ToC reaches new heights despite detour

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Sunday's final stage of this year's Tour of California was a circuit race, four laps around a 21-mile course that included a nasty 5K, 1,000-foot climb. The cyclists rode hard, climbed this painful, exhausting mountain, reached the top, flew dangerously fast down the road, leveled out for awhile, sailed across the finish line … and then repeated the process. Again. And again. It was daunting enough that almost a quarter of the riders, already well out of the running, chose not to finish.

"I think what it says is we had a circuit on the final day and the circuit went directly past all the team buses," said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns the Tour, a comment that provoked knowing laughs. "If it was a point-to-point race and they had to ride all the way to get to the bus, more would have finished. But when guys got gapped, they came around and said, 'Do I want to be six minutes down and do another lap on that? Or just get on the team bus?'"

Cycling is a little like that. Every time it appears to crest the doping issues, another Beyond Category scandal appears and the sport has to climb past it all over again. And fans are left to wonder whether to push through it as well or sit up and go watch a "clean" sport. You know, like football.

"Listen guys, I'm getting actually a little sick of all this stuff," HTC-Columbia's Michael Rogers said after holding on to win the Tour of California in a dramatic final stage. "There are so many great performances and I just hope that the people see them. The sport has got to get away from negativity. Everyone has to pull their weight. From the riders to the management to the race organizers, we all have to do everything we can to get away from the doping issue because it's killing our sport. On the commercial side. And without commercial dollars, it doesn't exist.

"But I'd really love to see some positive things. And the people you saw on the climb today, still love it. And those are the people you have to look after."

The Tour of California has grown like suburban sprawl in just five years, becoming what Team RadioShack's Levi Leipheimer (and he isn't alone) calls the third- or fourth-biggest race in the world. It went up against the Giro d'Italia by moving from February to May and matched the older race cyclist for cyclist and postcard view for postcard view.

"In my opinion, the Tour of California has grown exponentially bigger and quicker than any race in the history of cycling," Leipheimer said. "The Tour de France and the Giro, they have a hundred years on the Tour of California. But are they 100 years ahead? I don't think so."

This year's Tour had big names, great finishes, good weather (other than the Stage 2 downpour), mountain climbs and, of course, that final element to truly be considered a great stage race -- doping controversy. Floyd Landis' confession and allegations in the middle of the race stole the spotlight and shifted attention from this week in California to what might have happened years ago in France.

Nonetheless, and despite Lance Armstrong's crashing out three days earlier, Sunday's crowd was large and passionate enough that it left the riders impressed and grammatically challenged. George Hincapie called Sunday's crowds "Tour de France-ish," while Leipheimer went with "Tour de France-esque." Whatever the term (Tour de France-like? Neo-Tour de France?), they were enthusiastic. They weren't ready to sit up and shift to another "clean" sport. You know, like baseball.

They also enjoyed the sort of dramatic cycling attacks usually reserved in this country for the Cutters and the fraternity teams, as Garmin-Transitions' Dave Zabriskie (trailing by nine seconds) and Leipheimer (trailing by 25) repeatedly tried to crack Rogers on the final climb.

"It's up to Michael. He's got the lead and he has to defend it," Leipheimer said. "When Dave attacked, I let Michael do the work and when I attacked, Dave let him do the work. And if that goes on long enough, you can get away or you break that person."

"It wasn't a good situation for me," Rogers said. "I just had to sit there and limit my losses and make sure Dave or Levi didn't go away from me."

He withstood every attack up the climb, handled another attempt on the descent and shortly after Ryder Hesjedel outsprinted Hincapie for the stage win, the Australian crossed the line as the Tour of California's first non-American champ. Rogers' victory marked another big step in a comeback as impressive as Betty White's. A three-time world time trial champion, Rogers led the 2007 Tour de France when he crashed out with a broken collarbone during Stage 8 and contracted Epstein Barr virus after that.

Cycling can be like that, too. You crash from time to time -- it's part of the sport -- but you just get back on the bicycle. Cycling has made significant progress in the four years since Landis, with HTC-Columbia and Garmin-Transitions helping lead the way. One reason there are so many stories about cyclists failing drug tests is because they get tested so much more often than other athletes in perhaps the strictest, most intense program in sports.

"I think we do more as a sport than anyone else, and we get held to a different standard by fans and certainly by the media," Messick said. "In cycling, people get vilified in the media, yet in other American sports, someone can fail a drug test and be voted the equivalent of the best young rider. I think it's a fairly substantive inconsistency."

Messick said the Tour of California is set for 2011 and Amgen is on board as its chief sponsor.

"This sport needs this," HTC-Columbia owner Bob Stapleton said of the Tour of California's importance. "We need this race in the USA. We need the economic power, the American sponsors, American television. We need American athletes and we need a big platform for them to perform on, and the Tour of California provides that. It's the biggest race in the U.S. by far and it needs to prosper. In my opinion, it's third and going up."

Peter Sagan, the exciting young Slovak rider who won Stages 4 and 5, told reporters before he left, "See you next year."

Hopefully, when we do, cycling will have cleared that last hill and will finally feel a tailwind.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.