Tour de France: Old race finds new lease of life without the need for drugs

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The Independent Online

This afternoon, just as they have done for the past 23 years, the survivors of the Tour de France will speed up and down the Champs-Elysées in the race's largely symbolic final stage.

But another more recent, gloomier, tradition – that of questioning the Tour's long-term future as Paris looms into view, with the succession of drug-related stories the main culprit – could finally be broken. Among officials and race followers there is a mood of quiet optimism that the penny may have finally dropped that continued cheating was destroying the sport.

"The Tour has really renewed itself," argues Pierre Bordry, the director of the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD). His proof? "No single rider has crushed the opposition in this year's event." Yet he admits: "But a sword of Damocles has to hang over all the riders, right down to the last guy on the general classification."

That Bordry's optimism should be so guarded is only logical. Prior to heading on to the Champs-Elysées, the riders will have pedalled past the AFLD headquarters at Châtenay-Malabry, the same laboratory which revealed three days after the race that the 2006 Tour winner, Floyd Landis, had tested positive for artificial testosterone. This week, long after the barriers have been carted away from the Parisian streets, the AFLD's tests will continue.

In any case, a hat-trick of positive cases on the 2008 Tour indicates cycling's battle against doping is far from resolved. But Bordry's words are confirmed from within the peloton. "Things are changing, they're more equal than they used to be," says the Scot David Millar, riding his sixth Tour. "It's just not going to be an overnight process."

"Compared with this time 12 months ago, we're in a much better place," says France's cycling hero of the 1960s, Raymond Poulidor. "It's encouraging."

The race itself – one of the most gripping in recent Tour history – has contributed in no small part to this sense of renewal. "There's been a lot more suspense than in previous years," confirms Bordry – and he is not, thankfully, just talking about the doping tests. The yellow jersey has changed hands no fewer than seven times in the three-week race, with time differences – even after major mountain stages – still measured in seconds.

With the exception of the Australian Cadel Evans, none of the top faces has finished on the Paris podium in previous years, again contributing to a sense of freshness. The new kid on the block who has had the biggest impact on the Tour is undoubtedly the Briton Mark Cavendish, a four-time winner in the sprints this year, while a stunning final week for Andy Schleck of Luxembourg has proved he is a future candidate for overall victory. Both are just 23.

"Mark is going to give so much more to this race," says Brian Holm, Cavendish's sports director at Columbia. Thanks to the Manxman, Great Britain was the most successful nation in terms of stage wins on this Tour, and Cavendish is now planning an assault on the green pointsjersey in 2009.

As for the race itself, it has remained a part of the social fabric of local communities, seemingly impervious to the scandals. On a tiny climb outside the town of Saint-Chamond on Stage 18 for example, some 60 children from a local youth club turned out for the race, complete with home-made flags, a specially designed "present-catcher" to get as many free gifts from the Tour's publicity caravan, and even a large wheelie bin as an anti-doping gesture.

Further up the same climb, a Californian cyclist doing the "Tour of Europe" passed the time with the 90-strong fan club for the local Tour rider Cyril Dessel.

A Belgian couple in a caravan had stopped there, purely because their village back in Flanders was called Dessel, and were tucking into the barbecue. Some Breton cycling supporters had opted to support Dessel "not because we like himvery much, but because we're tolerant in Brittany".

That such grass-roots fans have stuck with the sport through thick and thin is probably the most encouraging factor of all. Disillusionment with some stars has not led to a mass abandonment of cycling's biggest race.

So if cycling's doping problems are far from resolved, new solutions, combined with old traditions, do appear to be working. Better late than never.