Well, it's that time of year again, time for the biggest cycling race of them all -- the Tour de France.
Unfortunately, I will not be racing at the Tour this year with Team CSC-Saxo Bank, but like many of you, I will be watching every minute and weighing in throughout the race here on ESPN.com.
The great thing about this year's race is that it's wide open and presents a lot of possibilities for a rider to break out and, all of a sudden, become the new superstar poster boy for cycling.
You see the names on paper, and it's so different than what it could be when the races starts. Some teams don't have a general classification contender, so they will go in for stage wins and sprint finishes; other teams are built around a leader who is vying for the Tour win.
And we know we'll have a new leader this year because the defending champ, Alberto Condator, won't be in the race because his team, Astana, was not allowed to compete because of past controversies. I still think Astana should be in the Tour. I believe they did everything possible to clear their name, including hiring an anti-doping company under expert Rasmus Damsgaard to do out-of-competition testing. Maybe if they changed their name to Genesis, they'd be in the Tour. If Damsgaard is doing their testing (I was tested under him with Team CSC-Saxo Bank) and can't find anything there, I can't question that. His testing system is pretty foolproof. Let's hope they can return next year.
So who will contend for the Tour win? On paper, riders like Cadel Evans and Alejandro Valverde and Denis Menchov, are obvious pre-race favorites. But there are other under-the-radar riders to keep an eye on:
Andy Schleck is one to watch. I've known my CSC-Saxo Bank teammate since he became a pro. He looks up to his big brother, Frank, his biggest idol. But the biggest difference between him and Frank is Andy's a killer. He doesn't overthink a situation. He attacks. If you don't like him at the end of the day, he doesn't care. Frank is a nice guy, which is not a bad thing. But when you see history of cycling and other sports, you need to be more cutthroat, especially if you're going after the yellow jersey. He has everything he needs -- his team, support of his country, strong backing from his family, discipline. Watching him during the Giro d'Italia last year, his second-place finish wasn't a fluke. If it doesn't happen this year for Andy, it will happen soon enough.
Other names out there are Frank Schleck, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas). There's a great mix of young riders and experienced vets.
Everyone counts out Carlos Sastre, but I don't think you can, especially now because of the new Tour race format.
And speaking of that format ... I think it stinks. Having a prologue and team time trial is exciting, and I am bummed the Tour won't have them this year.
The team time trial needs to be included in every Grand Tour. Why? Because winning the Tour is about the individual and the team. And the Tour de France team time trial was always especially exciting because the course was longer.
Meanwhile, the traditional prologue time trial was always that first wake-up call for everyone in the race. This year without it, you'll have riders that would have been taken out of contention otherwise just up in the standings, floating around until it calms down when they get to the first mountain stage. Everyone is fresh and motivated, trying to protect the leader. The first week of the Tour is absolutely crazy no matter what; but this year, the changes will make the first three stages super stressful (I won't miss being there for those stages), make that a stressful and dangerous race.
I've also heard a lot about first stage and its finish. There are up-and-down, small little roads, a dangerous turn over a narrow bridge and an uphill sprint at the end. It will be tough to watch without biting on a towel or something (think Jerry Tarkanian!). Stressful start, stressful stage ... I hope there will not be any crashes to end the stage.
The other thing about the time trial prologue is fans appreciate it. They are drawn in by seeing all the riders individually at the start of the race with their aero-helmets and funky wheels. They get a chance to see who's competing for the win and who are the pretenders and contenders. Maybe officials wanted to give more exposure to the teams and riders under the new format, but I am not so sure.
There is something else new at the Tour this year, a sense of new hope that we've gotten past the worst when it comes to doping scandals. Younger riders have come into the sport after this whole debacle started -- they just want to ride their bikes; their attitude seems to be that they can't be bothered with all this cheating nonsense.
In the past, when cyclists were getting beat by large margins, the preconceived notion was, if the rider that's winning by that much is doping, then I have to do it too. But because of all the testing cyclists now go through, they no longer have that in the back of their minds. If someone wins now, and you know they've gone through all of the anti-doping controls you have, then you can't use that as an excuse. It makes a big difference when you know the guy riding next to you is under the same testing controls as you are. It makes me wonder why they don't do similar testing across all sports; that way, everyone knows you're being tested the same way as everyone else and the excuses aren't there.
I think the sport, in general, is better, and we have so much more weight to our argument because we have out-of-competition testing, offseason testing, more than any other sport by far. A lot of people that have tested positive have said they are clean. With us, we have a two-year biological passport, we have testing we can be proud of. We don't have to say it on TV or hold up a sign. Officials can go to a document of a rider for the last two years, in some cases more, and see whether a rider is clean or not. With random testing, there is no way you're going to get around and not get caught. If you're playing with fire, they know, they are going to target you and you have no choice but to stop.
It's not a fun process. It's not fun to fill out your whereabouts for everything you do and everywhere you go. It's not fun to have a tester come to your house, making you tell your young daughters to go into the other room because you don't want them to be scared by seeing someone take blood out of their father's arm. But it's an honor and a privilege to be an athlete. You should feel honored and privileged when testers come to your home because they are doing their jobs to make your sport more credible. Of course, it just takes one person to make it less credible. Then, that one person exposes a loophole and the whole sport is in question again. It's been a while since we've had a Tour where none of this stuff has come up. I don't know if you can stop it all, but many cyclists, if not all of us, are kind of sick of it.
All-American at the Tour
I think the United States has the most potential for growth in cycling and you'll see two classy, American-based organizations at the Tour -- Team Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle.
I have to give huge props to Columbia and how the team has handled everything after all the issues under its old name, T-Mobile. Whoever was behind that team and picked those riders, especially the young guys, it's impressive. If it's Bill Stapleton, the guy who should have always been involved in cycling and not telecommunications, more power to him. There are some riders on this team you've never seen before, and they go out and win races.
Seeing what Chipotle has done, especially as a team ... to me, it resembles the Bad News Bears. They've taken on a lot of riders that people didn't believe in and made them into a team. David Millar has come back from cycling oblivion; Christian Vande Velde was written off when he was fired from U.S. Postal. They are fantastic leaders and great ambassadors for our sport.
I hope these teams have open spots for American riders to develop. It takes more than being registered in America to be an American team. But Chipotle in particular is one of those Hollywood-type stories. This is a team that's part of the new cycling world. Even of they don't get a single result in the Tour, they've added excitement and both teams are a breath of fresh air. And I don't think they need to promote the fact that they're a clean team anymore; they have great riders and they should let the results and successes speak for themselves.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.