The Tour de France begins today on France's west coast, and the best riders will share the same goal: win cycling's most prestigious race and beat Alberto Contador, the Spanish rider who has dominated the event the past two years.
But this year, in a strange twist, finishing second to Contador might not mean defeat. Even after the Tour ends July 24 in Paris, that runnerup might still have a chance to claim the 2011 title.
Contador tested positive for clenbuterol, a banned weight-loss and muscle-building drug, at last year's Tour, and a hearing scheduled for Aug. 1-3 at the Court of Arbitration for Sport will determine whether he should be barred from competing. He insists he is innocent and failed the test because he ate contaminated beef.
If the court rules against him, he will be stripped of his 2010 Tour title and any other victories since then — including this year's Giro d'Italia crown and, perhaps, this year's Tour title.
"It's really hard to understand why he's still racing," said Rolf Aldag, team manager of the HTC-Highroad squad and a former Tour rider. "I'm not sure why they couldn't make a quicker decision about whether he is guilty or not. The problem is that everything is so up in the air right now, and that's not good for anybody."
For a sport battling its image as one filled with dopers, Contador's participation in the Tour ushers in yet another awkward period for cycling.
In 2006, Floyd Landis tested positive for testosterone after his Tour win and was stripped of the title. In 1998, the Festina team was kicked out of the Tour for doping. Top finishers, including 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis, have admitted they used drugs to boost their performance.
But this year, the cloud of doping over the Tour has a much farther reach. Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour winner, is not competing after retiring this year, but allegations of his doping will be a hot topic.
For some fans, though, scandals are just another part of cycling, said Bob Stapleton, who owns the HTC-Highroad team.
"The problem is some fans are used to this controversy, and it has actually become part of the appeal," he said. "In Europe, there's almost an addiction to this supermarket drama, this soap-opera drama. It wouldn't be the Tour de France without it."
Organizers are not thrilled Contador is going for his third straight Tour win with an unresolved doping positive. But they must live with it because the Spanish cycling federation in February absolved him of wrongdoing, clearing him to race.
The case did not have to unfold this way. After the International Cycling Union and the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed the Spanish cycling federation's ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the hearing was scheduled for June, but one of Contador's lawyers could not make that date.
Phil Liggett, the British commentator for Versus and NBC who will be working his 39th Tour, said the real victim of Contador's unanswered questions could be the sport itself, particularly if the court rules against him and his Tour titles are stripped from him.
"It will make the sport a laughingstock," Liggett said.