In the wake of a seemingly unending series of doping allegations, investigations and admissions, the 104-year-old Tour de France (airing on Versus this Saturday at 8:30am/ET) makes its first-ever start in Great Britain, where an array of London landmarks will be on display during the opening stage. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen will anchor live morning coverage and multiple replays on a daily basis through the final stage on July 29. From last year's still-contested win by Floyd Landis (due to a positive testosterone test) to the recent admission of 1996 winner Bjarne Riis that he used performance-enhancing drugs, cycling is clearly in need of an image overhaul.
"The drug tests now are extremely clever, and I think the battle is being won," says Liggett, who notes fan appeal hasn't appeared to take a hit despite the daily doping news. Two million fans are expected for the prologue in London, and 700,000 for the daily stages in France. With many of the former favorites forced out or retired, the sport is quickly being handed over to a younger generation of riders, including 22-year-old Mark Cavendish of England, Welsh rider Geraint Thomas and Spain's Alejandro Valverde, whose 2006 Tour ended early with a crash and a broken collarbone. "I'm hoping that these boys will not learn the bad habits of their peers and that the sport will clean itself up," says Liggett.
Like last year's race — the first since 1998 without Lance Armstrong — the field appears to be wide open, but Liggett believes the early favorite is Kazakhstan's Alexander Vinokourov, who finished third to Armstrong in 2003. America's best hope may be Levi Leipheimer, who rides for Armstrong's former Discovery Channel team.
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