The 99th Tour de France begins Saturday in Belgium, where the riders will spend three days before embarking on their glorious, hideous, clockwise, 3,497-kilometer ordeal around the country, summiting the Alps and then the Pyrenees, before ending on the Champs Élysées, on July 22.
Will you be giving it a pass, or are you so over bike racing? Had your fill of gasping, spindly-armed, leg-shaving men in lycra, or saving it for the Olympics? Turned off by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's recent, ugly allegations against Lance Armstrong?
Well, maybe it's time to give this sport another chance. As I wrote in this week's Sports Illustrated, cycling is significantly cleaner than it was even four years ago, and I'm not just saying that because Alberto Contador will be absent from this year's race. (El Pistolero, who won the Tour in 2007, '09 and '10, was recently stripped of that final victory for testing positive for clenbuterol and is currently serving a ban.)
Most of USADA's charges against Armstrong predate 2008, when cycling's governing body introduced the so-called biological passport (an electronic record of a professional athlete's biological markers, making it easier to see changes likely created from drugs within the body). Riders are tested early and often, both in and out of competition. When the results of those tests vary from the hematological baselines established early in a rider's career, he is targeted for additional testing. Yes, it's inconvenient and invasive, but it's also been effective. Riders still cheat by microdosing with EPO and manipulating their blood, but these days it's a far riskier proposition -- they have to cheat in a much narrower window, so many don't cheat at all.
As a result, the racing is less predictable, more human and more fun (well, at least for spectators). "For me, the evidence of the success of the passport seems on the road, in the race itself," UCI president Pat McQuaid recently noted. "In the big mountain stages, you never see the [team] leader surrounded by three or four domestiques. He usually finishes the climb on his own. That wasn't the case during the big period of EPO."
The Alpine stages of last year's Tour featured some of the most epic, thrilling racing in memory. With their teammates spent, shed, popped, Contador, Andy Schleck and eventual race winner Cadel Evans of BMC dueled spectacularly, alternately launching and chasing down epic attacks in the high mountains. More of that, please.
In this year's Tour de France, two of the riders who are most outspoken against the use of PEDs happen to be teammates, compatriots and contenders for the Tour's most prestigious jerseys. Less than a month before the Olympic road race will be contested in London, Britons and Team Sky riders Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are favorites to earn the race leaders maillot jaune and the points leaders maillot vert respectively. Post-Empire Britannia no longer rules the waves, but it could certainly dominate the daily awards ceremonies at the end of each stage.
Wiggins, the one with the Dickensian sideburns, is a one-time track specialist who's won five world titles and three Olympic gold medals in the velodrome. (A crack time trial rider, he was pleased to note that this year's Tour features 100 kilometers of time trial racing -- more than double the amount included in the 2011 version.) Stick-thin, he's transformed himself in recent years into one of the top climbers in the peloton, and, at age 32, he seems to be arriving at his peak. Wiggins entered five stage races this season and won three of them: the Tour of Romandie, Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphine -- all this while patiently pointing out to skeptics that no, he is not peaking too early, and yes, he's been focusing his training and racing for July.
In addition to being the best sprinter of his generation, Cavendish is a self-described "recovering scally" from the Isle of Man ("scally is urban slang for a kind of street tough partial to shoplifted sportswear and hooliganism). A short, almost stubby rider who was told by his first coach that he was "fat and useless," the Manx Missile, now 27, has gone on to win a jaw-dropping 20 Tour de France stages.
As a result, he was awarded the British Empire Medal last fall. Making small talk with the Queen during the presentation, he reminded Her Majesty that the Olympic road race would be coming to a full boil just outside Buckingham Palace. "I told her to give me a cheer when we come past," he later recounted.
The Olympic road circuit includes nine ascents of Surrey's Box Hill (where Jane Austen's Emma endured a tense, unhappy picnic), and to make sure he's not dropped on that modest eminence, Cavendish dropped nearly nine pounds this season. To improve his Olympic chances, he suspects that he's sacrificed a small measure of his top-end speed.
That's very good news for Andre Greipel, of Lotto-Belisol. In 2006, Greipel was Team High Road-Columbia's designated sprinter. But there was a problem. Rather than setting Greipel up for victories, his designated lead-out guy -- the young Cavendish -- kept winning stages himself. HTC management soon concluded that Cavendish was the more gifted sprinter, and Greipel was out of a job, creating a piquant rivalry between the two. But with Cavendish focusing more on the Olympics, Greipel could take multiple stages.
Another green jersey threat is Peter Sagan, 22, of Liquigas-Cannondale. The Slovenian Rocket has been on a ridiculous roll in 2012, winning a dozen stages, including 5 at the Tour of California and 4 at the Tour de Suisse. When the climbs are steep enough to drop the pure sprinters, Sagan owns the stage.
Topping the list of notable Americans is Chris Horner of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek. After being told he hadn't made the cut, the gregarious all-'rounder punched his Tour ticket when Andy Schleck pulled out. A Top 10 finish could redeem what has been a disappointing RSNT season.
While Wiggins and Evans are co-favorites, they'll likely share the podium with one of these general classification threats:
? Alejandro Valverde, 32. Entered the season motivated and well-rested, having served a suspension in 2011 for his links with a blood-doping ring. The Spaniard can climb with Wiggins and Evans, and has been closing the gap in the time trial.
? Denis Menchov, 34. Strong in the mountains, superb against the clock, the Russian has won cycling's two grand tours, the Giro d'Italia ('09) and the Vuelta a Espana ('05, '07). A bad day in the Pyrenees by Evans or Wiggins could help him hit the trifecta.
? Vincenzo Nibali, 27. Scary strong in the spring classics, this gifted Sicilian supplants Ivan Basso as team leader.
Other Yanks of note:
? Tyler Farrar, 28. The Garmin-Barracuda rider is the most gifted American sprinter since Davis Phinney was flexing his muscles at the front in the '80s. Farrar won his first Tour stage last year, and he could match, or double that, if Cavendish leaves the door open.
? Tom Danielson, 34. Farrar's teammate finished eighth in this race in 2011 -- his first-ever Tour. TD is riding well, and could improve on that performance.
? Levi Leipheimer, 38. He could be an X-factor in the race. After breaking his leg last April (he was hit by a car in training), the Omega Pharma-Quickstep rider appears to have found his form just in time for Le Tour. Heavy dose of Time Trials works in his favor.
? Tejay van Garderen, 23. Having taken 5th at Paris-Nice, 4th at the Tour of California and 2nd in the U.S. National Time Trials championships, TVG, riding for BMC, will serve as one of Evans' lieutenants in the mountains, and possibly cadge a stage for himself. Remember the name: this guy is the future of American stage racing.
? George Hincapie, 39. Also of BMC, Hincapie rode in Armstrong's service in each of the Texan's seven Tour victories. This time, he'll be escorting Evans around the course. Gentleman George will be taking the start in his 17th Tour, breaking the record of the redoubtable Dutch rider Joop Zoetemelk. Hincapie, who turns 39 on June 29th, will retire after this season. As one of the toughest, nicest guys in the bunch, he will be missed.