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For three weeks they admired his matador's daring, his dark good looks and his abundant charisma. But as Spain's precocious Alberto Contador stepped onto the podium and the strains of La Marcha Real filled the Champs-�lys�es, cycling fans had one overwhelming thought: Please, God, let this kid be clean. � This being an odd-numbered year, the Tour�de France proceeded in a clockwise direction around the countryside, like water swirling down a commode. That appeared to be the destination of this event--indeed, this sport--during the most scandal-scarred Tour ever. In one 36-hour period last week, three riders (including the race leader) and two teams were cast out of the race.
Resolute optimists regarded the positives and subsequent ejections as a painful but necessary step. Here, they insisted, was evidence--however ill-timed and embarrassing--that the more sophisticated tests and targeted antidoping program instituted in the last year by the UCI, cycling's governing body, were working. David Millar, an outspoken Scot who has emerged as the peloton's self-appointed antidrug crusader, went so far as to say that this Tour had been "the cleanest, or one of the cleanest, we've ever done. That doesn't mean there's no doping. It's just not as prevalent as it once was."
Speaking several hours after Sunday's final stage, Millar also announced that he was signing with Slipstream/Chipotle, a relatively new American squad best known for its argyle jerseys and a comprehensive, cutting-edge antidoping program in which team members are tested weekly by an independent agency. Slipstream is planning to sign American riders Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde and is expected to receive a wild-card bid to next year's Tour. Which means there will be at least one U.S.-based team in the race.
Another remarkable testament to cycling's woes: After its eighth Tour victory in nine years, the Discovery Channel team finds itself on the cusp of extinction. Owned by San Francisco-based Tailwind Sports (in which seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong holds a stake), the squad is without sponsorship for next season. As corporations rethink their investment in athletes who have repeatedly proved that they cannot be trusted, the question must be asked: Is this a sport in its death throes?
Absolutely not, declared T-Mobile's hLinus Gerdemann, 24, who followed his stage�7 win with a cri de coeur against doping. "The news has not been positive," the German rider later told SI, "but it is positive that the controls are working."
Indeed, advocates for this laughingstock of a sport insist, perhaps wishfully, that all these "adverse analytical findings" (as the UCI describes positive tests) are the symptoms of a patient on the mend. Better this, they contend, than what we've had for years and years: a peloton full of uncaught dirty riders.
The UCI has become more creative, and less predictable, in the ways it goes about testing riders. The result: a string of high-profile busts that began last spring and continued into the sport's showcase. (Results of the race's final days of drug tests won't be known until this week.) "I'm encouraged by what I see and what I hear," UCI president Pat McQuaid said last Saturday. "I'm encouraged by what I look at in the race itself." (The pace of the first week of this Tour was far slower than in recent years.)
"It was never something that was going to change overnight," McQuaid said of cycling's stubborn doping culture. "It takes some time for the message to get through, and the guys who are getting caught are the older guys. When [we] replace those older guys, then we'll have a sport that we can be proud of and believe in."
Contador, 24, is the brightest young star in cycling's firmament, a climbing specialist whose sudden, vicious accelerations are unmatched in the peloton. One of four brothers from Madrid, he played soccer and ran track before discovering the sport that would make him a national hero. Enamored of the freedom he felt in the saddle, he took up bike racing at 16 and turned pro at 21. His charmed career almost ended abruptly in May�2004, when he crashed during the Vuelta a Asturias race in northern Spain. In addition to breaking his jaw, he developed a brain aneurysm that led to a massive blood clot. Emergency surgery saved his life and left him with a titanium plate in his skull. A long convalescence, he said on the final rest day, gave him "another perspective" on life. It made him value more deeply, he says, "the fact that I am here."
As it became apparent that he would end up on the podium, Contador faced more pointed questions about his past associations. He was one of five Astana team riders held out of last year's Tour after they were allegedly linked to Operaci�n Puerto, a Spanish doping investigation. Shortly after the '06 Tour, UCI officials and the Spanish courts cleared him of any links to Puerto. Asked straight up if cycling fans could trust him, Contador flashed his 1,000-watt smile and said, "Yes, of course."