After a year of accusations and investigations, the Tour de France starts amid a big question: Can the cycling showcase recover from the drug scandal that overtook last year's race.

Even as the 180 riders on 20 teams were gathering for Saturday's prologue at Puy-du-Fou in western France, recriminations from last summer's debacle still abounded.

The former director of Festina, the team at the heart of the scandal, spoke of drug use among riders. He alluded to former team member and French star Richard Virenque, who denies having used illegal substances.

Bruno Roussel, one of two Festina officials who has been banned from the sport, said the drug demands of the riders became "incredible."

"Given their state of dependence, it was no longer possible to talk to them, to do anything," Roussel said in today's French sports newspaper L'Equipe.

Virenque remains under investigation on drug charges, but he will be riding Saturday. On Wednesday, the Tour de France bowed to cycling's governing body and readmitted the rider.

With the field open, Virenque, a top climber in good form, looks to be a favorite. The two previous winners are injured -- Jan Ullrich of Germany and Bjarne Riis of Denmark. Two other riders, Casino's Laurent Roux and Cofidis' Philippe Gaumont, have been banned, as have the entire TVM and Vini Caldirola teams. World No. 1 Laurent Jalabert of ONCE is boycotting to protest the treatment of riders.

Also in contention is last year's surprising third-place finisher, American Bobby Julich of Cofidis.

Another American to watch is former world champion Lance Armstrong. He was diagnosed with an advanced stage of testicular cancer in 1996 at age 25. Armstrong races for the U.S. Postal Service team.

The race covers 20 stages and 2,286 miles. It is about 125 miles shorter than last year's race and features an extra rest day. The finish is July 25 in Paris with the traditional ride up and down the Champs-Elysees.