The Tour of California, second edition, begins Sunday. You'll recall that this is America's biggest big-deal professional bike race, featuring the biggest big-deal teams from Europe (CSC, T-Mobile, Rabobank), and the sole big-deal United States team (Discovery Channel). Eighteen teams will compete in the tour that runs, in noncontiguous stages, from San Francisco to Long Beach. Organizers say it's 700 miles and will last eight days.
Last year's champion, Floyd Landis, will not be competing this year, and if the May 14 arbitration hearing (brought to you by the good people at the United States Anti-Doping Agency) goes as expected, he won't be competing next year either. Landis also won last year's Tour de France and faces the same situation in that race.
The debacle that was the 2006 Tour de France was so complete that the stench of it reached the American general sporting population, a demographic that normally regards professional cycling as one step below roller derby.
But, you can understand why the stink carried that far. In terms of public humiliation, the 2006 Tour de France was the best. By the time the race began, the number two, three, four, and five finishers from the previous year had been removed from the field. Number one had retired.
Suddenly, second-tier riders had a shot. Saying that, Landis had a good race through the Pyrenees, good enough to take the yellow jersey (by ten seconds) after the 15th stage. And then, the collapse: he finished the 16th stage 8:08 behind the leader, looking like dead-man-pedaling. And then, the next day, he flew over five hard climbs, cranked out the last 80 milesalone, and made up all but 38 seconds of what he'd lost. An incredible story, a Hollywood story, even the French press got behind Landis. And then the bust.
Landis's urine samples after stage 17 showed that his ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone was 11 to 1, far above the usual ratio of 1 to 1 and way over the allowed ratio of 4 to 1. Worse, his sample showed traces of synthetic testosterone. A second sample tested positive, and he was fired from his team, Phonak, and the wheels began to grind at USA Cycling, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Landis is using what has become the standard athlete's defense against a doping charge: attack the tests, attack the methodology of the tests, question the chain of control, and propose alternate theories. His legal opponents are barred from commenting on the case.
Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist for The Band, said that after 16 years on the road, "The numbers start to scare you." Floyd Landis is one of six Lance Armstrong teammates who have admitted doping or failed a drug test.
I don't know if Armstrong doped. I don't know if Landis doped. I do know that the 2006 Tour de France, the sport's showcase to the world, did not start four of its top-five 2005 finishers because of a doping scandal, and its 2006 champion was charged with doping. A neutral observer might think, "Golly, fellas, maybe it's time to clean house."
What's happened since July 2006?
Well, Ivan Basso, regarded as the sport's dominant rider after Armstrong, was removed from last year's Tour de France and fired from his team, CSC. He's been hired by Lance Armstrong to be the new leader of the Discovery Channel Team, which will be appearing in a Tour of California near you. (Armstrong and his agent, Bill Stapleton, are stakeholders in Tailwind Sports. Tailwind Sports owns and manages a professional cycling team. Discovery Channel is its main sponsor.)
The 2006 bust, known as Operación Puerto, was not a silly thing. Spanish authorities had been working on it for years. They made raids. They seized drugs and doping paraphernalia. They found reams of paper containing names of professional cyclists, dates, doses, and so on. The information made its way to national cycling federations and tour officials.
That should be it, right? Not quite; a Spanish judge ruled the material couldn't be used by any sports-governing body or national anti-doping agency until all the criminal cases were completed. We're talking many dog lifetimes. Everybody walked.
What I'm waiting for is a grand convocation of sponsors -- the UCI, the owners of the Tour de France, Tour of Spain, Tour of Italy -- to put together a draconian schedule of drug tests that will be so thorough, so frequent, and processed in so many world-class facilities, coupled with hand-in-glove cooperation with police agencies, that no skeptic could reasonably doubt the honesty of professional cycling. And penalties should be drastic: five-year suspension for the first offense, lifetime ban for the second.
That hasn't happened. Hasn't begun to happen. In fact, six months after Operación Puerto, it's business as usual in pro-cycling world.