LEEDS, England — The Tour de France, cycling's big event, begins today through bucolic countryside in northern England, where officials have paid for the right to host the event, hoping to draw tourists, capture media attention and feed the cycling craze among Britons.
Generating such enthusiasm could first require getting over the belief that after Lance Armstrong's doping exposure, the sport still is dogged by drugs cheats. Cycling chiefs and experts generally agree the era of widespread doping is over, but few would claim to know that today's pack is fully clean.
The sport's governing body, UCI, is again teaming up with French anti-doping agency AFLD to test riders. Blood checks will be carried out on all riders before today's first leg from Leeds to Harrogate, the first of three stages in Britain. Britain's anti-doping agency will also be involved.
AFLD will use data from the UCI's biological passport program to target possible cheats, along with information from a specialized French police unit.
Two riders who were expected to compete were suspended by their teams before the race. South Africa's Daryl Impey, who last year became the first African to wear the leader's yellow jersey, failed a drug test in February and was removed by Orica-GreenEdge. Roman Kreuziger — a key climbing lieutenant of Alberto Contador on Tinkoff-Saxo — was dropped because of anomalies in his biological passport detected in 2011 and 2012.
Four well-known doping offenders will be at the start line: Contador, stripped of the 2010 Tour title and suspended for two years after testing positive for clenbuterol in the final week of the '10 race; Alejandro Valverde, banned for two years in 2010 for involvement in Operation Puerto, which ensnared dozens of riders over secretly stored blood bags; Rui Costa, who tested positive for the stimulant methylhexanamine in 2010 and had a one-year ban reduced to five months on appeal; and Frank Schleck, banned one year ban for a positive test for a diuretic during the 2012 Tour.