The Tour of cycling's discontent

LES HERBIERS, France -- There couldn't be a more fitting way to launch the 2011 Tour de France this Saturday than to send the peloton over the Passage du Gois, a coastal causeway submerged by tides twice a day, slippery and treacherous even when exposed.

Bike racing can be a compelling, beautiful spectacle, and never more so than in this race. But there are times when waves wash over the road and make it hard to see the way ahead. This is one of them.

Three-time and defending Tour champion Alberto Contador is a rolling asterisk, able to compete courtesy of Spanish cycling federation officials who accepted his explanation that contaminated meat caused a positive test for clenbuterol, a stimulant with anabolic effects, during last year's Tour.

That 2010 victory -- and every one of his race results since then, including whatever he might achieve over the next three weeks -- could be wiped out if the Court of Arbitration for Sport reverses the Spanish decision after an early August hearing. Even in a sport accustomed to standings shifting months or years past a given finish line, this would have to be considered a severely dysfunctional sequence of events.

Thanks to that backdrop, Thursday's traditional media conference for the reigning champion was more packed than usual and had a tense, theatrical feel when Contador walked into the room, an atmosphere almost reminiscent of a few OK Corral shootouts between Lance Armstrong and the Tour reporting corps in the seven-time Tour winner's heyday.

But where Armstrong relished aggressive self-defense, sharply parrying and occasionally browbeating his interrogators, Contador is a passive lion who deflects all attempts to poke and provoke him. Asked what it's like to race with the knowledge that his performance could be nullified, Contador quietly dismissed the idea that he would be stripped of any of his championships, calling the notion "ridiculous," and offered no glimpses into his psyche.

Hours later, Contador was heartily and repeatedly booed at the hokey pageant known as the team presentation, in which all 198 starters were paraded before the public in a replica of a Roman arena. He and his teammates appeared to laugh it off, and he smiled as he answered an interviewer's questions. Yet his reception was as hostile or more than any Armstrong ever received from French fans, and there was no such negative reaction to any of the prominent riders in the peloton who have actually served doping suspensions.

Saxo Bank team owner and manager Bjarne Riis, who signed Contador last year before his positive test was announced, said his rider shouldn't be the scapegoat for all that's amiss in cycling. Riis acknowledged that the lack of resolution in Contador's case is not ideal, but maintained it would have been unfair to keep him from racing.

"If you don't agree with the solution that Alberto is riding in the Tour de France, you should question the system and not us," Riis said.

And he's right -- to a point. Who wouldn't start the world's best stage racer, since he's eligible? The problem is the rules appear to have been fluid over time, depending on when you raced, which team kit you wore and who you were.

There were very few anti-doping rules and even fewer ways to enforce them effectively in 1996 when Riis won the Tour de France, and he suffered no formal consequences when he confessed to using performance-enhancing substances more than a decade later. Two of Armstrong's former support riders, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, have told federal authorities investigating Armstrong they had reason to believe that his past teams were actively protected by the UCI, cycling's international governing body. And Contador's case might have been resolved one way or the other by now if his positive test result hadn't been kept under wraps for two months as opposed to being leaked or announced in mere days as most are.

Riis is also correct in implying that Contador's legal limbo is not the only bullet hole in the sport's foot at the moment. It's long been an article of faith that no Tour start is complete without a couple of doping stories breaking, and right on cue, the Belgian media has dropped two bombshells in the past two days.

A part-time staff member for U.S.-based BMC Racing has been arrested and questioned in relation to a two-year-old case involving possession of a large amount of erythropoietin, the blood booster. In a further, ludicrous plot twist, retired rider Wim Vansevenant, three times the last-place finisher, or "Lanterne Rouge," in the Tour and working episodically for his former Omega-Pharma-Lotto team, is under investigation for allegedly importing doping products from Australia.

The credibility of the UCI is under siege, partly because of its wearing feuds with teams over everything from economic structure to the use of race radios and partly because of issues raised in the Armstrong investigation.

Put all that together and the picture darkens for frustrated riders trying to help turn to a new page and owners scrambling to keep cycling financially healthy. Bob Stapleton, whose California-licensed HTC-Highroad team has been the best in the world over the past few seasons, has said publicly he is struggling to close a deal for a new title sponsor and could pull the plug in late July.

Fairly or not, Contador is likely to remain a lightning rod for discontent. It's easier to boo Contador than to heckle a "system" that has potentially compromised race results before the race begins. If he wins and is suspended retroactively, three of the past six Tour titles -- two won by him and one by Landis -- will have been vacated. Go many steps and many ifs into the future, and imagine the possible impact of an Armstrong prosecution on his legacy. It just may be that spectators are finally fed up with not knowing what they're watching.

The peloton will ride in neutralized procession as it bumps over the pavement of the Passage du Gois, hopefully avoiding the pile-up that marred the race the last time the Tour traversed it in 1999. That crash midway through Stage 2 split the pack and the early time gap helped deliver Armstrong's first Tour victory -- hailed by many as a new start in the season after the Festina scandal popped the trunk on organized doping in the sport.

Twelve years later, with an awful lot of water over that road and under the bridge, cycling remains maddeningly vulnerable.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.