Whatever hope the storied Tour de France had of avoiding doping scandals this year has evaporated, with positive drug tests precipitating the withdrawal of three riders and the dominant Saunier Duval team from Spain.
But largely lost amid the news of riders' failed drug tests is the fact that many top cyclists on the Tour come from a trio of squeaky-clean squads. Though the teams' aggressive antidoping programs and outspoken stances have drawn some grumbles, many say the model they're pioneering could be the key to restoring cycling's sullied reputation.
"These guys are saying they're white as white.... There's a certain amount of waiting for them to slip up," says veteran cycling correspondent William Fotheringham, who notes that one of squads' managers, Bob Stapleton, was met with smugness when a rider of his tested positive last year. Even so, the team – now known as Team Columbia – has won four stages of the Tour de France this year. "I think the other teams are going to look at that and think, 'There must be something in this. Even so, the team has won four stages of the Tour de France this year. "I think the other teams are going to look at that and think, 'There must be something in this.' " [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the team whose rider tested positive.]
The trio – US-based Team Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle and Danish squad CSC Saxo Bank – have consistently had four riders in the Top 10 overall standings throughout the Tour. CSC led the team standings at the end of Tuesday's racing, and its rider Frank Schleck was wearing the coveted yellow jersey as overall leader.
True, these teams can't positively guarantee that their athletes are clean. But their self-policing method of routing out drugs goes much further than existing doping controls, say antidoping experts.
"I've been watching [Stapleton's team] for years, because they're doing some things that I think have a lot of potential for the future of sport," says Don Catlin, a pioneer of antidoping efforts who ran the Olympic drug-testing labs at the 1984, 1996, and 2002 Games. "[Stapleton] loves the sport, he loves cycling … and he wants to see it ... rebuilt. He's trying to do that."
The new model, for which Dr. Catlin serves as a consultant, relies on analyzing an athlete's test results over time. That way, an athlete's urine or blood sample on any given day will be compared with the most accurate control possible: himself. Any spike that departs from that baseline of biological values would strongly suggest drug use – without testers even needing to know what drug caused it.
For Garmin-Chipotle athletes, that means 20 times more tests a year than the International Cycling Union requires – and arms that look like pin cushions. But the weekly testing is worth it, they say.
"I had all these role models growing up who got busted one by one – it was heartbreaking," says team member Steven Cozza, who attended the team's Tour de France send-off in New York last month. "We can pretty much guarantee our fans [that] we're doing this clean."
"It's pretty cool being the forerunners of that," adds teammate and 2008 Olympian Mike Friedman. "It's not just an opportunity, it's a gift."
Meet the chief giver: private investor Doug Ellis.
He wasn't an athlete, and he didn't have a cycling background. But Lance Armstrong caught his eye just as Mr. Ellis was looking for a career change. In 2003, he resolved to help American cyclists become internationally competitive.
After two years of searching for a right fit, he sent former cyclist Jonathan Vaughters an e-mail laying out his mission: to develop a Tour de France-caliber team within four years.
Ellis recalls Mr. Vaughters' response, "I feel like I wrote that e-mail." With that, the team Vaughters started with $50,000 of his own money was on its way to becoming an international phenomenon with an $11 million annual budget. (Some of that is from sponsors Garmin, a GPS maker, and Chipotle, a Mexican restaurant chain.)
Three years later, Vaughters and Ellis are driving the winding roads of France, watching the colorful fruit of their hopes pedal in one great mass ahead of them – something many would have said was impossible in such a short time, even without the strong antidoping stance. The key, says Vaughters in a phone interview, has been to stress hard work and technical perfection over winning.
"Don't expect people to do unnatural things unless you want them to have to take unnatural things to do those things," he says. "But that doesn't mean don't dare to dream."
Many would have said he'd be dreaming to think one of his riders could be ranked sixth, but that's where Garmin-Chipotle's Christian Vande Velde stood after the racing Tuesday. Vaughters and his team share a conviction that cycling can turn around by taking a bold antidoping stand.
"It's too great of a sport to turn our back on it," says team member Cozza. "It's a movement for all sports, not just cycling."