On the wall of a bar in the Spanish village where I live there is a signed postcard of one of the 141 survivors of this year's Tour. It is of Juan Miguel Mercado, the only local rider taking part this year. Any customers watching the Tour broadcasts on the bar's television this year would have had a hard time spotting "Juan-mi". A mountain specialist, he put in a couple of attacks on the lower slopes of the Tour's toughest single climb, the Col du Galibier, and that was it. Roll on 2008.
Was such a low-key performance surprising? Hardly. As rider after rider has indicated of themselves off the record, Mercado's overwhelming desire in cycling's blue riband event has been to get it over with and go home. Just like in 1998 - when the accumulation of doping crises turned the Tour into a colourless, pleasureless shadow of itself - his personal tipping point had been reached long before Paris loomed into view.
Win or lose, though, back home Mercado remains a local hero. When he goes out training it is as part of a group of amateur riders which assembles each day under the church tower at 10am. At the annual criterium he hands out the prizes to the next generation of riders, many dreaming of riding in the Tour one day. Or at least they were until cycling hit the self-destruct button.
Mercado and pros like him are the last survivors of the days when cycling truly was, as it used to boast, a "sport of the people". That was before the boom years kicked off in the early 1990s, when the ensuing influx of money turned doping from a fringe activity into something so systematic that, come 2007, it has all but wrecked the sport.
At the same time, it is hardly coincidental that the so-called professionalisation of the sport caused by vastly increased budgets means that leading riders have become increasingly isolated, surrounded by an ever-growing plethora of PR officers, team doctors, security guards (sometimes armed), and other back-up personnel.
"These guys are looked upon as heroes to some young guys - but for me they're not the heroes of the Tour de France, they never were," says Britain's Bradley Wiggins, who left the race when one of his Cofidis team-mates tested positive. "I spent a lot of time in the group finishing an hour down most days and that's where the heroes are for me. Guys like Geraint Thomas, 21 years old - for the last two weeks I've watched him drag himself through the Alps and the Pyrenees on nothing but bread and water - not the guys on the million-Euro contracts who are being done for blood transfusions and things like that."
But it is only very recently that the gap between the Thomases of this world and the top riders has started to widen. Less than 20 years ago, the five-times Tour winner Miguel Indurain would be found chatting to journalists at the start each day - as Wiggins does - so much so he would often begin racing late.
Fast forward to 2007 and when this year's Spanish winner, Alberto Contador, had one of his limited conversations with the press last week, his team's PR man said afterwards he was worried Contador scratched his head too often - it apparently made his answers look unconvincing. As for journalists asking another team, Astana, "too many questions" about doping in one press conference, the solution was even more drastic: the team would not comment on them at all.
Given the proportions of the crisis enveloping the sport, worrying about head-scratching sounds like arguing over which first- class berth to take in the Titanic after the iceberg had struck. As for clamping down on doping questions, it immediately raises the suspicion that they cannot be asked because cycling does not have the answers. In Astana's case, given that their leader Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping last week, they certainly did not.
On the contrary, if ever there was a year when riders needed to be more accessible, more willing to answer questions about doping, to be seen as more human and not superstars, it was 2007. …