Commentary

Murky road ahead for Tour de France

Rigors of iconic race's route tame in comparison to challenges still facing sport

Updated: October 24, 2012, 5:29 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

The route of the 100th Tour de France will start on the rugged island of Corsica, flirt with the Mediterranean coast on its way to the Pyrenees, traverse Brittany and cross a time-trial finish line in the enchanting shadow of Mont St. Michel, wheel diagonally southeast to Provence, grind up windswept, barren Mont Ventoux, scale Alpe d'Huez twice in the same day, and end three weeks and 2,100 miles after it began with an unprecedented nighttime curtain call in Paris.

That's the easy part.

A majority of riders will finish. Someone will stand on the temporary podium on the Champs-Elysees and hoist the deep blue porcelain vase awarded to the winner. The masses behind the barriers, and millions more watching on television, will likely celebrate with a certain reserve, wondering if the champion will retain first place one or two or five or 10 years hence. And that would be understandable given the way the race's recent history has been forcibly revised.

There is no sport with a bigger credibility fight on its hands than cycling, and no event where genuine romance coexists so uncomfortably with hideous reality than the Tour de France. If baseball, in the oft-quoted words of late commissioner Bart Giamatti, was designed to break hearts, professional bike racing seems meant to do that and blow up the cerebral cortex as well.

Lance Armstrong's doping-infested dynasty has collapsed under the weight of lies and the emperor's branded clothing has fallen away. There is precious little integrity, structural or otherwise, in the Tour standings for a lengthy stretch starting with the mid-1990s. It is the hope of many, including the Tour organizers themselves, that cycling's governing body leaves Armstrong's titles vacant and dispenses with the futile exercise of determining who should inherit them.

Cycling is brutal to write about in many ways, but it also holds up an authentic mirror for human nature, and that's never been more true than right now.

Amid the nonstop news deluge of the last few weeks, many readers have asked me whether cycling is still worth following, which riders they can believe in, and whether they are foolish to feel any affection for the sport.

I can only answer for myself. I will keep covering it. Cycling is brutal to write about in many ways, but it also holds up an authentic mirror for human nature, and that's never been more true than right now.

Over the last 14 years, cycling has taught me to quit making assumptions and anointing saviors, and to live with the tension that some nice guys cheat, some abrasive guys don't, and it's always possible that someone who looks you in the eye multiple times in multiple interviews isn't who he says he is. Dwelling with that tension makes me feel fidgety and unmoored sometimes, but isn't that where we frequently live everywhere else? In politics, business, our relationships? Why expect bike racing to be any different?

Cycling has forever disabused me of the notion that there are clear-cut crossroads and turning points in any field of endeavor, let alone athletic competition. When officials and journalists and riders and directors declared that the 1998 Festina scandal would change everything, all that message did was provide a smoke screen for doping to find other pathways. The Armstrong purge has already rid cycling of some toxic people, but the sport is not down to the dry heaves quite yet and bears close scrutiny.

I personally can't wait to see what happens next. Can the UCI ever be transformed into a constructive guardian of the sport? Or will it take a full-on rebellion, a rump league, more cataclysm in an already chaotic environment to prod real change? And if so, how will sponsors respond?

What role might be played by the athletes whose confessions tipped the balance in the Armstrong saga? Can younger riders not only resist the old culture but help create a new one? Or is that too much to load on athletes who are still learning how to get their minds and bodies from point A to point B on any given day? And if not them, who?

[+] EnlargeTour Route
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty ImagesPast Tour de France winners Andy Schleck (left), Alberto Contador and Bradley Wiggins listen in during Wednesday's route announcement in Paris.

The other thing cycling has led me to believe and understand is that I don't know squat about what's going on elsewhere. Dysfunctional though it may be, professional cycling has still tested more strategically, invested more in anti-doping efforts per team and per athlete, and caught more scofflaws than other sports.

I'd like to think we're through with Dr. Ferrari-style datebooks, with teams engaging in mass fraternal transfusions, with contraband-carrying motorcycle couriers. But it would be the height of delusion to suppose that cyclists are a radically different species than the general population of elite athletes. Doping lurks wherever competition is held. The challenge is whether it's possible to accept that and still enjoy the spectacle.

Cycling was a sport that catered to myth and magical thinking long before the U.S. audience took notice of it in the 1980s, thanks to triple and now sole American Tour winner Greg LeMond. I think it still has the power to awe and fascinate.

The route of the 2013 Tour de France will wind past castles and river gorges and immaculate vineyards. The crowds will show up with bedsheet banners bedecking their camper vans. The French will spread out fabulous roadside picnics and the Dutch fans will tailgate for days on "their" switchback on Alpe d'Huez. Riders will attack and fade and crash and regroup. Some will spout nonsense and others will do and say amazing things.

The Tour is a beautiful event that has survived an incredible amount of ugliness. And that is why I consider it the most real and compelling road of any I've ever traveled.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.