Doping a TDF distraction
Paris - When Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme takes the stage to announce the showcase race's 2011 route, the two greatest champions of the last decade will be missing from the audience.
Three-time Tour winner and defending champion Alberto Contador won't attend the traditional race presentation on Tuesday after being provisionally suspended by the UCI for a positive doping test, while Lance Armstrong is in Aspen, Colorado, where his girlfriend gave birth to his fifth child.
The Tour's presentation couldn't come at a worse moment for organisers, with cycling once again in turmoil in recent weeks. A number of doping cases have emerged recently and Italy's anti-doping prosecutor said he is convinced all cyclists are cheating.
Armstrong, who won the Tour de France a record seven times, said he raced the three-week event for the last time last summer when he finished in 23rd place nearly 40 minutes behind Contador, but is not officially retired.
The 39-year-old Texan still rides for the RadioShack team and said he will compete in smaller races next season as an ambassador of the fight against cancer.
Cycling has been tarnished by doping scandals for over a decade and Tour officials are accustomed to answering questions about the credibility of their sport.
However, Prudhomme may well struggle to keep the attention on the race itself rather than on doping issues at the presentation.
Ezequiel Mosquera, runner-up in the Spanish Vuelta last month, has tested positive for hydroxyethyl starch, a masking agent which increases blood volume.
The news emerged on the same day the UCI said Contador failed a test, while a government official in Spain said earlier this month that no fewer than seven Spanish cyclists are under investigation for doping.
In the US, the Anti-Doping Agency has sanctioned at least five cyclists for doping in the past two months.
Prudhomme hasn't publicly expressed his views since Contador was suspended after a small amount of the banned drug clenbuterol was discovered in one of his samples from this year's Tour by a laboratory in Cologne, Germany.
Contador claimed that the positive test was caused by food contamination and denied speculation that he also engaged in blood transfusions during the race.
If Tour officials do withdraw his title, Contador, who faces a two-year suspension, would be just the second cyclist to be forced to relinquish it after American Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title for doping.
Contador's spokesman Jacinto Vidarte said that the Spanish climber's presence in Paris would have focused the attention of the media and could have harmed the Tour presentation itself.
The 2011 Tour route's climax is expected to be in the Alps, with a reported stage finish at the top of L'Alpe d'Huez two days before the finish on the Champs-Elysees.
For now, Tour organizers have only announced that the race will start on July 2 with a flat stage in the Vendee region on the western coast.
The 180km first stage from Passage du Gois to Mont Des Alouettes will be followed by a 23km team time trial around Les Essarts on July 3. The race ends July 24.
The following day will be a flat stage as the race leaves the Vendee region, departing from Olonne-Sur-Mer toward a destination not to be revealed until Tuesday's presentation.
A total of 28 teams will be represented by some 40 riders at the ceremony, including Tour runner-up Andy Schleck, Giro winner Ivan Basso and top sprinter Mark Cavendish.