Discovery Channel team searching for its next identity

LONDON -- Cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular might be in tremendous flux, but one thing is reminiscent of years past. An American rider has a chance to win the race and the lone U.S. team in the Tour is built to deliver him to the podium.

It's an odd, schizophrenic time for the Discovery Channel team, the squad that in this and its former incarnation as U.S. Postal Service earned seven Tour victories for Lance Armstrong.

Rocked by the departure of co-leader Ivan Basso after his admission of involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping case in Spain, still without a primary sponsor to replace the Discovery network's parent company at the end of this year, the team has had its only positive news on the road -- and plenty of it.

Levi Leipheimer, who has three top-10 Tour finishes since 2002, began the season strongly with an overall victory in the Tour of California. His Spanish teammate, Alberto Contador, captured first place in the prestigious Paris-Nice race, and the team notched good results in several other important races in Europe and North America.

On the sporting side, the biggest question facing Discovery is whether it can lift Leipheimer to a podium finish or even make him the fourth American rider to win the Tour. But on the economic side, the fact that one of the most successful teams in the sport's recent history hasn't nailed down a sponsor this late in the year is a sign of just how destructive the deluge of doping news has been. Teams traditionally start finalizing next year's rider contracts during the Tour.

General manager Bill Stapleton said he is "hyper-focused'' on finding the right sponsor to sign a three- to five-year deal, but talks have been markedly different from those of years past.

It's the first time the team has tried to land a sponsor without Armstrong's powerful marketing appeal; he rode during the first season of Discovery's three-year contract in 2005. The team is casting a wider net, reaching out to multi-national companies based outside the United States, although Stapleton said the team wants to retain an American identity and will continue to seek out top U.S. riders.

Finally, Stapleton said he has been forced to put the doping issue on the table up front.

"I start the conversation with it,'' he said. "You have to address the reasons someone would say no. If we don't address it, we're on the defensive.

"It's an easy thing for a chief marketing officer [of a potential sponsor] to say no to right now, but you have to have the long view. Somebody who does it is going to look smart in 12 months. It's still a good value compared to Formula One, World Cup soccer, or the Olympics.''

In other words, cycling's stock is low right now, a situation the sport is scrambling to address by hitting riders where it hurts the most -- their wallets. The UCI, cycling's international governing body, announced two weeks ago that riders would be asked to sign a "charter'' worded like an oath, promising they would not use performance-enhancing drugs and agreeing to give DNA samples on request. They also would forfeit a year's salary in addition to being suspended if they are busted.

Discovery's sports director, Johan Bruyneel, told reporters on a conference call last week that the document "will ultimately be signed by all our riders before the Tour de France.'' He also addressed the question of internal team testing, which has attracted attention to the programs at CSC and T-Mobile.

"I'm not saying it's not useful, but honestly, I don't see that those two teams can do anything compared to what's already done,'' he said. "The biggest advantage for those teams is to get their credibility back.

"We as a team are also doing internal testing and it's stricter than the UCI rules, but we're not making a lot of noise about it.''

Bruyneel said that doping and the political infighting rife in the sport are crippling threats to its credibility. Leipheimer lamented the fact that if he wins, many would question the legitimacy of the accomplishment.

"We need to come up with a way to convince people that everyone isn't cheating,'' he said.

The team also continues to deal with allegations of doping during Armstrong's tenure, most recently in a new book by journalist David Walsh. The book includes support rider Frankie Andreu's admission that he doped during the 1999 season and Andreu's description of the pressures riders felt to cheat to stay competitive. Armstrong has denied drug use, and the team has denied systematic doping.

As the sport tries to restore fans' faith, Discovery will try to regain its accustomed place at the front of the Tour peloton. Last year's experiment, in which Bruyneel appointed George Hincapie, Yaroslav Popovych and Paolo Savoldelli as "co-leaders'' fizzled out when the team didn't seem to be able to change racing styles.

The results reflected that. Popovych won the team's lone stage and Jose Azevedo was its highest placed rider overall at 19th, 38 minutes off the winning pace.

For Leipheimer, this year's Tour is the culmination of a journey that has as many switchbacks as a mountain stage. The 33-year-old Montana native was considered more of a worker bee than a leader until he scored a surprise third place in the 2001 Tour of Spain.

Aware that Postal was then completely Armstrong-centric, Leipheimer left to assume the leader's role with the Dutch Rabobank team and then with Germany-based Gerolsteiner. He's finished inside the top 10 all three times he's finished the race and had to abandon on two occasions because of injury or illness.

Bruyneel said the team will be focused on supporting Leipheimer but still has some other "cards to play.'' Paris-Nice winner Contador, 24, is what Bruyneel likes to call a disruptive force who can improvise and attack when the opportunity is right, and one of Discovery's secondary goals will be to keep him in contention for the Best Young (under-25) Rider's white jersey.

"We have to take whatever we can take,'' Bruyneel told ESPN.com this spring. "If there's a stage win in the first week we should take it.''

The Belgian director said he thinks the team is stronger and more competitively flexible than last year's squad. It's one of the most diverse bunches, both in terms of nationality and experience, that Discovery or Postal has ever fielded. Hincapie will be riding in his 12th Tour and is always among the contenders in the opening prologue time trial.

Popovych, the talented Ukranian rider who was to be the team's leader in the Tour of Italy before he was forced to abandon due to the lingering effects of a crash, has two Tours under his belt and will be a key escort for Leipheimer in the mountain stages.

Spanish domestiques Egoi Martinez and Benjamin Noval have raced for the Tour team previously, while Russia's Vladimir Gusev, Sergio Paulinho of Portugal and Tomas Vaitkus of Lithuania are making their Tour debuts.

In somewhat of a surprise, Tom Danielson, the late-blooming ex-mountain biker who has been gradually groomed for a future leader's role, was left out of the Tour nine. Bruyneel said he was forced to pass over Danielson because of continuing stomach problems that affected his fitness in tuneup races.

Until this past spring, the team had been planning to ride for Basso, the 2006 Tour of Italy winner for his former CSC team and two-time podium finisher in the Tour de France. But long-simmering rumors of Basso's involvement in Operacion Puerto boiled over in May when he admitted he had banked blood at the Madrid clinic of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, the central figure in the scandal.

Discovery announced that Basso had left the team voluntarily shortly before he told the Italian media, "I am Birillo,'' referring to the code name authorities found on the blood bags. Italian cycling authorities have suspended him until October 2008.

Discovery came in for significant criticism when the team signed Basso late last year. Although the Operacion Puerto investigation never resulted in any formal charges because of a legal technicality, Basso was suspended and then fired by CSC last summer and a number of teams said they would not take on any riders implicated in the case. However, when Basso's professional license was reinstated by Italian sports authorities, Discovery snapped him up.

"The Basso situation was challenging and disappointing,'' Stapleton said. "He was cleared by every organization that could clear him. We put in his contract that if something [legal] came up, he would have to give DNA. I believed Ivan. A lot of the teams that were righteous about the issue are now facing the same problems.

"We were wrong and I'll take responsibility for that. But at the time I made the decision I thought it was a good decision.''

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.