Updated at 12:34 p.m. with today's results.
When the American cycling team Garmin-Cervélo went pro four years ago, its aim wasn't necessarily to win big at the Tour de France. Rather, founder Jonathan Vaughters said he wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to be competitive without taking performance-enhancing drugs – and thus transform the culture of a sport marred by systemic doping at the highest levels.
It seemed a lofty goal, particularly in the grueling Tour de France, which runs for three weeks with only a handful of rest days. So even when Garmin won its first-ever Tour stage on July 4 this year and was leading the team standings, some doubted it would still be in the lead as the race churned through the Pyrénées and climbed the highest Alpine finish in Tour history.
Garmin has a zero-tolerance antidoping policy backed up by supplemental drug tests for its riders – a model since adopted by other teams as well. Now, the self-proclaimed “clean team" has a real shot at winning the overall team classification at this year's Tour.
Garmin riders retook the lead this week and hung tough yesterday as the race ascended a trio of dramatic climbs, including the 9,000-foot Col Agnel.
Thanks to the 9th and 10th place stage finishes by American Tom Danielson and Canadian Ryder Hesjdal, and a crucial 12th from US veteran Christian Vande Velde, the team not only kept its five-and-a-half minute lead but extended it to more than 10 minutes. Today, the trio built on that lead, putting the squad nearly 12 minutes ahead of the next team as the Tour heads for the finale in Paris on Sunday.
While not as prestigious as the yellow jersey that top riders Andy Schleck, Thomas Voeckler, and Cadel Evans were vying for today up the iconic Alpe D’Huez climb, the team trophy is a real prize – one that comes with a €50,000 ($72,000) award.
Evolution of team racing in the Tour
The Tour de France’s initial editions forbade riders to form teams, encouraging solo feats of strength. These days, individual champions would be nowhere without the support of a strong team that works tirelessly to deliver its leader to success.
Late in the Tour, though, many riders fall out of contention for individual competitions like the yellow or green jersey.
At a hotel in the Italian Alps last night, Vaughters admitted that the team classification wasn’t a goal from the Tour’s outset.
“Typically, this doesn’t become a focus until later in the race, because it’s almost impossible to play to win the team classification from the beginning,” he said. “But a few days from the finish, I can say, ‘Oh, this is what we have now to work with.’ ”
How the team award is calculated
The team classification is based on cumulative time, recalculated each day by adding a team’s three best individual times from each stage.
Vaughters’ team took the overall lead – from the Schleck brothers' Leopard Trek squad – after Tuesday’s Stage 16. Norway’s Thor Hushovd and Hesjedal finished first and third, respectively, after a breakaway into the Alpine town of Gap.
On yesterday’s stage 18, the Schleck brothers finished 1-2. But their third rider was 14 minutes back in 35th place, after having helped Andy Schleck make a dramatic attack that gave him a two-minute lead on the field for the day. Garmin, by contrast, didn't have any riders in contention for the lead but got three solid riders in the top 12.
Today, Garmin riders finished 10-11-19.
“Typically, the team that wins the [general classification] is really strong in the race,” said Vaughters. “This is a byproduct of our total success at this year’s Tour.”
Clean squads aren't just for show
If Garmin can keep its lead through tomorrow's time trial and the race’s concluding stage in Paris on Sunday, it will not just be a perfect capstone to a record-setting Tour for the Colorado-based team.
Doping has once again overshadowed this race. Defending champion Alberto Contador is riding in the race despite a positive drug test during his win at last year’s Tour. And Alexandr Kolobnev, a Russian rider for Team Katusha, withdrew from this year’s race after testing positive for a banned diuretic in the first week.
A final success for the dope-free Garmin team would send a message to the professional peloton that clean squads aren’t just for show. Since its inception in 2007, Garmin hasn’t had a single positive doping test. Now, it has the podium credentials to boot.
"I am confident that clean riders can win big races,” Vaughters said early in this year’s Tour. “The proof is in the pudding. We’ve showed [it's possible.]"