The countdown is on for the 2008 Tour de France and the scandals keep on coming. In June, green-jersey champion Tom Boonen was banned for a positive cocaine test, making him the latest in a string of expulsions that include defending champion Alberto Contador, whose Astana Team was barred in February for past doping problems. With such a rocky pre-race, fans are wondering: Can there ever be a clean Tour de France?
The paradox is that the Tour has to uphold its anti-doping image while still attracting edgy riders whom fans (and sponsors) adore, says cycling commentator Matt Rendell, whose recent book "Blazing Saddles" notes that cheating has been around since the Tour's early days, when turn-of-the-century riders secretly took the train and downed arsenic to boost performance. "There will always be doubt. But I think that's part of the charm of the Tour," Rendell says. "Is this guy superhuman or is he just so smart that no one's been able to catch him? And sponsors want that."
But increasingly, sponsors also want to avoid the taint of drug scandals. Three teams who employ independent anti-doping monitoring just netted big new contracts, indicating that proving you're clean may be starting to pay off. And with a new biological passport project in the works, analysts say cycling could be entering its cleanest phase in a decade. Of course, if this year's Tour is cleaner, it's also likely to be more unpredictable—and more exciting.