SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- This edition of the Tour of California, like the nickname of the state it's about to navigate north to south, should have every right to call itself golden.
The 750-mile route features one postcard vista after another, starting from the capital and threading its way along the coast, over modest mountains, into fertile agricultural territory and through vineyards before looping around the Rose Bowl and ending in the San Diego suburbs. The field for the nine-day race includes a critical mass of the world's finest sprinters and climbers.
In keeping with California's tradition as the perpetual repository of American wanderlust, this is the place to be. Practically everyone who is anyone in American cycling is here, headlined by the newly reactivated Lance Armstrong, who has declared he will work for his Astana teammate, two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer. Both U.S.-based Pro Tour teams, Columbia and Garmin-Slipstream, are coming with stacked rosters and the intent to win.
Dethroned 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, martyr to some, villain to others, his form still a mystery (especially after a training crash Thursday) but his ambition clear to all, will take the road with a team called OUCH in a major race a mere two weeks after the end of his doping suspension. Rock Racing's Tyler Hamilton, who must be described as resilient even by his worst detractors, will race in a national champion's jersey, still defiant about the doping conviction from his past. There are veterans with great sagas and gifted young riders just beginning to write them.
The race is a tricky one to call. Cold, wet weather is forecast, a great equalizer of ability and a reminder that optimally, this Tour should come later in the year, when the peloton could crest the state's highest mountain roads and avoid the hypothermic episodes that befell riders last year in screaming rain and headwinds. Although the world's best have converged on Sacramento, it's too early in the season for some of them to contemplate winning the overall or even a stage. This is an event that some top riders target to win, others hope to win, and many ride for the miles.
Thus, it may or may not sort out who's in contention for the three-week Grand Tours this spring and summer. But the Tour of California may start to answer a big question looming over the 2009 season: Will Armstrong pump energy into the sport or siphon all the oxygen out of the room?
Clearly, the organizers believe the former and have made full use of Armstrong's name and image in their promotions. Clearly, his presence will swell the roadside crowds. Clearly, it provided much of the impetus behind the Versus network's decision to televise much of the race live for the first time. Armstrong inspires intense hero-worship, and just as intense dislike, but he seldom is met with disinterest.
However, with Armstrong almost invariably comes high theater -- theater that has the potential to drown out other important story lines in cycling, and not the kind the race necessarily wants or needs.
Thursday, Armstrong appeared at an all-star press conference with two of his former teammates, Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) and George Hincapie (Columbia), along with Leipheimer and Italy's Ivan Basso (Liquigas). A moderator gave each man a chance to answer prepared questions, then opened the floor to reporters. Leipheimer got two questions. The others got none.
Armstrong got the rest. He talked about his form and his cancer-fighting efforts, but he also had confrontational exchanges with two journalists -- former cycling pro and vocal anti-doping columnist Paul Kimmage, an Irish writer for the Sunday Times of London, and Juliet Macur of The New York Times. Kimmage asked a provocative question that involved Landis. Macur was minding her own business and hadn't even asked a question, but Armstrong was irritated with her about another story.
This week, as Macur first reported, Armstrong's ballyhooed "personal" anti-doping program took an unexpected turn. Respected anti-doping research pioneer Don Catlin and Armstrong mutually concluded that the elaborate plans they had formulated -- testing an average of every three days, posting results on the Internet -- were not feasible. Financial and logistical complications were cited. Catlin said his testers did one incomplete round of testing in Australia, and added that the two sides never signed a contract.
Armstrong and Astana moved quickly to mitigate the damage, issuing a statement that his testing program would be taken over by Astana's independent testing guru, Danish researcher Rasmus Damsgaard. Some test results are already posted online.
OK, you may say. Armstrong is still being tested, and that's the key, right? But there's one problem with the sequence of events. Less than a month ago, Armstrong and Astana unequivocally stated that the Catlin program was in place.
Rewind the tape back to Jan. 17, when Armstrong held a press conference in Adelaide, Australia, on the eve of his first comeback race, the Tour Down Under. Here is an exchange that came early in the hour-long session.
ESPN.com: Lance, we're all in a bit of suspense over whether your arrangement with Don Catlin is formalized yet --
Armstrong: [Interrupting] It is.
ESPN.com: Can you talk about what the specifics of that are, and why it took so long to get the deal done?
Armstrong: It's formalized. It's under way. It is the most comprehensive anti-doping plan in the history of sport. I'm proud of it. I respect Don. I know he's the toughest there is out there. I think if anybody has any questions about performances this year, it can hopefully answer them. But we're under way. It was slightly complicated because you have a lot of people involved, obviously a lot of other agencies involved.
But outside Don Catlin, there have been 12 other anti-doping controls out of competition. And I challenge anybody else to show 12 anti-doping controls in the last few months. But just getting everybody synched up, getting everybody together. We committed to have it in place before the first race, and it is.
ESPN.com: When will the testing begin, and how frequent will it be?
Armstrong: Next question. [Pause] I said it's under way, and it's formalized. We're going. I don't know what else I can tell you.
Apparently, there was more to it. Only Armstrong and Catlin know exactly why things fell apart, but it should be noted that the logistical complexities -- overlapping testing agencies, issues around collection and storage of samples from a nomadic athlete -- are not new.
They were present in September when Armstrong sprang his plan on the world with a flourish and Catlin at his side at media events in New York and Las Vegas. Cost estimates were on the record, as the teams already doing such testing have been open about the subject.
Armstrong's agent, Bill Stapleton, said in Adelaide that Catlin's program priced out as more expensive for an individual rider than an entire team.
The irony is that no one was pressuring Armstrong to paint himself into a corner by promising an extra layer of testing. All anyone in cycling would have asked was that he play by the same rules as everyone else. He does that by submitting to testing by national and international agencies.
Armstrong has Twittered about each of these tests to an ever-increasing flock of followers that is approaching 100,000, but Twitter is no substitute for "transparency," that New Age euphemism for what used to be called honesty. Just ask Landis. Half a dozen people claiming to be him are posting morbidly humorous material -- some of it directly satirizing Armstrong's entries -- on separate Twitter accounts. Landis denies he's doing any Twittering at all, but how would we really know?
The point here is not that a roomful of journalists were misled about the status of the Catlin program, or that the reporter asking the questions transcribed above happened to be me. The point is that, with both casual and die-hard fans already teetering on the brink of complete confusion and/or mistrust concerning the science and politics of drug testing, this incident does not help advance the plot.
Anti-doping authorities haven't actively discouraged the so-called independent programs, but many aren't crazy about them either, saying anything a team pays for isn't really independent. Teams say they need the insurance for their sponsors, and to take internal action when needed. Only when the biological passport project coordinated by cycling's international governing body is fully up and running, and a sanctioning system based on it is in place, will the teams' programs become expendable. All this leaves the fans pretty much where they've been for years: in limbo about what to believe.
The testing issue is only one of many off-road mini-dramas trailing Armstrong as we speak. That doesn't matter to everyone. There are a whole lot of people who don't care about anything but watching Armstrong dance on the pedals again, or who are more attuned to his cancer work than his athletic feats. There are a whole lot of folks in the cycling industry who observe the free-falling economy and understandably conclude no publicity is bad publicity. People who want to see the sport grow in this country know this Tour of California is a rare opportunity, a fascinating moment in time, an aligning of the planets that may never happen again. But next year, or the year after, Armstrong is going to retire again. Will he have left the sport stronger?
Perhaps the weather will cooperate. Perhaps the racing will be splendid, showcasing a great cast of characters. This event has such potential, as long as the gold doesn't get buried in a mudslide.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.