JOHN YDSTIE, host:
The Tour de France, the world's preeminent cycling race, starts tomorrow in London. But this year's contest is about more than just the grueling three-week, 2,200-mile course; it's also about a doping scandal that has tarnished cycling's image. Andrew Hood covers cycling for VeloNews and joins us now from London. Good morning, Andrew.
Mr. ANDREW HOOD (Reporter, VeloNews): Good morning.
YDSTIE: Get us up to speed - where do all of last year's doping cases stand?
Mr. HOOD: Well, that's an ongoing struggle. These cases seemed to just go on and on and on. The major case facing cycling right now is the doping hearing of Floyd Landis, the winner of last year's tour. That's still unresolved. Landis last year won the Tour de France but later tested positive for uneven or high testosterone levels. He had an arbitration hearing in May in California. A decision could come down as soon as today, but we're expecting within the next two weeks to find out.
YDSTIE: Doping isn't just a recent phenomenon in cycling. There have been allegations of substance abuse for nearly a hundred years, right?
Mr. HOOD: That's correct. This sport is so demanding and so difficult. There's been stories of cheaters all the way back from the early 1900s, even riders jumping on trains and skipping ahead during stages. What really changed in the last 1990s was the arrival of EPO, a blood booster which helps riders increase their capacity to carry oxygen, which is so important for any aerobic sport.
YDSTIE: What are officials doing this year to try to deal with the scandal and improve the sport's image?
Mr. HOOD: Well, they're doing several things. First off, they've been very up front about it. They're saying, okay, it's a zero tolerance across the board. Riders are required to sign an anti-doping pledge before this year's tour, which gives them approval to use DNA testing later for anti-doping tests as well as a threat of having to pay a year's salary if they do get caught. They've done extra out-of-competition tests this year. They've done 160 tests in the last three months leading up to the tour. Many teams are also doing intensive internal testing because that's really where the problem lied in the past. The sport knows any more scandals, any more bad publicity, the sport could just be crippled.
YDSTIE: Certainly this doping scandal has put a cloud over this year's race. What's the mood?
Mr. HOOD: You know, cycling just lives in a surreal world sometimes. Because from the outside, it's the bad headlines of the doping scandal, but once you get into the race, the race seems to kind of kick in. Fans have not stopped coming to watch the bike race. Expectations are for massive crowds along the roads here in London for the prologue on Saturday. But this year really is kind of the crossroads for cycling for its credibility.
YDSTIE: Has the tour suffered financially from the scandals? Are sponsors pulling out for instance?
Mr. HOOD: For the actual race so far, no. Many of the cycling teams, however, have had difficulty finding sponsors to underwrite the team's budget. Lance Armstrong's former team, the Discovery Channel, is leaving at the end of this year. They're having troubles finding a new sponsor because America, especially corporate America, is hesitant about signing on on a sport with so many doping scandals recently.
YDSTIE: Let's talk about the race. Who are the frontrunners going in?
Mr. HOOD: We have a collection of riders. There's no defending champion on this year's tour, which is kind of unique. One American, Levi Leipheimer, who could do very well. He's finished three times in the top 10. We have a Russian, Denis Menchov. We have a Kazak, Alexandre Vinokourov. We have an Australian with Cadel Evans. All these riders could finish. We don't know what's going to happen at this race. It's wide open.
YDSTIE: Thanks a lot.
Mr. HOOD: Okay. Thank you.
YDSTIE: Andrew Hood is the European correspondent for VeloNews. He spoke with us from London, where the Tour de France begins tomorrow.