Big Hill to Climb for Tour de France
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Cycling has weathered performance-enhancing drug accusations, positive tests and suspensions ever since French customs officers arrested a cycling team assistant with a trunk full of drugs and doping paraphernalia before the start of what later became known as the 1998 "Tour of Shame."
But despite a run of doping controversies, nothing could have prepared cycling for the scandalous soap opera that unfolded in recent months. The upshot: The five men who have won the last 11 Tours de France each have faced drug allegations or full-fledged scandals.
With the last remnants of credibility seemingly gone, cycling officials and athletes wonder whether their sport's once-revered showcase has been irreparably damaged, or whether they finally can plot a course back to respectability -- starting with this year's Tour, a 2,200-mile, 23-day race that begins Saturday in London.
One thing most agree upon: It can't get any worse than this.
"When [cycling] gets compared to pro wrestling . . . it's probably at an all-time low, no question about it," said Bill Stapleton, general manager of the United States-based Discovery Channel pro cycling team. "Over the last six or eight months, each time I thought it was at rock bottom something new happened."
In May alone, last year's Tour winner, Floyd Landis, endured a circus-like arbitration hearing for a positive test for artificial testosterone. He will be stripped of his 2006 title if the arbitrators rule against him; a decision is expected in the coming weeks. The runner-up in the 2005 Tour, Ivan Basso, admitted giving his blood to a doctor connected to a Spanish blood doping scandal that has implicated more than 50 cyclists. Basso, who insisted he only considered doping and did not go through with it, received a two-year competition ban last month.
And the 1996 Tour de France winner, Bjarne Riis, and six other cyclists from a German team admitted to the use of the endurance-building drug erythropoietin, or EPO.
"It's a challenge and troubling and concerning, obviously, to everyone involved," said Steve Johnson, chief executive of USA Cycling, the sport's national governing body in the United States. "We would ultimately like to get to the point where this is behind us."
No champion of the last decade has emerged unscathed. Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, retired in February after being banned from last year's Tour because of his connection to the Spanish doping investigation known as Operation Puerto. The 1998 Tour winner, Marco Pantani, failed a blood test in 1999 before his death in 2004 of a cocaine overdose.
And American icon Lance Armstrong, who won seven Tours between 1999 and 2005, has been the subject of repeated allegations of drug use that he has vehemently denied, including a few new ones in a recently released book.
Armstrong called the most recent allegations "baseless, unreliable and manufactured" in a statement, but even so, a sport once merely touched by scandal has taken on the feel of a 24-hour doping network.
An all-out public relations assault on the anti-doping establishment by Landis and his public relations consultants after his positive test during last year's Tour kept his case in the spotlight for nearly a year. Then a staggering day of testimony involving former Tour winner Greg LeMond in mid-May served only to enlarge the headlines.