Tour de France: O'Grady victory lifts scandal-hit Cofidis

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The Independent Online

Timely is perhaps the only word that effectively describes Australian Stuart O'Grady's victory in Chartres yesterday.

Quite apart from being Australia's second stage win in four days, O'Grady also gave his Cofidis squad some much-needed positive publicity after a spate of doping scandals wrecked their spring, all but sank the squad, and which has dealt yet another body-blow to cycling's fragile credibility.

One of five riders that attacked early on yet another rain-soaked day in northern France, for O'Grady it was his first Tour stage since he won from a similar move in 1998 in Grenoble - coincidentally the same year that the Festina affair nearly caused the race to grind to a halt.

One of the Australian's toughest challengers amongst the quintet proved to be young French national champion Thomas Voeckler, who profited from the huge margin the five opened on the peloton - over 12 minutes and 33 seconds - to take over the yellow jersey from Lance Armstrong.

Voeckler attacked on several occasions in the final kilometres but then hesitated when O'Grady, far faster in the sprints, swiftly bridged across.

If he had a tough time outgunning the other four, O'Grady found it almost as difficult to control his emotions when he discussed the importance of his win for himself and a team which suspended itself from racing for a month this spring in an attempt to put a lid on the scandals.

"The first 10 days [of the suspension] were the toughest in my life. My grandfather died during that period and my family went back to Australia, so I was alone when the team told me they were stopping racing." O'Grady, who only joined Cofidis at the start of 2004, explained: "Then from the moment we began racing again [in mid-May] I decided to go back to basics, attack when I want, and how I want, from the heart." He also made a point of dedicating the win to the Scot David Millar and Australian Matthew White, missing from the Cofidis Tour line-up for radically different reasons.

Millar's recent admissions of illegal drug use and subsequent suspension effectively decapitated the squad barely a week before the Tour began, while White somersaulted over his bike's handlebars when he rode over a electric cable just hours before the prologue was due to begin in Liege, fracturing his collarbone.

"I've turned over a new page." O'Grady said yesterday, something his team have not yet succeeded in convincing the wider public they have achieved. This could be a start, though.

The move was given the green light by race leader US Postal Lance Armstrong, aware that regardless of which rider won, thanks to Voeckler's presence the weight of the yellow jersey would lift from his shoulders during the less crucial early phase of the Tour. For Postal, Voeckler's spell in yellow will bring only advantages, given that he is not considered a serious contender. Armstrong's team can now take a back seat for the next week, and the Texan himself can avoid the after-stage ceremonies and press interviews that - after 54 days in yellow during the past five years - must border on the tiresome. "We're more than aware that Voeckler's team, Brioches, have a great deal of fighting spirit, particularly as he's wearing the French national champion's jersey and will be willing to defend the jersey as far as the Pyrenees," the Postal directeur sportif, Johan Bruyneel, commented afterwards.

For Brioches La Boulangère, Voeckler's spell in yellow will guarantee them some much-needed publicity as he makes a heroic defence of a lead he is all but doomed to lose. The team have no sponsor for 2005 and their attempt to sign a major leader, Joseba Beloki, this January ended this June. Three times a podium finisher, Beloki fell out with the team doctor over his use of a product, Pulmicort, which he claimed was vital for combating an asthma his new squad were adamant he did not suffer from. They finally agreed to go their separate ways just a few weeks ago.

Voeckler may not be able to win the Tour, but after scandals as serious as that of Cofidis and Festina six years before, French cycling is in no position to take any risks with potential doping stories. O'Grady's emotive description of the implications of his win merely underlined the fact.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly