Cyclists Make A Comeback, But Will Cycling Follow? 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 the end of a highly publicized doping suspension. The presence of these two men alone is enough to stir things up in a sport already bubbling with controversy.
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Cyclists Make A Comeback, But Will Cycling Follow?

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Cyclists Make A Comeback, But Will Cycling Follow?

Cyclists Make A Comeback, But Will Cycling Follow?

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

A mass of colorful jerseys and whirling spokes today as the best bicycle road racers in the world set off from Davis, California. It was the start of Stage one of the Tour of California. The eight-stage race runs until next Sunday.

Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong is competing. It's his first road race in the U.S. since he came out of retirement last year. It's also a comeback appearance for American Floyd Landis, his first race 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. NPR's Tom Goldman has more.

TOM GOLDMAN: Any hope Floyd Landis had of a quiet reentry to competitive cycling was blown apart yesterday. It was the Tour of California's opening event called the Prologue, a 2.4-mile timed sprint around downtown Sacramento. Landis was moments away from his turn when the race announcer delivered an introduction with an edge.

Unidentified Man: 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. 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. The 2006 winner of the Tour de Georgia and the Amgen Tour of California, new team, new fire in his belly that'll burst forth in just a few seconds. Do you believe? Welcome, Floyd Landis.

(Soundbite of applause)

GOLDMAN: Whatever officials paid this race announcer, it wasn't enough. After all, who else in the sport has dared to proclaim the absolute end of cycling's doping problem? Indeed, even as Landis powered through the streets of Sacramento, some watching from the sidewalk still were conflicted.

Mr. MARK SHAW (Spectator, Tour de California): After Floyd rode Stage 17 in the Tour, I was on cloud nine.

GOLDMAN: Forty-seven-year-old Mark Shaw straddled a lime-green racing bike and wore a tight-fitting racing jersey, helmet and sunglasses. He's from Roseville, outside of Sacramento, and 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.

Mr. SHAW: I guess it's the belief that's gone, you know, and I wanted to believe in Floyd, and I wanted to believe in that effort. Yeah, it hurt.

GOLDMAN: Standing next to Shaw was Spence Gerber. He races for a local bike shop in Folsom. Every time a racer zipped by, Gerber shook a small, blue cowbell. I asked him what he felt about Landis being in the race as well as Tyler Hamilton and Ivan Basso, who also served doping suspensions.

Mr. SPENCE GERBER (Spectator, Tour de California): You know, watching them come by, I think everybody should get a second chance. But it's caused me to be a little more cynical about great performances. But again, from an entertainment standpoint, it is entertaining, so I'll take that piece of it with me.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cowbell)

GOLDMAN: Some of those inside the sport shared the conflicting emotions about Landis, Basso and Hamilton.

Mr. BOB STAPLETON (Owner, Team Columbia-High Road): 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.

GOLDMAN: Bob Stapleton has tried to do something about cycling's tattered image for the past two years. He owns Team Columbia-High Road. It's one of pro cycling's most successful teams not only in terms of winning, but as he explained a few days ago, in terms of riders' behavior.

Mr. STAPLETON: We have a very tough contract that covers all forms of misconduct. 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.

GOLDMAN: Along with another team, Garmin-Chipotle, Stapleton has led the way with rigorous drug testing of its athletes. Up-and-coming Columbia racer Mark Cavendish was tested on average more than once a week last year, and both teams also use highly respected anti-doping scientist Don Catlin to monitor their team testing.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: The comeback kid is back in the USA. Lance Armstrong is on the course.

(Soundbite of applause)

GOLDMAN: Lance Armstrong had planned a personal testing program with Don Catlin, but he scrapped it this week. Too difficult to carry out, he said, and too expensive. Yesterday, as Armstrong broke from the starter's gate, the lingering questions about him and banned drugs seemed more a media concern than a fan concern. For the whooping spectators, Armstrong was back. For his teammate, Levi Leipheimer, the Lance factor was huge.

Mr. LEVI LEIPHEIMER (Professional Cyclist): There's more media attention, more fans, and it's a great thing. We need it right now.

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News, Sacramento.

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