Organizers hope '08 route pumps life into ailing Tour

Tour de France organizers unscrolled the big yellow map showing the route of the race's 95th edition Thursday in Paris, revealing a few new twists in a reassuringly familiar path.

For the first time in 40 years, the race will begin without the short individual time trial known as a "prologue." In fact, time trials account for roughly 50 miles of the 2,200-mile course, which is a lower percentage than usual -- although one of the ITTs comes early, in the first week.

The Tour peloton will circle the country counterclockwise, as is customary in even-numbered years, starting in Brittany. A detour through the Massif Central -- also customary every few years -- inserts some modest climbing before the race traverses the Pyrenees, skirts the Mediterranean coast and heads into the Alps.

Patrice Clerc and Christian Prudhomme, the Tour's corporate president and race director, respectively, have consistently said they wouldn't shorten or soften the route to appease those who think its difficulty encourages doping.

The Tour's major climbs include the usual suspects: the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, the Galibier in the Alps and a summit finish on Alpe d'Huez, back after a year's hiatus. In Stage 16, which brings the race back to France after a stage finish and rest day over the border in Italy, the riders will face two absurdly long ascents, including one that tops out at more than 9,000 feet elevation.

So we know where the Tour is going now. The political and moral landscape it will pass through remains a little vaguer.

One of the images transmitted from Thursday's gala presentation was a tangible reminder of that. It shows Spanish riders Oscar Pereiro and Alberto Contador, sporting a thinner face and skinnier tie than his compatriot, shaking hands.

These two men are the last two champions of the Tour, but both of them were promoted into that position by doping-related happenstance. Pereiro was awarded his yellow jersey less than a month ago after erstwhile 2006 winner Floyd Landis' positive test for synthetic testosterone was upheld 2-1 by an arbitration panel.

Landis is appealing that decision, and with any luck the Court of Arbitration for Sport will rule before next July and we'll find out if the Tour organizers will have to unscramble the omelet they made when they pronounced Pereiro the victor.

Contador, at least, got to stand on the top step of the podium on the Champs-Elysees, beneficiary of would-be winner Michael Rasmussen's sudden in-race dismissal by his Rabobank team. The Danish rider allegedly lied about his whereabouts in an attempt to avoid random drug tests.

That reporting system is about to get an upgrade, one of many changes being proposed for what promises to be the Year of the Bloodhound on cycling's Chinese calendar.

Instead of mailing or faxing their travel plans to the UCI, the sport's international governing body, riders will use a Web-based reporting system to help the doping control folks find them. (Gee, that Internet is really swell.)

Jonathan Vaughters' Slipstream team will go one better, issuing BlackBerrys with Global Positioning System capability to its riders so they can be tracked down at any time. It's not unlike the ankle tethers worn by some people on probation, which is appropriate, since that's essentially the status of the entire sport.

A potentially significant development in doping enforcement was announced at the International Meeting Against Doping in Cycling that preceded the Tour route unveiling in Paris. This conference managed to bring outgoing World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound and UCI chief Pat McQuaid into the same room, which is no minor accomplishment given their contentious history.

Along with UCI anti-doping manager Anne Gripper, an Australian who has shown signs of being the no-nonsense sheriff the sport needs, the two men endorsed the concept of a biological passport.

The virtual document -- all records will be kept electronically -- is an Orwellian notion whose time has apparently come. If the various organizations involved stick to their plan, riders will have blood, urine and hormone levels tested consistently over time to establish a profile. Deviations in that profile, in turn, would hint strongly at blood doping or use of other performance-enhancing dodges.

How that data will be used isn't yet spelled out in detail. A fishy-looking profile isn't the equivalent of a positive drug test, but the way officials were talking, teams could use it to pull a rider off a start line or even suspend him. We might deduce that suspicious bio passports could lead to targeted testing, something Gripper has championed.

When you consider how many times an elite rider might be tested over the course of next season -- by the teams that have implemented their own testing programs, by cycling federations, by the UCI -- and all the suspicion and cynicism that will dog the sport despite all those efforts, the life of a professional cyclist seems awfully complicated and grim.

Then again, it's pretty complicated and grim to dope. It's complicated and grim to send bags of your own blood off to the evil-genius "doctors" of the trade and have them returned to you for secret transfusions in your hotel room. It's pretty complicated and grim to be part of a food chain dependent on smuggling pills, syringes, ampoules and the other detritus of doping across national borders.

The sticky and admittedly imperfect web of testing and controls will be a relief for riders -- who knows how many there are -- who are sincerely sick of the rat race that has intensified over the past two decades.

This week's peace pipe smoking aside, these reform proposals could still be undermined by the ongoing crossfire between the UCI and the organizers of the trio of three-week Grand Tours. Amaury Sports Organisation, parent company of the Tour de France and some other major races, wants to make its own decisions about which teams are worthy enough (read: clean enough) to be invited; the UCI is insisting that the 18 teams in its Pro Tour have to be included.

And none of the agency heads is addressing the elephant in the room: the French laboratory that appears to have leaked test results with impunity and that was scorched for sloppy procedures in the Landis case. It's not enough to say that the underlying science is OK. Any lab with WADA accreditation needs to be above reproach.

Even so, when the big yellow Tour map went up, it was still tempting to feel a bit of a thrill, visualizing next summer's action.

"We want to restore romanticism," Prudhomme said.

We just want to trust in the race again, along with enjoying the scenery.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.