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Sports

Tour de France Attempts to Polish its Tarnished Image

The Tour de France kicks off this Saturday, marking the beginning of a grueling three-week ride. The race has been rocked by doping scandals for the past 10 years, and many believe that this time will be no different.

Alejandro Valverde of Spain takes a call on his mobile phone as he trains with his teammates near Brest, France

The teams have been training hard leading up to the race

In order to stem the widespread abuse of illegal drugs among cyclists, the International Cycling Union's (UCI) has started issuing biological passports, which chart the blood parameters of all professional riders.

A syringe being used to take a blood sample

In addition to blood tests, riders will also be forced to give urine, hair and nail samples

In addition to that, the French National Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) will be taking random blood and urine samples, both before and during the race. These samples will then be combined with the results of the UCI tests.

While experts have saluted the sport's most recent efforts to ban drug users from cycling, some feel that more must be done.

"The cyclists, and indeed other top athletes, are ultimately two steps ahead of the scientists and anti-doping controllers," said Jean-Pierre de Mondenard, a top anti-doping expert whose exhaustive "Dictionary of Doping" is a widely respected work in the field.

What's in your suitcase?

There are still around 20 undetectable products which can be used to enhance performance, which is why de Mondenard feels that police should simply search participants' luggage and other belongings to find any illegal drugs.

While this method might sound invasive, it seems to be fruitful.

In 2001, during the Giro d'Italia, 100 racers were tested and only two came up positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Later, when the Italian police searched the luggage of the racers, they found 52 of the cyclists were in possession of illegal substances.

2007 winner denied entry

Astana team rider Alberto Contador rides with teammates with the Sandia Mountains looming in the distance

2007 Tour winner, Alberto Contador, has been banned from the race despite never being convicted of doping

It was in 1998 -- during the infamous Fatima doping scandal -- that the banned hormone EPO (erythropoietin) was found to be in widespread use. Since then, a seemingly endless succession of cyclists has been found to be users of various performance-enhancing drugs.

The UCI, based in Switzerland, and the Tour de France organizers, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO), have bumped heads over team entries and doping in the past few years.

ASO is taking no chances anymore and has acted tougher than ever before when inviting the teams for the 2008 edition. They have refused to invite back several big names, including the 2007 winner, Alberto Contador of Spain, who rode for Team Discovery.

Despite accusations, Contador -- who now rides for Astana -- himself was never actually convicted of doping. It was other Astana riders, in particular Alexander Vinokourov, who brought the team down. Also banned were American Levi Leipheimer, who came in third overall in 2007, and Andreas Klöden of Germany, a two-time Tour runner-up.

The benefits of extensive testing

Cycling team trains near Brest, France with grass in the foreground

The Tour de France runs for three weeks and covers 3,559 kilometers

Despite all the hype surrounding testing during the race itself, there are actually several substances that can help cyclists along without actually showing up in their system come race day.

Ulrike Spitz of the German National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) said that substances like EPO and amphetamines can be used to enhance training even two weeks before the race, but can also disappear from the blood by race day.

That's why, according to Spitz, extensive testing would show real benefits.

"I think the health risk is very big for the athletes and if you don't have this anti-doping rule, you will have Frankensteins," Spitz said.

Riders fed up

As for the actual athletes, most believe that the testing goes too far.

"To go one step further, you would have to move into my house and live with me," the 36-year old German rider Jen Voigt, a 10-year veteran of the tour, told a news conference on Friday.

Voigt added that cycling professionals were requested to tell the UCI of their whereabouts three months in advance each time they leave home for more than two hours.

"Think about your own life and ask yourself: Could I do that?"

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