "I'm really just pleased to be here, back in racing, and so for me this isn't a bad ride," Millar, returning from a two-year ban for illegal drugs use, said afterwards. "Don't forget the Tour's a world-class event."

Millar's return, though, coincided with more than a few of the Tour's big names heading in the opposite direction - and against their own will. Bizarrely enough for a race just about to get under way, Friday saw the race exclude three of its top five finishers in 2005 - Germany's Jan Ullrich, Italian Ivan Basso and Francisco Mancebo of Spain. The trio had been implicated in a massive anti-doping operation carried out in Madrid and, according to the regulations, had to be suspended.

As if that development was not enough, late on Friday evening the Astana-Wurth squad, led by another favourite, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, announced they were quitting after four of their lesser-known riders had also been implicated.

The mass elimination of the race's list of favourites started with Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner who has a tortured past of injuries, car accidents and a positive test for recreational use of amphetamines. Ejected for a year from his team, T-Mobile, as a consequence, this time round his squad were far more merciless with their prodigal son.

"We have no choice but to suspend him," the team spokesman, Luuc Eisenga, stated. The spotlight then focused relentlessly on Basso, the recent winner of the Tour of Italy who, like Ullrich, has categorically denied all involvement in the Spanish anti-doping investigations. It did the Italian precious little good. "He's not taking part," his team manager, Bjarne Riis, said. "We have to respect the rules."

After Mancebo announced his departure from the race, Vinokourov followed as well. Heavily implicated in the affair since late May, Vinokourov's Astana-Wurth team had already been requested not to start the Tour. However, the squad clung to a favourable ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport to justify their continued presence. The managers' decision not to let squads replace riders excluded because of the affair, believed in some quarters to be an intentional move to sink Astana-Wurth, meant that Vinokourov was left with too few team-mates to be permitted to start.

For a race as prestigious as the Tour, this sorry state of affairs has turned into a nightmare. When, or rather if, the dust finally settles, the Tour will find itself in utterly new territory in sporting terms because, followingLance Armstrong's retirement last July, none of the top five finishers in the 2005 race are now present.

Whether they like it or not, the major favourites are now the Americans Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis, sixth and ninth in the 2005 Tour, together with the talented Spaniard Alejandro Valverde.

Future controversies notwithstanding, Leipheimer and Landis could offer an appealing duel. Leipheimer is a quietly spoken Californian who dedicates his spare time to saving abandoned pets, whilst Landis is an eccentric ex-mountain biker and Johnny Cash devotee who chose to ride his bike, rather than drive or fly, from his home in Girona in northern Spain to the Tour start in north-west France last year.

In yesterday's prologue, faithful to his maverick reputation, Landis almost missed his start, but still finished ninth, with Leipheimer a disappointing 36th.

Together with Valverde, these two now shoulder part of a heavy responsibility - to restore some credibility to a race which is direly in need of finding some new reference points, and fast.