The scenic finish can't hide the ugly journey

PARIS -- One of the most timeless moments in the Tour de France comes after the three-week endurance test is over and the teams slowly parade up and around the long, cobblestoned sweep of the Champs-Elysees, where the top sprinters in the peloton just finished trying to beat each others' brains out.

No matter what the weather is throughout the final Sunday, this ritual always seems to unfold in a dreamy silver haze with dusk falling on the broad avenue that was a battleground when Paris was liberated during World War II.

Riders roll at a deliberate pace with their arms around one another, waving and grinning in obvious relief. This year, there was ecstatic Team CSC-Saxo Bank, clearly the deepest and most astute squad in the race, flanking its soft-spoken matador Carlos Sastre, who won the Tour with one well-timed attack on Alpe d'Huez. At the other end of the spectrum was beleaguered Barloworld, which had just four of nine riders left at the end, decimated by crashes and a positive doping test.

Somewhere in between were U.S.-based Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia. Garmin leader Christian Vande Velde, who entered this race still loitering on the edge of self-confidence and emerged from it forever changed, wore an American flag like a cape. His elite stature is now confirmed by a fifth-place overall finish, and Garmin proved it belonged in the race. Columbia heads home with five stage wins courtesy of its young sprinters and has at least initially succeeded in distancing itself from a troubled previous incarnation as T-Mobile.

It was all very picturesque here after the final official ceremony. That was in direct contrast to the ugly free-for-all the night before, when the race was really won.

In a quirk of athletic etiquette well known to cycling devotees, the Tour's overall results are decided on its penultimate day. The time gaps after the final individual time trial are allowed to stand, and Sunday's Stage 21, while not entirely uncompetitive, always comes down to a sprinters' duel with the peloton finishing just behind them in a massed, multicolored peacock's tail and all riders in it awarded the same time.

When Sastre -- against most conventional wisdom -- performed well enough in Saturday's time trial to stave off Australia's Cadel Evans, among others, he was able to slip on the yellow jersey knowing it would be his the next day as well unless he were to suffer a freak accident. He beamed from the podium. Then Sastre entered the fenced-off area where he, Evans, third-place finisher Bernard Kohl of Austria, Denis Menchov, Vande Velde and several other top contenders underwent drug testing.

A cluster of reporters and photographers 10 deep engulfed the enclosure, waiting for the men to finish surrendering their bodily fluids. This is cycling's equivalent of the red-carpet rite. Imagine World Series or Super Bowl victors trooping into the white van before they spoke to the media. The players' unions wouldn't stand for it, and neither would the networks.

Evans finally emerged, surrounded by a human chain of police officers and accompanied by the same stocky bodyguard who once protected Lance Armstrong and Alexander Vinokourov. Sastre went to his winner's news conference, part of which concerned his relationship with Manolo Saiz, the discredited former manager of ONCE, the powerful Spanish outfit where Sastre came of age, and with Liberty Seguros.

Sastre refused to repudiate his ex-boss, who was tainted by the still less-than-fully resolved Operacion Puerto doping investigation in Spain. Saiz, a master of training riders for the time-trial event, taught Sastre the fundamentals. Sastre added that they haven't been in touch in a few years because they've "taken different paths.'' Sastre is a veteran of CSC and the aggressive anti-doping program insisted upon by owner Bjarne Riis, who last year confessed to having used performance-enhancing substances on the way to his 1996 Tour win and thus knows firsthand how destructive the burden of lying and cheating can be.

It was all a reminder of the sticky wickets cycling is passing through as it ricochets from the sublime images of the Champs-Elysees to the more prosaic daily spectacle of finish-line testing. It's challenging to be a competitor in this sport under these circumstances, it's a challenging sport to cover, and at times it's an achingly difficult sport for fans to commit to.

For the second straight year, the Tour's route on its last day went through Chatenay-Malabry, the suburban Paris location of the national laboratory that conducts anti-doping tests on samples taken at the Tour.

Four positive tests were announced during the race, and we should know if there are any more within about a week. The number is no different from last year's Tour, although erstwhile 2007 race leader Michael Rasmussen's sensational in-race dismissal for allegedly trying to avoid drug testing ratcheted up the drama.

So why do things feel different? Should they? The anti-doping programs undertaken by Garmin, Columbia and CSC provide some assurance that teams are trying to turn things around, but then again, customs officials last week theatrically stopped and searched a car on the race course that was driven by the father of CSC's fraternal one-two punch of Andy and Frank Schleck. The authorities found nothing, but the action couldn't help but foster unease.

Perhaps that was the point. The French cycling federation wrestled control of the race from the international governing body and put national anti-doping officials in charge of testing. Under the new regime, speculation about who is suspect has become open debate as some of the same riders had their numbers pulled for testing day after day. Obstinate denial about the sport's dirty secrets has gradually evolved into a kick-butt-and-post-names approach that could unfairly smear some riders. That might be the price the sport has to pay at this point.

The question anyone mulling these matters should pose is when other sports will pony up the same cash. Sastre's iconic yellow jersey reminds us of something else. Cycling is the canary in a grimy coal mine right now, still capable of hitting sweet notes, yet in tenuous health from the dangerous fumes still lingering underground. If only athletes, managers and owners in other sports would become brave enough to take the same risks.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.