The Tour de France, the pinnacle of professional cycling, begins Saturday and continues through Sunday, July 25.
Hundreds of riders from around the globe will travel 3,642 kilometers and pedal through 20 grueling stages in pursuit of the priceless yellow jersey.
The annual race starts in Rotterdam and ends with that glorious bicycle parade down the Champs-Elysees. It features eight mountain stages, 11 new stage towns, one individual time trial, two rest days, plenty of spectators crowding the roadsides, and of course, a shot to grab the sport’s ultimate prize.
A total of 22 teams will navigate the long race. Each hopes bike tires, not riders, hit the asphalt.
In an optimal year, pre-Tour discussion would center on the strong British contingent, the event’s sacred history, or the certain-to-be captivating war of wills between 2009 winner Alberto Contador and seven-time champion Lance Armstrong in the Pyrenees.
Instead, these riders will commence the 97th Tour covered by the darkest of clouds.
Inclement publicity blankets and taints them in the worst way. Perception threatens to overshadow prestige and perseverance. If Floyd Landis wants to take most of the credit, he should not flatter himself.
This sport fought a dirty image long before Landis admitted four years after his stunning 2006 victory that he did indeed use performance-enhancing drugs to gain an advantage. He accused Armstrong of doing the same in all-too-public emails to cycling and anti-doping figureheads.
The perception is nastier than a crash involving 15 riders.
Cyclists don’t just use the juice. They make Barry Bonds look like a clean-living humanitarian.
That stigma could scare off hundreds of thousands— maybe millions—of potential viewers. It makes the race less magical and majestic.
Armstrong’s seven-year run enthralled the American populous. Now, many of those part-time cycling fans wonder if they watched a superhuman hero or a devious cheat.
Because of that, they won’t watch again. Doping allegations have stalked Armstrong like crazed fanatics follow movie stars and musicians. Everywhere he goes, someone wants to prove his triumphs were not pure.
Did a human being overcome testicular cancer to win a more-than 3,500-kilometer race seven times in a row, or did drugs give his legs an edge over other riders?
As a Tour enthusiast, I wish I could focus only on the discussion topics that should matter—like the challenges involved in a particular climb, the favorites to win each stage, or a comparison of the speediest competitors.
Even Tour director Christian Prudhomme should know I could not write this column sans the dreaded “d” word. For many, perception equals reality. For Armstrong, that means more scrutiny than ever, with more on the line if he remains in contention in the latest stages.
I have not even mentioned the new cobblestone routes, the ones so slippery when wet that riders are complaining about the increased likelihood of accidents and tire punctures. Armstrong Tweeted this: "Done with the stage three reconnaissance. Going. To. Be. Carnage."
We should ignore those clouds as much as possible because what unfolds over the next few weeks could be special.
Here are 20 participants who could finish with the yellow jersey. There might be 10 or 12 legitimate contenders, but who’s counting anyway?
If this grand race still excites you, keep reading. If you cannot stomach another month’s worth of potentially dirty competition, don’t let the syringe stick you in the butt as you leave.
And they’re off…