Tour de France: Is Anybody Clean?

In all likelihood, some rider will wear the yellow jersey in Paris on Sunday. But it would not shock anybody if he took his victory lap on the Champs d'Elysees carrying a white flag of surrender, too.

Just when Tour de France officials thought it couldn't get any worse, it did. In a race already marred by doping scandals, the Tour this week suffered what could be a fatal overdose. The biggest shocker came Wednesday when race leader Michael Rasmussen was booted from the Tour, not by race officials but by his own team, Rabobank, for a far more original sin, lying.

The Danish star had just completed a brilliant ride through the Pyrenees, winning the 16th stage and, with just four stages to go, appeared a lock to win his first Tour on Sunday. But just hours later, he was out of the competition after revelations that he had lied about his whereabouts during the run-up to the Tour. Rasmussen had been under intense pressure since last week when the Danish cycling federation revealed that he had been kicked off the national team and banned from the 2008 Beijing Olympics for failing protocols that require riders to keep officials posted on their location so that they may be tested and monitored for banned substance use.

That is not mere bureaucratic nonsense but the only way to conduct out-of-competition testing at any time and in any place. Rasmussen's recent failure to follow the proper procedures reportedly followed two previous missed out-of-competition tests in the prior 18 months. Failure to notify is viewed, in enforcement circles, as a red flag, indicating the rider may be using the absent interludes first for doping and then to clean his system. Rasmussen had said he screwed up the procedure while visiting Mexico, where his wife is from. His team didn't move to withdraw him from the race until another cyclist said he had seen Rasmussen training in Italy during the period of the supposed Mexico sojourn.

Rabobank was clearly doing the Tour a favor, sparing it a repeat of last year when officials moved to disqualify the Tour winner, American Floyd Landis, after the race was over for failing a doping test after wining a critical stage of the Tour. Landis has contested that ruling, and the case is proceeding through arbitration. But while the Tour may have been spared another legal fight, it got the full measure of embarrassment.

This was supposed to be the rebirth of the Tour de France, a return to clean cycling after a succession of major scandals, including the recent confession by former Danish star Bjarne Riis that he used performance-enhancing EPO while winning the 1996 tour. Scandal had knocked several of the world's top cyclists out of the 2007 Tour, as it had in 2006, and this year every entrant signed a pledge to compete drug free.

Now that seems like a rather naive pipedream by organizers. The first crack in the armor came when it was revealed that a German cyclist, who had been sidelined early in the race after an accident, had tested positive for illegal drugs shortly before the Tour. Then on Tuesday of this week, Alexandre Vinokourov, one of the prerace favorites and already a winner of two stages, was kicked out along with his entire Astana team after he tested positive for a banned blood transfusion. Next, the Cofidis team was gone after Cristian Moreni tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. Moreni, who reportedly confessed to the doping offense immediately, was led away by police Wednesday after he completed the 16th stage. And then came Rasmussen's exit to top off the most bizarre and possibly most distressing 36 hours in the long history of the Tour.

Wednesday had begun with a protest by some of the riders—mostly French, but, ironically, including the soon-to-be dispatched Moreni—against what they saw as wholesale cheating. The riders simply didn't move at the start of the day's stage, forcing others to ease their way through the blockage. And along the course Wednesday, fans repeatedly booed the leader, Rasmussen. While a decade of cycling scandals has tarnished the sport and, inevitably, its showcase race, the French had continued to embrace it. Now new polls revealed that almost 80 percent of the French doubt the honesty of any Tour winner, indeed of any winner of any Tour stage. "The riders are playing Russian roulette," race director Christian Prudhomme said Wednesday. "The system doesn't work. It's clear that the system has betrayed the fans."

Even the Lance Armstrong-run Discovery Channel team couldn't have been thrilled, though Rasmussen's exit put two Discovery riders in contention for victory—Spaniard Alberto Contador in first place and top American Levi Leipheimer in third. But regardless of the possible triumph, Discovery Channel has already announced it will pull its sponsorship after this year. It is becoming increasingly difficult for race teams to find any corporation that wants to enter this tarnished sport. Not at a time when German television has halted its coverage of the race. Not when a Swiss newspaper has ceased reporting on its daily stages. Not when the French daily Libération has run a story entitled "The Death of the Tour" in which it explains why it is ceasing all coverage of the event.

What we appear to be witnessing is a sport devolving into spectacle, a daily soap opera with no heroes, only villains. The greatest drama is now outside the race. The Tour de France may date back more than 100 years. But the events of the past week suggest that its current incarnation is no recipe to make it last 100 more.