Well, here we are again for another Tour de France. In order to get into the race, you have to be one of the best nine riders on your team; you have to be known. Each rider knows everyone in the race, their abilities, their strengths and weaknesses.
Here are things to consider heading into Saturday's start:
It doesn't matter who you are anymore -- a lesser-known rider on the fast track, an Olympic medalist or a Tour contender -- the governing bodies are not afraid of taking anyone down when it comes to doping.
The procedures now are more airtight; I believe every rider is tested in the same way, which was the goal of the "passport" system. It started with the internal testing by my team, Saxo Bank, and others, Garmin and Columbia, and now it's blossomed into a blanket cover for all Pro Tour teams.
We are the most tested athletes in sports. We have to give our whereabouts even more than we did in the past: Where are riders in the morning when they train, etc. Riders even have to give testers a one-hour window, somewhere where they'll be each day for an hour's time. It's difficult. I am glad I didn't have to do that part when I was racing; it's hard to block out a definitive hour when you have two kids!
I think the sport is going as much as it can to clean up. The cyclists are doing something about it, too. The UCI, the teams, the riders, they're all going to keep working to make sure they're doing all they can. Imagine if other pro sports in the United States did the testing we did? The NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA or NHL? There would be a revolt; it would never take off in sports like that.
But it's ironic that the sport that does the most about doping, that's tested the most, is also the most criticized and doubted sport. It stinks because there is that overall opinion that all cyclists are doped. It's understandable why people say and/or believe that. It seems like we can't get past that reputation because these events keep happening, where there is a positive test out of races, especially the biggest race, the Tour. That justifies the critics' reasoning.
I know the sport and riders are making an effort and the sport is cleaning up. It's a small percentage of guys ruining an entire sport's reputation, ruining all the time and money the organizations, teams and riders are putting in to make sure we clean up the sport. But despite the critics, we're not going to stop striving to make cycling clean.
Now, back to the actual racing
You'll notice that two stages this year (10 and 13) will revert back to the old days, not allowing riders to use race radios. The thinking is, the organizers wanted to give the race back to the individual. I can see that, but if I was still racing, I'd want a radio. Here's why:
First, while I never spoke as much as others, if you had to make a decision on something, you could speak with teammates and the team car and it was a team decision.
Second, the No. 1 benefit of race radios is safety. Our sport is so unique. You're going through towns, there are helicopters everywhere, you're riding by dogs, cats, horses, people are fanned out along the routes, there is danger everywhere. The radios are a lifeline to safety; we can hear warnings from the lead car (which is relayed to us through the team car) about a dangerous descent or people on the road or road construction or a protest along the route.
A lot of riders are dependent on the radios. Without them, you're adding a lot more confusion, stress and panic. Without radios, it's like throwing out your iPhone for a rotary phone. When you take a rider out of his comfort zone, unpredictable things can happen. Does this mean cars will try to pass the peloton to try to communicate with riders? There's only so much space on these roads. It creates a more dangerous situation. At least they are doing it during flatter stages.
I agree we should test having no radios during a stage, but is it the wisest thing to test it during the biggest race of the year on the biggest stage? Why not test it at the Dauphine Libere or the Tour de Suisse?
The Lance factor
The first question people will ask is "How is Lance Armstrong's health heading into the Tour?" Well, if anything, I think his accident actually helped him for the Tour. He was going to go for the overall in the Giro d'Italia before breaking his collarbone. He made it back for the start of the Giro, but obviously didn't go for the overall. Still, he was stronger at the start than most thought he would be, and he got even stronger by the end of the race. Lance is headed in the right direction. He's taking care of his health, spending time with his family. He is very methodical. When he gets that mojo going, he's dangerous.
So that leads to the second question people will ask: "Are we going to see Lance be a dedicated team player for Astana mate Alberto Contador?" Well, it's totally against Lance's nature to be a teammate, a domestique. He is the most inspirational leader on the bike of his generation, and off it, with his Livestrong cancer foundation. So it goes against his nature to ride for someone else. He'll be competitive; the unfortunate thing for him is, he'll be competitive with one of the best riders of the current generation in Contador.
And after those two guys, you forget Astana also has Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer and others. You wish those guys would be separated so they could battle with each other instead of those riders not going for it because they were told to work for someone else on the team. It's a shame for the sport and fans not to see all these riders go head-to-head. I am sure the team tactics and politics are going to be more difficult with all that talent.
Having said that, if Lance is told to race for Contador, he'll be the absolute best teammate to have. If he has the condition, he can be there to guide riders. Lance has benefited from some of the best domestiques in cycling; some gave their own careers for him. This would be a great time for Lance to give back some of that work that's been done for him. The guy he could be working for will be the luckiest man on the planet.
My dark-horse pick
My dark-horse pick for this year's Tour? Liquigas' Roman Kreuziger. He's finished in the top 10 of the Tour before, he's flying under the radar and he has all the characteristics of a Tour winner. He's a great time-trialist and climber. He has strong instincts and he's not afraid to attack. He's also not afraid to soft-pedal when need be. He's tactically strong.
Everyone is talking about Astana and Saxo Bank; Roman doesn't have the pressure the other riders have, and he doesn't have the team politics to deal with, either.
Bobby Julich will be providing analysis for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. He retired from pro cycling in 2008 and is currently the technical director for Team Saxo Bank. The American finished third overall in the 1998 Tour and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.