The storied Tour, dogged in recent years by doping scandals and a post-Lance lull, returns with not only Mr. Armstrong himself, but also strong teams that have pioneered a new "clean" culture.
The peloton – composed of 219 riders from 22 teams – started July 3 in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, then headed south. The first week includes stops in Wanze, Belgium – distinguished for turning beetroot into bioethanol – and Épernay, the capital of Champagne. It also includes an unusual number of bike-rattling cobblestone sections, which are normally reserved for one-day races, not a taxing three-week event like the Tour.
From northeastern France, the 2010 Tour then follows the Loire River toward Geneva. There the alpine climbing begins, taking riders past the 1992 Olympic site of Albertville and continuing clockwise around France to the Pyrenees before ending in Paris.
Armstrong, who placed third last year after coming out of retirement, is looking for a final victory to cap his illustrious career – including seven straight wins. But at 38, he faces formidable competitors in two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador – 11 years his junior – and 2005 runner-up Ivan Basso, who has come back strong after a two-year doping suspension.
In the brief time that Basso has been out of the mix, many say the sport's deeply entrenched culture of doping has been largely turned around.
Former riders – most recently, defrocked 2006 winner Floyd Landis – have broken the code of silence, outlining what they say was a systemic use of drugs. German TV's 2007 decision to pull the plug mid-race on Tour coverage confronted cycling with the financial liability of not cleaning up the sport.
Meanwhile, a trio of teams launched stringent antidoping regimes in which they policed their own riders with far more tests than are required. After a modest debut, Garmin-Slipstream and Saxo Bank finished second and third in 2009 Tour team standings, with two riders in the top 5.
They're off to an even better start this year. After Stage 3, Fabian Cancellara and his Saxo Bank team were leading the overall standings, with Garmin in second. Watch for them to prove that it's possible to win clean.