Drug-fuelled scandals have left successive Tours de France reeling from an ever-increasing credibility gap, so it was sadly logical that the unveiling of the 2008 race route in Paris yesterday was overshadowed by the question of doping.
But, for once, amid the familiar clouds of pessimism about cycling's future, there was an overwhelming feeling that a key corner could have been turned thanks to the latest development in the battle against banned substances: biological passports.
A congress earlier in the week in Paris, devoted exclusively to the drugs issue in cycling, concluded with the announcement that the passports – essentially a record of the baseline levels of a rider's biological 'markers' – will be made obligatory for all top professionals from January 2008. Come the Tour de France start on 5 July in Brest, any rider whose passport shows values judged excessively erratic will not be allowed to take part.
"If it's going to improve the sport's image, then it's seriously good news," the 2007 Tour de France winner, Alberto Contador, told The Independent. "We'll have to see how it works at a practical level, it may be difficult to control so many riders. It's just a pity that we have to discuss this when the route of cycling's biggest race is about to be revealed, but I think that's inevitable given what happened this summer. If this is what it takes, it's what it takes."
According to the French health minister for sport, Roselyne Bachelot, what makes the passports such a radical new step is that "it doesn't follow products, it follows the athlete." Too great a change in the athletes physiological values, regardless of what has been consumed, would result in suspension.
Even long-term doubters like Dick Pound – the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency who once famously said cycling's image was "in the toilet" and the sport was "close to clinical denial about the extent of the [doping] problem" – appear to have changed their mind thanks to this new initiative. At the end of the congress Pound was so pleased with the progress, he even consented to a photo and handshake with Bachelot and Pat McQuaid, president of cycling's governing body, the UCI, who once accused Pound of "trying to kill off the sport".
A few months ago such a unified approach would have been unthinkable. "This is a new day," said Pound. "We are trying to work with cycling to help insofar as we can. We've had enough of [doping] affairs."
Patrice Clerc, head of the Tour organisers, said yesterday: "If this works, we'll be showing the other sports a new way forward. With these measures, we will have the means of turning the page." Such optimism was met with caution by one of the weakest links in cycling's food chain, the teams – backed purely by commercial sponsors.
"It's a good move, but nobody should think that this is the end of doping," said Patrick Lefevre, manager of the Quick Step squad.
Saunier Duval's manager Mauro Gianetti added: "It's not the absolute solution. We need clear actions, to know for sure if a rider is guilty or not. If the biological passport can do that, then so much the better." Asked if he would suspend a rider purely as a result of the passport's conclusions, Gianetti said he would.
"No amount of testing will ever resolve all the key questions of doping," Valerio Piva, sports director at the T-Mobile team, believes. "What works best is a change of mentality in the individual, the realisation he should not cheat. We shouldn't just be looking at new measures, because apart from anything else, in doping the criminals are all too often one step ahead of the law."
Piva is perhaps right to be so cautious, given that previous UCI initiatives to eradicate the problem have not worked. There can be no doubt, though, that something fundamental had to be done to clean up cycling: this summer's images of race leader Michael Rasmussen quitting the Tour in disgrace after he was accused of lying about his training programs will remain long in the minds of the public.
Pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov's positive test for blood transfusion was an equally huge blow. By the time the Tour reached Paris, once again – just as after the 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis positive for synthetic testosterone – it was on its knees.
Crisis situations call for crisis solutions. But for a sport like cycling living permanently on the knife-edge of credibility, such sophisticated anti-doping weaponry like biological passports could prove to be a double-edged sword. No practical tests will have been carried out on the viability of the passports before 2008. Cycling will therefore be the true guinea pig for sport as a whole, and if past Tours are anything to go by, the guinea pig's life expectation looks low. This is not due to lack of trying. According to the French minister of sport, cycling already has more than twice the number of tests of the second most tested discipline, athletics.
Yet the yawning credibility gap remains unbridged. If, and it is a huge if, cycling manages to clean up its act via the biological passports then it will be seen as a huge step forward. But should this Tour be blighted by doping again then this latest weapon will be dismissed as yet another failed PR exercise and for many fans, cycling will have taken the wrong exit from the last chance saloon.
Clean-up act: Biological passports explained
Originally conceived after the 2006 Winter Olympics, biological passports are medical profiles of athletes, created via blood samples taken at different times during the season. In the case of cycling, six samples will be taken in the first half of the year, at least one being a random check.
Cycling's governing body, UCI, already holds riders' medical profiles and when combined with biological passports they will be able to determine any erratic changes from a rider's average, which will result in suspension.
At the insistence of the Tour de France, the tests will be carried out by an independent body, probably WADA. The cost of the program is estimated to be around £2.5m, much of which will be funded by the cycling teams. The French Ministry of Sport estimates between 500 and 700 passports will be completed in time for the Tour start on 5 July.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content