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New faces, cleaned-up image for Tour de France on eve of 95th race

Rhetorical question posed on the eve of the 95th Tour de France, which begins Saturday in Brest, at the tip of the Breton peninsula: Wouldn't it be surprising if cycling, for so long the poster child of pharmacologically jacked-up sports, turned out to be cleaner than, say, the NFL, or the NHL, or Major League Baseball?

My point is, far more than any of the above-mentioned sports, cycling is making a comprehensive, good-faith effort to clean itself up. This great purge is motivated less by some lofty sense of sportsmanship than it is by the desire to remain solvent. Over the past year or so, as companies like Discovery Channel, T-Mobile, CSC, Credit Agricole and Gerolsteiner grew disgusted and announced their intention to bail on bicycling -- taking tens of millions in corporate sponsorship with them -- it became clear that the survival of the sport was at stake.

Could it be that these spindly-armed men have learned their lesson? Don't look now, but the sport that made blood bags, testosterone patches and erythropoietin a part of the national discourse is having a pretty good year. Of course, a spectacular relapse is always possible: with these guys, you can never rule out anything. But it's been kind of quiet on the drug front this season. Something's fundamentally different in the pro peloton, and I'm not talking about the ongoing circular firing squad between the Amaury Sports Organization -- parent company of the Tour -- and the Union Cycliste Internationale, a turf war we'll save for another column. Or not.

Cycling is trying to get clean. It was trying so hard, in fact, that last year's Tour de France imploded under the weight of several doping-related scandals. Even as Michael (Chicken) Rasmussen and Alexander Vinokourov were yanked from the race in disgrace, forward-thinking friends of the sport were already blazing a new trail. Team directors and managers like Jonathan Vaughters (Garmin-Chipotle), Bob Stapleton (Columbia High Road) and Bjarn Riis (CSC) realized that they needed to go to extraordinary lengths to win back the public's trust. Riders on those teams now submit to a regime of blood and urine tests far more intrusive than anything they'd ever experienced before.

Conducting this so-called "third-party testing" for Garmin and Columbia is the Agency for Cycling Ethics, which puts together detailed "longitudinal" profiles of each rider -- hematocrit and hormone levels, and the production of new red blood cells. Should testers notice fluctuations from those baseline levels, red flags go up. Doing much the same thing for CSC is Danish anti-doping expert Dr.Rasmus Damsgaard, whose services have since been retained by Astana, as well. The profiles these squads put together supplement the new, $8 million "biological passport" program that the UCI and World Anti-Doping Agency unveiled at the beginning of the season.

UCI anti-doping manager Anne Gripper told the AP that the governing body will conduct "just over 18,500" tests this year, explaining that "This is the peak year of testing. Once we have strong profiles, we won't need the same volume of testing."

It's proven to be good business: Over the course of 10 days last month, in one of the worst economies in memory, Vaughters, Stapleton and Riis all saw their teams land multi-million dollar title sponsors.

More encouraging, still, is the fact that the clean teams -- I should say the conspicuously clean teams: they're all clean until proven dirty -- are cleaning up on the road. Garmin-Chipotle won the team time trial at the three-week Giro d'Italia, then had their thunder stolen by Columbia-High Road, whose riders won a total of four stages at that race. Two of those stage wins went to British sensation Mark Cavendish, a 23-year-old from the Isle of Man who won 11 times last season and has victories in seven major races already this season.

That grand tour was won, incidentally, by Astana's Alberto Contador. This despite the fact that Giro organizers only decided to invite the Kazakh-sponsored squad a week before the race began.

Despite winning the 2007 Tour de France, the gifted young Spaniard cannot be described as the defending champion of that race, its grandees having decided to exclude the team, based on the sins of previous Astana riders.

So, despite the fact that the team has all new riders and is under the new management of Johan Bruyneel -- despite the fact that Rabobank caused the Tour no less embarrassment than Astana last year and the Rabos are coming back (minus Rasmussen, of course, who I believe is training in Mexico) -- Contador is denied his opportunity to defend. We are denied the chance to see riders like him and Levi Leipheimer, last year's third place finisher, and the irrepressible, impulsive Chris Horner. And Bruyneel is denied his opportunity to win his ninth Tour. Whether or not you like Bruyneel, it's tough to see this any other way: the French blew this one.

An editor opposed to covering this year's Tour made the point that "no one knows who the riders are."

My reply: "Isn't it great?" Vino and Chicken and Floyd are in retirement, or a prolonged time-out. The old guard is fading. Stepping up are teams like Garmin; guys like Lampre's Damiano Cunego, the ex-Giro winner who has "I'm Doping Free" tattooed on his left arm. The new faces of the sport are those of young firebrands like Cavendish ("Dopers should be sent to prison!") and his teammate Linus Gerdemann, who soloed to victory in Stage 7 over the Col de la Colombiere at last year's Tour, then revealed that he'd been blood-tested the previous day. "It's not always nice to get a knock on the door at seven o'clock in the morning [to give blood]," he admitted. "But cycling has a big problem.

"We have to do something [to help] people believe in us.

"We can go fast," he said, "in a clean way."

This year's Tour will go fast -- not as fast as in the past, but still plenty fast -- in a cleaner way. With 180 coreurs taking the start in Brest, there are bound to be a few cheats. But their day seems to be passing.

One caveat: No one would be surprised if the UCI, now in a nasty feud with ASO, decided to release the news of a positive test or two sometime over the next three weeks.

But even if the governing body does drop a "July Surprise" on the Tour, there's no denying that this sport is getting cleaner. If you've been away, Saturday would be a great time to come back.

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