Shaky backdrop for 2011 Tour unveiling


Welcome and bienvenue to the curtain-raising announcement for the 2011 Tour de France, where the defending champion might or might not be the defending champion, the 2010 runner-up will ride for a team that remains unnamed and the precise criteria for team invitations is yet to be determined.

Other than that, we're all set. We know the race will begin on the Atlantic coast, where the peloton will start its journey on the Passage du Gois, a treacherous stretch of coastal byway that is submerged most of the day, at parade pace to avoid the demolition derby that took place there back in 1999. There will be windy conditions and huge crowds in cycling-mad Brittany, and deceivingly difficult terrain in the Massif Central.

In the counterclockwise order of things this year, the Pyrenees arrive before the Alps. Organizers thankfully elected to include two uphill finishes (Luz Ardiden and Plateau de Beille) in the first set of mountain stages rather repeating the nothing-burger of 2009, when key climbs were placed too far from the finish. The Alpine finishes on the Col du Galibier -- the highest ever in the Tour -- and Alpe d'Huez couldn't be more spectacular.

Conversely, the art of the time trial gets a Gallic shrug. The prologue has been scrapped for the second time in four years. The Stage 2 team time trial is so short -- a shade longer than 14 miles -- that directors might not give it a huge amount of consideration when they choose their rosters. The traditional long individual time trial in Grenoble on the second-to-last day will have enough climbing to thwart the specialists.

It would be lovely if Tour organizers would pick a lane where the team time trial is concerned and decide whether skill in the discipline should be rewarded. They were ripped for a past experiment with limiting time losses, yet limiting the distance, as they've done here, is almost the same thing. For purposes of comparison, the team time trials in the 2000 through 2005 Tours were all longer than 40 miles. The TTT vanished for three years, then reappeared in 2009 as a 24.2-mile test. That was enough to derail some overall contenders with weak teams. This one won't be.

Meanwhile, the subplot has thickened for the sprinters, who will have about a half-dozen finishes tailored for them and a couple of others that will favor classics-style riders because of uphill finishes.

The Tour has knocked out all but one intermediate sprint in stages and upped the point bonus for that mid-stage milestone, which promises to change the racing on some days. How? Still hard to predict, but contenders for the green jersey might need more help and might be inclined to take more risks at those intermediate sprints. That could have an impact on the odds of successful breakaways or stretch teams thinner if they are trying to protect both a sprinter and an overall contender.

Either 17 or 18 teams will receive automatic invitations to next year's Tour, and wild cards will bring the field to 21 or 22. Race director Christian Prudhomme said Tuesday that the Tour's parent company, Amaury Sport Organisation, is still awaiting word from cycling's international governing body, the UCI, as to what the rules will be.

One of those teams is sure to be what is currently being referred to, in the manner of an automobile prototype, as "the Luxembourg pro cycling project": a new squad based in that country, title sponsor yet to be announced, that lured a fleet of riders from Bjarne Riis' Saxo Bank team to join Tour runner-up Andy Schleck and his brother Frank.

That left Riis holding either an ace or a joker in the form of triple Tour winner Alberto Contador, whose presence at next year's start is highly questionable. Riis has survived a lot in his career, but it's hard to envision what hand he'll have left to play if Contador's current provisional suspension for doping becomes a longer ban.

It's a testament to the stubborn, enduring appeal of the race that people are still riveted to the annual presentation of the Tour route that took place Tuesday morning in Paris even as the sport dances the limbo on several fronts. Mapping out the course is a comforting ritual no matter what else is going on, a chance to dwell on the beautiful backdrop and pure physical challenges laid out for the colorful and all-too-imperfect characters who populate the sport's biggest stage.

Missing but accounted for from the audience was Contador, who has taken up residency in the parallel universe of anti-doping adjudication. This week, it will have been three months since he tested positive for a banned substance, clenbuterol, on the rest day before he and runner-up Andy Schleck dueled on the Col du Tourmalet. The offense carries a mandatory two-year suspension unless mitigating circumstances can be proved at a hearing -- yet there still has been no definitive word from the UCI on whether his case will be prosecuted.

Contador, currently under provisional suspension, has offered a much-disputed explanation regarding contaminated meat. Sources with direct knowledge of his case have revealed that a urine test around that time showed high levels of a plastic residue that points to a transfusion. The test is not yet validated by the World Anti-Doping Agency but could be used as supporting evidence.

There was an odd and still-unexplained gap of a month between the time the sample in question was taken and when Contador says he was informed of the positive test; the news found its way into the public realm another month after that. UCI chief Pat McQuaid added to the general confusion and consternation swirling around Contador on Tuesday when he implied that the federation was waiting for "results" from WADA before taking action.

WADA director general David Howman told ESPN.com that was incorrect. "I don't understand that at all," Howman said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "I'll see him tomorrow and ask him about it. I have no idea what he means by that."

Howman said WADA has provided scientific expertise to the UCI in what he characterized as "evidence gathering" that the UCI wants to do before handing the case off to Spanish cycling authorities who would hear the formal case, assuming Contador contests the findings.

"That's not unusual," Howman said, adding that since an athlete of Contador's prominence would be expected to expend a lot of money and resources in fighting sanctions, the UCI wants to have its evidentiary ducks in line. But he insisted Contador is not getting preferential treatment and repeated his previous stance that WADA would intervene if the UCI were to take an undue amount of time.

Still, the way l'affaire Contador has rolled out could leave the impression his circumstances are negotiable, when in fact, there is no wriggle room in international standards. The map for what happens to riders off the road is considerably less well drawn than the enticing three-week travelogue unveiled to the world in Paris.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.