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A Shadow of Suspicion Hangs Over Tour de France

France in the summer is one of the world's top tourist destinations. Many visitors come specifically to watch the Tour de France, which begins on July 7th. It is the most prestigious, professional cycling event in the world and the world's biggest free sporting event. Thousands of spectators line city streets, rural roads and mountain passes for the 23-day race of more than 3,500 kilometers. While fan interest remains high, the sport has been tarnished by a number of scandals involving athletes using performance-enhancing drugs to gain a competitive edge. VOA's Brian Padden reports on the organizer’s efforts to keep the Tour de France clean and fair.

Thousands of people are expected to watch the best cyclists in the world compete in the Tour de France. The race begins in London this year, runs through the beautiful French countryside, across the rugged Alps and Pyrenees and finishes along the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Yet with the start of the 2007 Tour de France just days away, there is still no clear declared winner from the 2006 race.

American Floyd Landis won a dramatic come-from-behind victory last year, then was accused of testing positive for performance enhancement drugs by the International Cycling Union. "I am not in any doping process."

Landis maintains his innocence and is fighting the decision in court. A sporting event without a clear winner is a sport in trouble. Tour organizers are concerned that the growing number of cyclists accused of using steroids will lead to public disenchantment with the race.

The UCI, or International Cycling Union, oversees the competition. UCI President Pat McQuaid says his organization is committed to cleaning up the Tour de France. "From the UCI's point of view we operate a zero tolerance policy. The UCI will not tolerate any individual or an organization to cause damages to our sport through unethical practices."

The UCI tests every rider in the Tour for banned substances prior to the race. Various cyclists are tested after every stage. And after the race the winner and top finishers are again tested.

Etienne Bonamy is editor of the French sports newspaper L'Equipe. He says these strict policies are needed to ensure the integrity and popularity of the race.

"Cycling is one of the sports where great progress is being made to combat doping. In order for people to remain passionate about the sport and to believe that this kind of human feat is possible, in a sport that is extremely hard on the body, they have to continue to believe."

Bonamy also says the rules concerning what drugs an athlete can take are complex and sometimes confusing. He says, to win the Tour de France today, a cyclist will need a good manager, a good trainer and a good lawyer.