Three years ago, defending Tour de France champion Alberto Contador roused himself from a beach vacation to respond to Giro d'Italia organizers' last-minute invitation to his Astana team and wound up winning the 2008 race.
He framed the victory as public vindication for Astana's exclusion from the upcoming Tour that summer -- punishment for past doping scandals that didn't involve him -- and went on to capture the Vuelta d'Espana that fall.
Contador carried his Grand Tour winning streak through two more seasons, winning the 2009 and 2010 editions of the Tour de France. He is undefeated in his past five three-week races and thus is naturally one of the heavy favorites in this year's Giro, which starts Saturday.
But there is a very real possibility his record of sustained supremacy will fishtail and crash no matter what happens over the next 2,200 miles in Italy. Contador's results in this Giro, along with his last Tour title, could be nullified if the Court of Arbitration for Sport reverses his complete -- and completely inexplicable -- exoneration for a positive clenbuterol test by a panel of Spanish cycling officials in February.
CAS would then make the critical decision on whether to suspend Contador for the full two years; he has already served several months, and the length of suspension would determine which of his results since his February return to racing would stand. That ruling, prompted by separate appeals by international cycling officials and the World Anti-Doping Agency, may or may not be made by the time the 2011 Tour starts on July 2.
Contador, who signed with Bjarne Riis' Denmark-based Saxo Bank-SunGard in the offseason, has admitted he doesn't consider the Giro ideal preparation for the Tour. That, of course, is why he skipped the Giro the past two years. But he won't concede the obvious, which is that he's racing in Italy because he may not be able to start in France.
Of all the habitual chaos preceding the season's first Grand Tour -- the usual tide of doping news, institutional struggles on everything from in-race radios to the sport's economic structure, the continued trickle of rumors about the federal investigation of doping on Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teams and a nasty and distracting defamation lawsuit brought by past and present UCI executives against Floyd Landis -- Contador's status as a Potentially Dead Man Riding is the most troublesome from a sheer competitive standpoint.
We've become accustomed to seeing race results rejiggered by after-the-fact doping revelations. Going into this Giro with knowledge that Contador's performances could be stricken feels different. Even if he doesn't win the race, Contador's presence will alter the equation in any stage and, most particularly, the seven mountaintop finishes. If his results are scrubbed, there will be no do-overs for the riders he beats or drops or duels with.
In a world that spun as perfectly as a newly trued bike wheel, Contador wouldn't be starting. But he can and will because the anti-doping sanctioning system broke down at one of its weakest points.
Here are other storylines to watch:
The competition: Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas and Michele Scarponi of Lampre are widely regarded as the two standard-bearers for the home country. Others who could make a run at the podium include Astana's surging Czech talent Roman Kreuziger and Team Katusha's Joaquim Rodriguez. Then we have Geox-TMC, the Astana of 2011 (sort of). The lower-tier Pro Continental team was not invited to the Tour de France, despite the prominent riders on its roster, making the Giro the primary season goal for perennial podium contender Denis Menchov of Russia. Spain's Carlos Sastre will work alongside him, as well as seeking his own stage win or two.
Spare a thought for the sprinters: The Giro course offers a precious few states -- perhaps as few as four -- likely to end with pure bunch sprints, yet three of the world's premier sprinters have opted to race there. HTC-High Road's British superstar Mark Cavendish lives in Italy, loves this race and has a passion for the opening team time trial, which he helped the team win in 2009. Garmin's U.S. standout Tyler Farrar, Cavendish's chief rival, won two stages here last year and is a workhorse who likes big mileage early in the season. Italy's aging (37) but still dangerous Alessandro Petacchi will look to add to his 21 career Giro stage wins after being shut out last year. The attrition rate amongst speedsters once the Giro hits the Dolomites in midrace should be high.
Doping fallout: Recent raids stemming from a lengthy, ongoing investigation centered in Mantova, Italy, have touched several teams. BMC Racing pulled Alessandro Ballan and Mauro Santambrogio from competition when their names were linked to the probe for the second straight season (both also were suspended by the team for a period of time last year). On a different note, the UCI announced a "no-needles" policy earlier this week, barring the use of injections for anything other than medical necessity. This common-sense, long-overdue policy was already being practiced by a number of teams.
U.S.-based team outlook: BMC is sending an untried team with three young American riders. Garmin-Cervelo will aim for a strong finish in the team time trial, led by road captain David Millar; support Farrar in the sprints; and roll the dice in the general classification with France's Christophe Le Mevel. U.S. talent Peter Stetina will be riding his first Grand Tour. Craig Lewis will be HTC-Highroad's lone American starter on a team whose priority, other than Cavendish, will be to support Italy's Marco Pinotti. RadioShack is fielding a mostly veteran squad featuring Yaroslav Popovych as the nominal leader and venerable sprinter Robbie McEwen of Australia; Bjorn Selander is the only American on the roster.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.