The Tour of California is Lance Armstrong's first road race in the U.S. since he came out of retirement last year. It's a comeback appearance for American Floyd Landis, too — his first since a highly publicized doping suspension ended. The presence of these two men alone is enough to stir things up in a sport already bubbling with controversy.
A mass of colorful jerseys and whirling spokes swirled off as the best bicycle road racers in the world set off on a 2.4-mile timed sprint around downtown Sacramento on Saturday. Any hope Landis had of a quiet reentry into competitive cycling after a doping suspension was blown apart quickly. Landis was moments away from his turn during the Tour of California's opening event when the race announcer launched into an introduction.
"If today is about comebacks and belief, then here is an equally compelling story," the announcer called out. "The drug scandals in cycling split the cycling world into believers and nonbelievers. That's all behind us now — let baseball and the other sports deal with it."
Having declared the end of cycling's doping problem, the announcer focused on Landis. "We're now in a new day, and here's the guy that wants to prove that he's healthy and able to regain his position on the top step of the podium." His voice rose as Landis hit the turn. "New team, new fire in his belly that'll burst forth in just a few seconds — do you believe? Welcome, Floyd Landis!"
Even as Landis powered through the streets of Sacramento, some watching from the sidewalk were still conflicted.
"After Floyd rode stage 17 in the Tour [de France], I was on cloud nine," said 47-year-old Mark Shaw as he straddled a lime green racing bike. Shaw, decked out in a tightfitting racing jersey, helmet and sunglasses, is from Roseville, outside of Sacramento. He races locally. Shaw wistfully recalled how Landis won the Tour de France in 2006 and then was stripped of the title after a positive drug test.
"I guess it's the belief that's gone," he laughs. "You know, I wanted to believe in Floyd and I wanted to believe in that effort. Yeah, it hurt."
Standing next to Shaw, Spence Gerber shook a small, blue cowbell every time a racer zipped by. Gerber races for a local bike shop in Folsom. "I think everybody should get a second chance, but it's caused me to be a little more cynical about great performances," he said. "From an entertainment standpoint, it is entertaining, so I'll take that piece of it with me."
Landis isn't the only rider tainted by scandal in the Tour of California this week. Racers Tyler Hamilton and Ivan Basso also served doping suspensions.
"All these guys raise provocative issues. And the point is not to suppress that or control that — the point is to listen to that and then do something about it," says Bob Stapleton, owner of Team Columbia-High Road, one of pro cycling's most successful teams. Stapleton has tried to do something about cycling's tattered image by setting a standard for riders' behavior.
"We have a very tough contract that covers all forms of misconduct," Stapleton says. "I come from a business environment, you know, getting your basic rules of conduct in contracts is an important thing to have. And there's no opportunity for any cheating in this team. None."
Along with another team, Garmin-Chipotle, Columbia-High Road has led the way with rigorous drug testing of its athletes. Stapleton notes that up-and-coming Columbia racer Mark Cavendish was tested on average more than once a week last year. Columbia-High Road and Garmin-Chipotle also use highly respected anti-doping scientist Don Catlin to monitor their team testing.
Back at the race, the announcer sighted another cycling star. "The comeback kid is back in the USA," he called to a rising cheer. "Lance Armstrong is on the course!"
Saturday was Armstrong's first road race in the U.S. since he came out of retirement last year. Armstrong scrapped his own highly publicized personal anti-doping program with Catlin just last week. It was too difficult to carry out, Armstrong said, and too expensive. But Saturday, as he broke from the starter's gate, the lingering questions surrounding Armstrong and banned drugs seemed more a concern for the media than fans. For the whooping spectators, Lance was back.
Armstrong's teammate Levi Leipheimer welcomed the enthusiasm. "The extra attention because of the 'Lance factor' was a great thing for cycling," he said. "We need it right now."