ANGOULEME, France -- Battered by scandal and doping embarrassments, the Tour de France might actually have stumbled upon a sliver of good news.
A competitive finish.
Leader Alberto Contador of Spain and Cadel Evans of Australia could win or lose the race during today's time trial. The race ends tomorrow in Paris along the Champs-Elysees.
A slim margin of 1 minute 50 seconds separates the riders, each going for a first victory in this event and suddenly thrust into the spotlight after the ouster of former overall leader Michael Rasmussen Wednesday.
"Tomorrow is the most difficult day of my career as an athlete," Contador said after yesterday's 18th stage, which was won by Sandy Casar. The French rider won the 131-mile stage despite crashing after hitting a spectator's dog.
The 24-year-old Contador would be the Tour's youngest winner since Jan Ullrich in 1997. A victory for Evans would be a big lift for sports-mad Australia, where rugby and cricket hold sway.
For the past two days, the Tour has teetered on collapse. Three riders were kicked out in the span of 30 hours -- two for doping and one for lying. No further doping scandals hit the 104-year-old race by last night. That left Contador and Evans to concentrate on today's 35-mile race against the clock from Cognac to Angouleme.
The departure of Rasmussen, kicked out for missing doping tests in June, left a pack of dispirited riders heading toward Paris, burdened by the latest jolt to the sport.
On Tuesday, Alexandre Vinokourov was ejected for testing positive for a banned blood transfusion after last Saturday's stage. Midway through Wednesday's stage it was announced Cristian Moreni had tested positive for testosterone. The Italian rider didn't deny it, and he was carted off by police.
Vinokourov has hired Maurice Suh, Floyd Landis's lawyer, to defend him. Suh was in France yesterday and unavailable for comment, but his Los Angeles office said he was on the case for Vinokourov, who has denied doping.
ESPN.com, which first reported the news, also reported Howard Jacobs, another Landis attorney, was working on the case for Vinokourov. Suh and Jacobs are defending 2006 Tour champion Landis against charges that he tested positive for synthetic testosterone after the 17th stage of last year's Tour.