Tour de France awash in doping questions, controversies

LONDON -- As befits a big show, the annual kick-off events for the Tour de France are always placed in a large exhibition hall. This year is no exception, as the enormous, fractious Tour family gathered Thursday at ExCel London on the dockyards of the Thames River, occupying a set of two-story-high rooms right down the concourse from a gynecologists' convention.

Some things never change about the Tour start, majestically known as Le Grand Depart. The 21 teams reported for medical checkups and the most high-profile riders were swarmed by reporters as they arrived. The most sensational entrance Thursday was by controversial race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, who swept in wearing superstar sunglasses and flanked by bodyguards.

The sausage people -- workers from Cochonou, whose checkerboard cars are a perennial part of the Tour sponsors' caravan -- cut paper-thin slices of hard salami in a lobby adorned by one of London's famous red double-decker buses. Tour workers received their official garb and journalists picked up the race "bible," a book of maps and directions that will guide them around 2,200 miles of roadways in four countries.

Everywhere you went, people who see each other only at this time of year were embracing and exchanging air kisses -- two for France, three for Belgium, more if they were really, really fond of the other person.

But it wasn't all warmth and fuzziness inside the ExCel, which is the kind of cavernous, drafty place that swallows sound. Even with bad acoustics, the noise inside was deafening, partly because of all the socializing, but mostly because of the thud-thud-thud of other shoes dropping at a rapid rate.

Consider a partial list of Thursday's events:

• Team CSC owner and director Bjarne Riis of Denmark released a statement saying he would not participate in this year's race because of the continuing fallout from his confession that he doped during the latter part of his career, including his 1996 Tour win.

"At the moment, I am surrounded by so much turbulence and I do not wish for this to have a negative effect on the focus or in any way influence the atmosphere surrounding the team during such an important race as the Tour de France," Riis said in a statement distributed to journalists.

• Vinokourov spent most of his press conference fending off barbed questions about his work with Dr. Michele Ferrari, who once served as a consultant to Lance Armstrong and has long been the target of doping allegations. "No one is asking [Armstrong] any questions," Vinokourov said, inaccurately.

The most contentious exchange came when ex-cycling-pro-turned-sportswriter Paul Kimmage of the Sunday Times of London asked, "Does it not affect you at all that many people in this room are disgusted by what you're doing?" Kimmage then leaned back, arms folded, as Vinokourov responded, "It has nothing to do with doping."

• The riders' association, which is not unionized, issued a statement saying that team directors, doctors and staff, along with race organizers, should be made to sign a document similar to the "oath" they were compelled to sign before the Tour started, promising to abide by anti-doping regulations or forfeit a year's salary.

"It is neither conceivable nor acceptable that the rules, for the practice of clean cycling, are applied to the riders only," the statement said. At least two team directors, Discovery's Johan Bruyneel and Ag2R's Vincent Lavenu, said they would sign such a document if it were properly drawn up.

• Several team directors walked out of a meeting of their professional association because of continued infighting over the employment of riders implicated in Operacion Puerto. The blood doping investigation that arose from raids on a Madrid clinic more than a year ago petered out because of a legal technicality in Spain, but has resulted in prosecutions of several riders in their home countries and forced 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich to retire when his DNA matched blood seized in those raids.

Grand Depart indeed. Imagine the fun when the ruling in the Floyd Landis case comes down, which should be any day now. Landis' name already has been provisionally removed from its place of honor in the official Tour history and statistics book, with an editor's note explaining the situation.

Riis' name also was scrubbed from the 1996 entry in the same volume. The problem is that selective use of white-out only draws attention to the riders who stood in second and third place: the disgraced Ullrich and the retired Richard Virenque of France, who made a tearful courtroom confession to doping on the 1998 Festina team two years later.

The absence of Riis will deprive one of the best teams in the Tour of its strategic and motivational guru, and embodies one of the sport's great contradictions. Riis has been widely praised for being among a handful of team directors who launched internal team drug testing programs monitored by independent entities.

Is it naïve or cynical to think that Riis, having sinned, might be better qualified than most to spot dopers on his team, on the principle that it takes one to know one?

Race organizers made it clear in statements shortly after Riis' admissions that they would prefer him to stay home this year. But Patrice Clerc, president of Amaury Sports Organisation, the parent company that owns the Tour, said they did not threaten his expulsion or exert any more formal pressure on team sponsor CSC, the El Segundo, Calif.-based company that is also the official information technology sponsor of the race.

"It was a wise decision," Clerc told ESPN.com Thursday, and didn't rule out the possibility that Riis might be welcomed back someday.

Clerc knows that some fans might be tuning out this year and those who do watch will cast a more critical eye on the great rides that would have been converted to instant cycling mythology in years past.

He isn't shying away from the questions, but understandably, he wants to move forward. Clerc methodically listed the sport's rap sheet for the past 10 years but said for him, last year's race, bracketed by the Operacion Puerto conflagration and victor Landis' positive test, was a bottoming-out and there is nowhere to go but up.

"If we come out of this period, and I think we will, other sports are going to confront this problem and we have a chance to be an example instead of the black sheep," Clerc said. "Everyone who loves cycling should want this Tour to go well."

The guys pushing the pedals hope so, too. Veteran U.S. sprinter Freddy Rodriguez has lived through the succession of scandals and said he would have quit if he didn't have some hope that things were changing.

Rodriguez said the morale in the peloton is better than it was the last time the sport faced such an obvious crisis in the wake of the 1998 Festina affair, when the arrest of a team staff member brought systematic doping out into the open for the first time. He thinks the pressure to dope simply to hold onto a job is decreasing.

The current climate of enforcement and zero tolerance "is bringing a level of security to more riders," Rodriguez said. "They're feeling more secure about their spot, more willing to play by the way things are supposed to be.

"It's still heartbreaking when you hear these stories about other riders you've competed against. You think, 'What did they cost me? How many results have I lost? What level could I have played at?'"

Yes, people who love this sport and this event will hope and watch for signs that the peloton is cleaning up its act. But where there's noise, there's generally something going on, and as they've learned so painfully in recent years, it's better not to close the windows and put in the earplugs.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.