So far, all's quiet on doping front

VITTEL, France -- From the source of one of the world's most famous spring waters, a few words about the purity of the world's most famous bike race.

The 2009 Tour de France has been holding its breath in a number of ways as transitional stages traipse on a northeast diagonal to the foothills of the Vosges mountain range. Italy's Rinaldo Nocentini retained the overall leader's yellow jersey for the sixth straight day in Thursday's Stage 12, and the men in the top 10 didn't budge. And with more than half of the Tour's 2,100-mile course in the rearview mirror, there hasn't been a positive drug test announced.

That feels almost artificial after the last couple of Tours, when scandals blew up early and often like wartime mines inadvertently left buried.

By this point in the 2008 race, two obscure Spanish support riders and flashy young Italian climber Riccardo Ricco had been busted. Ricco's exit was particularly dramatic. Police knocked on the door of the Saunier Duval team bus at the Stage 11 start and summarily loaded him into a waiting car.

On the day of Stage 8 in 2007, a pre-Tour positive test result was announced for German rider Patrik Sinkewitz, denting the morale of the team then called T-Mobile and new owner Bob Stapleton, who was at the helm of that aircraft carrier trying to turn it in the right direction. A few days later, the long, torturous frying of the Danish rider known as "Chicken" began when rumors surfaced that Michael Rasmussen had deliberately evaded drug testers in the weeks prior to the Tour. He was leading the race the following week when his Rabobank team spectacularly fired him.

Is no news really good news here at the Tour? Stapleton thinks so, although he's not deluding himself into thinking the race will end in a doping shutout. "We're talking about something like 10,000 tests performed since two Tours ago," the Team Columbia owner said Thursday. "A lot of guys caught, a lot of guys out of the sport. There's testing for new products, like CERA [a version of the blood booster EPO]. The race is less dominated by a few riders, and I think more riders are seeing opportunities to succeed by fair means."

Speculation that results are being delayed or suppressed for public relations purposes is off-track, said Garmin-Slipstream manager Jonathan Vaughters. "No way," he said. "The AFLD [French anti-doping agency] and UCI [cycling's governing body] can't afford that."

That may seem counterintuitive, since some sports test less, find fewer cheaters and haven't had the image struggles that cycling has. But most sports haven't walked the plank that cycling has and stared into potential oblivion, either. Stapleton agreed with Vaughters, saying that manipulation of results "is a bridge too far on the paranoia side. That information would come out sooner or later."

Stapleton was waiting outside the anti-doping control area just past the finish line while Team Columbia's supernova of a young sprinter, Mark Cavendish, was undergoing what has become practically a daily ritual.

The fenced-in anti-doping "pen" is now as much a part of the race infrastructure as the gaudy publicity caravan and the anachronistic podium girls. Police guard the entrance, and only certain team staff members and anti-doping officials are allowed inside with the riders. Team physicians accompany them inside the testing van and press liaisons often mind their bikes and hold the trophies and bouquets top riders receive on the podium. Photographers and reporters lurk outside the pen and riders have become accustomed to stopping for interviews there. Fans linger at a distance and cheer the riders when they finally roll away.

Testing is working about the same way as it did last year. The UCI is in charge of testing again after a one-year break when the AFLD handled it because of a feud between the UCI and Tour organizers. (The AFLD is still involved, since samples are processed at its Chatenay-Malabry laboratory outside Paris.) In addition, the entire peloton had blood drawn before the Tour began, and testers have visited teams at their hotels in the morning and on the rest day.

The overall leader and stage winner are tested each day, along with six to eight other riders in no particular pattern -- partly to guard against a rider easily guessing that he might be tested on a given day. In recent years, testing has evolved from random to targeted as UCI policy-makers decided that was a better use of resources. Thursday, the testers opted for a straight flush, tapping the first eight finishers.

When the peloton is about six miles from the finish line, a list of riders goes up in front of a booth that distributes Vittel, the official water of the Tour. Each day, Dr. Gerard Guillaume, physician for the Francaise des Jeux team, walks up and snaps a picture of it. He is tracking who's tested for an organization called Mouvement pour un Cyclisme Credible (MPCC). Nine teams in the Tour -- including all the French teams and both U.S.-based teams, Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia -- belong to the group, which holds its riders to even higher standards than those set by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Guillaume explained that when riders from any MPCC teams are tested, he compares their medical sheets -- the documents where they are supposed to list any medications they're taking -- to make sure they are adhering to the organization's rules. For example, WADA now allows the use of corticosteroids to treat inflammation under certain circumstances, but physicians for teams in the MPCC collectively decided they did not want to permit the practice because of the potential appearance of abuse for performance-enhancing purposes.

The ever-finer fishnet cast for dopers makes it highly unlikely that this or any Tour will unfold without any violations. With in- and out-of-competition testing, samples stored for retesting, and the whole system now supported by a vast reservoir of data from separate biological passport profiling, the expiration date on cheating is a moving target. The standings for this Tour could change a week, a month, a year or more after the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees.

Two riders who logged extraordinary performances at the 2008 Tour, German rider Stefan Schumacher, who won both individual time trials, and original third-place finisher and King of the Mountains Bernhard Kohl of Austria, were nabbed for using CERA last fall when their samples were retested in the weeks following the Tour. (Kohl has confessed. Schumacher continues to contest his test results.) Just before this Tour began, Dutch star Thomas Dekker was suspended after a two-year-old sample was retested.

There has been no such buzz-starting ride here this year as of yet, but longtime observers of the Tour know better than to start making sweeping declarations about the state of the peloton. It's best to measure progress in this realm in increments rather than giant steps.

As one race official said, "I wouldn't put my hand in the fire and say anyone is clean." Then again, the people who are really getting burned are not those of us on the outside. It's the riders who aren't doping who have the most to lose, and when and if the first positive surfaces at the 2009 Tour, they're not as apt to regard it as a negative thing.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Follow her Twitter feed here or reach her at bonniedford@aol.com.