Cycling Ends Ugly Year with Questions Unresolved

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Professional cycling suffered another year of doping scandals, highlighted by trouble at the 2006 Tour de France. The race winner tested positive for testosterone during the race. And several top riders were barred from participating even before the Tour started.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The new year can't come soon enough for the sport of bicycle racing. Major doping scandals, including one at the Tour de France, blotted out the good news in racing this year. 2007 brings talk of reform and hope that the talk becomes reality.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: There are people who love the sport of bicycle racing, and they are having their hearts broken by what's going on at the highest level - like Paul Kimmage. The former professional racer went to this year's Tour de France. Cycling journalist Joe Lindsey recounts what Kimmage told him.

Mr. JOE LINDSEY (Contributing Editor, Bicycling Magazine): And he said that when he went to the Tour this year, he just started to shake with rage because it's the most incredible, beautiful sporting event in the whole world and these people have absolutely ruined it with their actions.

GOLDMAN: Doping has been headline news in the sport since 1998. That's when a drug scandal at the Tour de France almost shut down the race, leading to earnest promises of change and prompting creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Yet '98 pales in comparison to this year.

(Soundbite of sportscast)

Unidentified Male: Floyd Landis has come down the mountain, across the Alps today just in the style of a Hannibal of modern times...

GOLDMAN: Floyd Landis's stunning come-from-behind victory at the Tour de France followed by a positive drug test were the high and then crashing low points of the 2006 season.

Even before the Tour began, several top riders were disqualified for their alleged connections to a far-reaching doping scandal in Spain called Operation Puerto. Racers from a number of teams allegedly went to a central clearinghouse for banned drugs. Pat McQuaid is president of cycling's governing body, the UCI.

Mr. PAT MCQUAID (President, Union Cycliste Internationale): Operation Puerto showed a very, very sophisticated form of doping which was staying underneath the radar of the controls.

GOLDMAN: It's often said reform won't happen until doping affects the economy of sports. That's happening in cycling, says Joe Lindsey, the contributing editor for Bicycling magazine. He estimates the Puerto and Landis scandals have cost the sport $15 million in lost sponsorship.

Mr. LINDSEY: And the sport is starting to look at this and say, hey, wait a minute. If we do not clean things up, if we don't fix things, there won't be a sport before long.

GOLDMAN: An effort to fix has begun. Some top professional teams instituted their own anti-doping programs. The UCI's McQuaid ordered a comprehensive audit of cycling to figure out what changes might insure a cleaner competition. What's really needed, many say, is a cultural change in the sport from one where doping has been tolerated, even encouraged, to one where cheating's not accepted.

The continuing story of former pro-cyclist Frankie Andreu indicates the culture may be changing. Andreu, a one-time teammate of Lance Armstrong's, admitted in 2006 he took banned drugs during his career. In the past, cyclists who've spoken honestly about doping have been ostracized in the sport. Andreu says, for the most part, that hasn't happened to him.

Mr. FRANKIE ANDREU (Professional Cyclist): Definitely got positive feedback from people in the world of cycling wanting a change of direction and glad that, you know, someone spoke up to try to move the sport forward.

GOLDMAN: Andreu says so far he hasn't been blacklisted from his cycling jobs, which include on-air TV work during the Tour de France. That's a hopeful sign to reformers. But the dark clouds over cycling may not lift any time soon. The Operation Puerto investigation creeps along. Skeptics question whether the UCI really is committed to fighting doping. And Floyd Landis's aggressive and public defense against his positive test result will spill into the new year. An initial hearing isn't scheduled until early spring. If he becomes the first champion stripped of his title due to doping, it might not happen until right before the start of next year's Tour.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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