With Queen's rock anthem "Bicycle Race" blaring from loudspeakers, the Tour de France sets off for another day, the riders a blaze of color in their lurid shirts. This, undoubtedly, is one of sport's most spectacular sights. But is it believable?
A decade ago, when Lance Armstrong won the first of his record seven Tour titles, the answer to that question was largely "no."
Doping had rotted cycling to the core. At least 80 percent of riders in the grand tours of France, Spain and Italy were doping, anti-doping scientists in Switzerland now calculate using blood tests from that time. Back then, researchers in Paris who were working on a method to catch one of the most common forms of cheating struggled to find clean samples to try out their new test on.
They defrosted a batch from the 1998 Tour - and were thrown when all came back positive for the blood-boosting hormone EPO. Concerned that their test might be malfunctioning, they tried again.
"I had real trouble finding a negative," says Francoise Lasne, the doctor at France's anti-doping agency who conducted that research. "I thought the test wasn't working."
No more dirt
Now, in Lance's comeback year, cycling can honestly claim that things are changing, that the dirt is not caked so thick.
The Tour peloton he has returned to is now cleaner than it has been for a long, long time. Pristine? No. But perhaps somewhat more believable. The change can be seen, literally, in riders' blood. A costly state-of-the-art blood monitoring program started last year in cycling is making the illicit use of performance-enhancing transfusions and blood-boosters like EPO riskier and harder. Only those riders enrolled in the anti-doping program are allowed at the Tour, hence its name - the "biological passport."
It uses computer software and a panel of recognized experts from Europe and Australia to scrutinize riders' blood-test results, looking for the abnormal variations that doping causes. A few years ago, when transfusions and EPO use were rife, riders' readings were often all over the dial. That is less the case now.
"The vast majority of the peloton has very normal blood values," says Anne Gripper, anti-doping manager for UCI, cycling's governing body.
Experts agree that the passport represents a large and significant step forward for cycling. But no one is naive enough to believe that the passport has fully closed the net on the smartest cheats or those who can afford the help of crooked doctors.
"It's clear that riders have learned to dope within the passport," says Michael Ashenden, one of the nine experts the UCI uses to analyze riders' blood readings for the program.
Correctly manipulating transfusions and mini-doses of EPO requires a certain amount of know-how but not a PhD.
"I could write it down on a post-it note," Ashenden says.
Nevertheless, the passport is better than anything else science currently offers.
The evidence suggests that cycling's long-tarnished image is due a degree of rehabilitation and that those fans along the Tour route who shout "all dopers" - are wrong.
With the UCI, teams, riders and race organizers together forking out 3 million euros a year on the passport program, cycling at least deserves credit for owning up to its doping habit and trying hard to wean itself off. That is more than can be said for some other sports.