This year's Tour de France, which began on Saturday, is a prodigious test. Not just for the riders who climb, sprint and sweat their way along the three-week, 2,270-mile journey across the Alps and countryside. It's also a prodigious test for cycling's future. After seven straight victories, Lance Armstrong is no longer competing. Yet his legacy of success--coupled with fresh allegations of his wrongdoing--is casting a shadow over the start of this year's already chaotic race.
Critics, particularly in France, have long accused Armstrong, a cancer survivor, of needing drugs to win his titles. Adding fuel to that fire is recent testimony from an ex-teammate and his wife, first reported in the French newspaper Le Monde. Nearly a decade ago, three days after doctors removed two cancerous lesions from his brain, Armstrong relaxed in an Indiana hospital room with a group of close friends. It was there, says Betsy Andreu, then the fiancé of one of Armstrong's cycling teammates, that the future cycling giant admitted to being juiced. According to Andreu's testimony from October 2005 in an arbitration case between Armstrong and SCA Promotions, a Dallas-based insurance firm that withheld a $5 million bonus from him over doping allegations, a doctor came into the room and asked Armstrong, "Have you ever used any performance-enhancing drugs?" Armstrong's response, according to Andreu: "Yes." Andreu says Armstrong listed for the doctor the banned drugs he had taken: growth hormone, cortisone, EPO (erythropoietin, which boosts endurance by raising the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity), steroids and testosterone.
Armstrong has repeatedly denied using performance-enhancing drugs. And he has never failed a drug test. He called Andreu's allegationwhich her husband, former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu, backed in a separate deposition"absurd and untrue." (Betsy Andreu told TIME she stands by "every single, solitary word" of her testimony.) Armstrong ultimately won the arbitration, receiving another $2.5 million on top of the $5 million SCA owed him. Armstrong's oncologist, Dr. Craig Nichols, said in an affidavit, "I would have recorded such a confession as a matter of form, as indeed would have my colleagues. None was recorded."
Besides Armstrong's legacy, Tour organizers are coping with a fresh drug scandal. A Spanish doping investigation resulted in three prerace favorites--Italy's Ivan Basso, Germany's Jan Ullrich and Spain's Francisco Mancebo, who finished second, third and fourth, respectively, behind Armstrong in the 2005 Tour--being forced out of the race the day before its start. The French newspaper L'Equipe called it a "decapitation." Says Daniel Baal, former president of the French Cycling Federation: "The credibility of the Tour has been called into question." It's certainly the most damaging crisis to hit the race since the 1998 "Tour de Shame," when the team sponsored by watchmaker Festina was ejected after officials discovered a veritable pharmacy in a team car.