Few big names left in Tour de France

The race, which begins
Saturday, cannot afford another doping scandal.

PARIS (AP) — Cycling cannot afford another doping scandal, and desperately needs a clean Tour de France winner this year.

With few big names left, the race has an unpredictable feel to it — not just in terms of who will wear the yellow jersey, but who and how many might get caught doping between the start Saturday and the finish July 29.

“Cycling must not only get its credibility back, but even more its dignity,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. “It is a romantic sport which must be dignified. There are cyclists, managers, sponsors and organizers fighting for its dignity.”

Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis are among the many riders either fired, suspended or under investigation for doping who won’t be at the starting line in London. Others are trying to clear their names in time for the prologue near Trafalgar Square.

“Doping is the enemy of cycling and the enemy of the Tour de France,” Prudhomme said. “Doping brings a certain absence of suffering, which is at the opposite of the cycling myth.”

On the eve of last year’s race, nine riders — including 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich and 2005 runner-up Basso — were kicked out after being implicated in a Spanish doping investigation called Operation Puerto. More than 50 cyclists were implicated because of their alleged ties to Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor accused of running a blood-doping clinic in Madrid.

Basso received a two-year doping penalty from the Italian cycling federation in mid-June and has said he accepts the punishment. Basso confessed to “attempted doping,” though he said he never actually went through with it.

Landis tested positive for synthetic testosterone at last year’s Tour and his case is now before an arbitration panel.

Only genuine favorite

Of the nearly 200 riders in this year’s race, only Alexandre Vinokourov is considered a genuine favorite. The Kazakh rider is a dashing attacker. The wiry cyclist thrilled spectators along Paris’ Champs-Elysees on the final day in 2005, when, after attacking Lance Armstrong in the mountains, he still found the energy to win the final stage with a flourish.

Five of Vinokourov’s teammates on Team Astana withdrew from last year’s Tour because of Operation Puerto, and Vinokourov had to pull out because a minimum six riders are needed for a team to compete.

Last year’s runner-up, Oscar Pereiro, 2004 runner-up Andreas Kloeden and American Levi Leipheimer are dark horses this year. Pereiro will be declared the winner of last year’s Tour de France if Landis loses his appeal.

The 2007 Tour could be an important milestone in cycling’s fight against doping. If Leipheimer wins, he knows some will question whether he did it cleanly and thinks more has to be done “to convince everyone that not everyone is a cheater.”

Needs watchdog body

Leipheimer’s Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel thinks cycling needs an independent watchdog body to oversee the sport.

“I think what cycling is lacking right now is an expert vision on the whole picture,” Bruyneel said. “We need to sit together and bring in an expert on solving the crisis situation.”

A clean winner this year could help rejuvenate the sport, still reeling from Landis’ failed drug test last year and nearly nonstop doping accusations and admissions in the past few months. In the past week, riders Alessandro Petacchi, Leonardo Piepoli and Vinokourov’s Astana teammate Matthias Kessler were in the news for alleged doping.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.