The Tour de France, one of the world’s great sporting events, badly needs to regain its luster and reputation. The nearly month-long bicycle race begins today in London.
The 200 or so riders move to France on Monday for the 19 remaining stages. The race will circle 2,200 miles down through the Alps to Marseilles on the Mediterranean and then back up through the Pyrenees to Paris and the finish line on the Champs Elysees.
The epic race mesmerizes Europe and, thanks to seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, the tour has a growing number of followers in the United States. But the sport and the tour in particular have been badly tarnished by doping scandals. It has become so bad that the riders are almost automatically presumed guilty of using illegal performance enhancers.
The five winners of the last 11 tours have been accused of or admitted to doping. Sometime during the tour an arbitration panel is expected to rule whether last year’s winner, American Floyd Landis, should be stripped of his title for testing positive for synthetic testosterone.
Last month, heavy favorite Ivan Basso was banned from cycling for two years in connection with what’s come to be called the Spanish doping scandal. And this past week, top sprinter Alessandro Petacchi was also banned. Just before last year’s race, nine riders, including a previous tour winner and a runner-up, were kicked out.
For the first time the field does not include a previous champion, and the favorites, Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan and Levi Leipheimer of the United States, are not exactly marquee names.
Cycling authorities are now seriously cracking down. There are now random and scheduled drug tests and riders must submit DNA samples before the race. There is a mandatory pledge and they face fines equal to their annual income if they violate it.
This year the riders are racing for more than just the yellow jersey worn by the race leader.