A turning point for the Tour de France

It's a big year for the Tour de France.

Numerically, this is the 100th "edition" of a competition founded in 1903. But this year's event can also be seen as a watershed moment for an event that has continued for 11 decades despite scandals, cheating, deaths and two Europe-scouring wars.

On my bookshelf at home is a copy of the Official Tour de France 1903-2003 Centennial album. On the cover, looming out of a knot of the event's most celebrated competitors – Merckx, Hinault, Bartali – is the most well-known face in world cycling today: Lance Armstrong.

Ten years ago, with a quartet of wins in his back pocket, Armstrong was at the height of his powers, with still another three wins and a podium finish yet to be claimed ...

... not to mention subsequent exposure as a drug cheat, after years of denial and pursuit, months of hiding, and finally a "tell-some" interview that for many seemed to be more about tactics and showbiz than openness and sincerity.

Through it all, professional cycling has endured a roiling period of uncertainty, evasion and recrimination, as the lid has been lifted on a time of systemic dishonesty. Some say it's all been a bit too much. Others say, not enough.

Of course, drug scandals have been around for almost as long as the Tour itself (Festina affair, anyone?). But the revelations contained in Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race and Armstrong's public exposure mean that the fallout still persists today.

It's been a long five months since that Armstrong interview – so much so that I just Googled the date. Did the Oprah-ganza really take place as recently as January?

Maybe it seems so long ago because, lately, I've only been looking forward – anticipating the three-week festival of courage and excellence that has consumed my Julys for more than a decade. How kind of organiser Christian Prudhomme to take pity on my anticipation, and commence the event on June 29 this year.


To mark the Tour's transit into triple figures, the organisers have put together a beguiling and occasionally bonkers course. In patriotic tribute, the event does not stray outside France. Nevertheless, it manages to cross the sea, with a historic first outing on the island of Corsica, where three days of racing should favour both the sprinters and the rouleurs.

Back on the mainland, a team time trial and flat days in the windy south culminate in a brace of Pyrenean mountain stages, but it's the second half of the Tour where things go into overdrive.

An individual time trial that ends at the Disneyesque tidal island of Mont Saint-Michel. A climb up the blasted, arid whiteness of Mont Ventoux to end 242km of racing.

The 21 gruelling hairpin turns of the Alpe d'Huez ... twice. Yes, twice in one day. And on stage 20, if the weather gods are kind, a finish atop Semnoz with 360-degree views that encompass Lake Annecy and a distant Mont Blanc, before the traditional coronation of champions on the Parisian cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees.

That's the schedule, but what kind of a Tour will it prove to be? The intrigue lies in the unpredictability of racing for 3403km over 23 days, with the wildcards of weather, crowd antics, falls and fate shuffled into the deck.

Will the Anglo-Kenyan favourite Chris Froome crush all opposition; will Alberto Contador draw his pistol once again; can Cadel Evans outlast Father Time and shake the fatigue from the Giro out of his legs for a famous second victory?

And most of all – will this year's Tour be free of performance enhancement scandals? Will it help to draw a line through a ledger of bad behaviour and collusion, and usher in a cleaner future for a sport that sometimes disappoints as much as it delights?

In three weeks' time, we'll be closer to answering those questions. In the interim, we late-night warriors will be testing our own endurance levels in lounge rooms across the nation.

If the loneliness of the long-distance spectator becomes wearying, why don't you join me? Starting at 10pm on Saturday – as the SBS TV coverage kicks in – I'll be running a live blog as the Tour rolls along.

There will be updates, links, pictures, polls, tweets, random facts, Sherliggetisms, Rupert Guinness texts and reader comments, all fuelled by performance-enhancing coffee. You will find the blog here, and on Fairfax home pages. Bon courage, and I hope to be in touch with you along the route.

Do the scandals detract from your enjoyment of the Tour, or are they merely a sidebar to the spectacle? Which riders and teams will you be supporting this year?

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