As they gather for Tour, cycling world hopes worst is behind them
BREST, France -- Tour de France organizers like to say that their beloved endurance race can endure anything, and the last couple of editions may have proved that.
Two years of near-unrelenting doping scandals and political upheaval in the sport threatened to do what two world wars could not -- force this three-week celebration of physical and mental fortitude permanently off course.
One team that will not be at the Tour de France is Astana. Tour de France organizers excluded the team from the Tour de France and other events run by the same company because of doping scandals over the past two years.
Johan Bruyneel, the team's manager who also guided Lance Armstrong to all seven of his Tour de France victories with the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams, talked to Bonnie D. Ford about his team's controversial exclusion and what the future holds for him and Astana.
Yet as 180 riders from 20 teams roll out for the 95th Tour on Saturday in this windswept industrial city in western Brittany, cycling is holding its collective breath in hopes that the worst is behind and a new era of increased credibility and prosperity is dawning.
The systematic change the sport is striving for is symbolized even on the first day. The traditional prologue time trial has been scrapped in favor of a difficult road stage that culminates with two right-angle turns and a short, steep uphill finish. Early stages of the Tour are always nerve-wracking anyway. A peloton with fresh legs and pent-up psychological energy is a dangerous beast, and the race to see who will wear the first yellow jersey of 2008 promises to be suspenseful -- as does the entire race.
For the third consecutive year, the race will start without the man who finished first the year before. Seven-time winner Lance Armstrong retired in 2005, and the former lieutenant who succeeded him, Floyd Landis, had his 2006 title stripped after a doping conviction. The 2007 winner, Alberto Contador of Spain, is absent because his entire Astana team was excluded.
Though there are dozens of experienced riders in the field, there are no superstars. Only two men actually know what it's like to stand on the podium at the finish: Australia's Cadel Evans, the Silence-Lotto team leader who came in a close second last year, and Spain's Oscar Pereiro of the Caisse d'Epargne team, who was named the default champion after Landis was stricken from the records. Team CSC-Saxo Bank's Carlos Sastre was bumped from fourth to third in the same chain reaction. Another seven have finished in the top 10 at one time or another.
The enigmatic Evans is the favorite on paper because he has the best combined ability in climbing and time trials, but he's never been in this pressure-packed role before. His oddly named Silence-Lotto team, whose title sponsor is a company that makes a snoring relief potion, is a cipher as well.
"It's a tough call," said George Hincapie of Team Columbia, the veteran U.S. rider and longtime teammate of Armstrong's who will start his 13th Tour.
"I'd be surprised if a total no-name won the race, but it could be someone who's been top-20," Hincapie said. "Once you're in that position, you still have to have a strong team."
Hincapie is one of just four Americans in the race, the lowest number in many years, but there are two U.S.-owned teams in the Tour, Columbia, formerly known as High Road, and Garmin-Chipotle, the former Slipstream squad. Both recently attracted corporate sponsorship for their aggressive anti-doping stance.
Tour officials elected to leave powerful Astana off the invitation list because of its checkered doping history, depriving Contador of the chance to defend his title and taking veteran U.S. rider Levi Leipheimer out of the mix the year after a career-best third place. The exclusion ignited a feud with the UCI, cycling's governing body, that became so hostile the international organization removed the race from its calendar and suspended the French cycling federation.
French authorities had a dry run of sorts at the week-long Paris-Nice stage race in March, when the battle with the UCI reached a breaking point. Testing conducted by the national anti-doping agency were extensive and included taking hair and blood samples after stages. Before this race, the agency announced it was target-testing approximately 60 riders considered at-risk -- an approach first taken by the UCI last year. There's at least some cooperation between the warring sides, as Tour blood samples will be sent to a UCI laboratory in Switzerland to be included in a long-range "biological passport" program that establishes baselines and tracks irregularities in riders' physiological profiles.
"From what I saw at Paris-Nice, I think we're in good hands," Garmin-Chipotle team director Jonathan Vaughters said at a press conference unveiling the team's new uniforms. "It's a big challenge, but I think in the final result it's going to be pretty seamless.
"I'm extremely hopeful that this is going to be a fun Tour de France and that you guys in the press corps are going to be writing stories about tactics and strategy and equipment and technology, and that the story isn't going to turn into a negative quagmire."
The change from UCI testing ends at least one corny ritual, the "medical checks" riders used to undergo before the Tour, largely photo ops where riders posed with stethoscopes pressed to their chests. This year, teams strolled in and out of a drafty exposition hall for their press conferences without the dog-and-pony show and with little fanfare. It was a far cry from the days when Armstrong or now-disgraced Kazakh standout Alexandre Vinokourov swept in with rock star-level entourages and a scrum of photographers trailing behind.
For the most part, the riders seem relieved to start without the drama of recent times, though there is one persistent issue: Has the race been cheapened by the absence of Contador and his team, who recently won the Tour of Italy?
Adam Hansen, an Australian who rides for Team Columbia, said he's personally sorry for Contador, but supports the Tour's decision.
"It's sad for him, but the race will go on and the best man will be in yellow at the end," Hansen said. "Personally, I like the idea that it puts pressure on people. It's not just you that's affected, it's your whole team, the staff, the sponsor. When it was just the rider affected, riders took more risks."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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