This year was supposed to be a tragedy for me and my cycling team, Astana. It's turned out, instead, to be a farce - for the fans of the Tour de France.
After guiding Lance Armstrong to seven straight Tour wins (1999-2005) on the teams known first as U.S. Postal Service then as Team Discovery, I spent the year after his retirement reorganizing the squad, then came back in 2007 to win the Tour again, for the eight time, with a young Spaniard, Alberto Contador; our team also placed American Levi Leipheimer third overall - his highest finish ever, and an honor that saw him become only the fourth U.S. cyclist in history to stand on the podium in Paris. This record of 8 victories in 9 Tours is unprecedented. At the end of the Tour last year, I felt I had nothing more to accomplish in the sport: I'd always wanted to win another Tour without Lance, simply to prove that I could. Now that I'd met my goal, I announced my retirement. Lance (who still retained part ownership of the team after his retirement) and I disbanded the team.
Then I received an offer I couldn't turn down: I was asked to take over Astana, a pro team that to many people had come to symbolize cycling's doping scandal - a year of charges implicating Astana to performance-enhancing drugs had come to a head in the 2007 Tour de France when the team's star rider, the popular and aggressive Alexander Vinokourov, had been kicked out of the race after returning a positive test sample that indicated blood doping.
I never tested positive during my twelve-year pro racing career (during which I won two stages of the Tour and wore the yellow jersey once - as well as rode off a hundred-foot cliff during one of the race's most spectacular crashes). No cyclist has ever tested positive for illegal drugs while riding for my team.
I thought that by changing Astana, I might help to change the sport. I accepted the job, then repopulated the team with trusted staff and riders, including Contador and Leipheimer, and instituted an independent drug-testing program, at a cost of 700,000 USD per year, that lets us conduct our own, internal controls on our athletes.
Unfortunately, at the same time I was doing this, the organizers of the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organization, must have had another idea about how to clean up the sport - to make an example of a high-profile team. There was no higher profile team than the one that included the riders who'd captured two of the previous year's three podium spots, and that also happened to be run by the man who'd won 8 of the past 9 Tours. Astana was banned from the 2008 Tour - the current innocent riders and staff punished for the deeds of those who'd been here before us. This was like the commissioner of baseball banning the Oakland A's from playing in 2008 because admitted steroid user Jason Giambi had played for them before going to the Yankees in 2002.
The ban was not only unfair, it was also anticipated, by some, to be a death sentence for our team: ASO's decision also kept us from participating in other important races it organizes, and led to a non invite from RCS Sport, organizers of the Giro d'Italia, which, along with the Vuelta Espana, makes up the three Grand Tours, a kind of unofficial triple crown of cycling. We rescheduled our season, focusing on smaller races and those bigger ones we could still race in (such as February's Tour of California, which Levi Leipheimer won for the second year in a row). In April, in a race called the Tour of the Basque Country, Contador showed his superiority by winning a time trial against the heir apparent of this year's Tour de France: Cadel Evans, who finished second to Contador last year and became the overwhelming favorite once Astana wasn't allowed in. Our doping record remained spotless and our racing level was high, and our approach paid off: Just 8 days before the Giro started, the organizers changed their minds and invited us. Contador won.
In ways that are tough for an American audience to understand, this victory in Italy was more important than a second Tour de France win for Contador this year: It confirmed him as one of cycling's greats. At just 25 years old, he became the first rider since 1998 to win two Grand Tours in a year's time, the first non-Italian to win the race in 11 years, and has a chance, when our team competes in the Vuelta this fall, to join the exclusive list of four legendary riders who have won all three Grand Tours (Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi and Bernard Hinault). Contador has captured the imagination and reignited the passionate what-ifs among jaded cycling fans worldwide; and even some of the sport's crustiest and most elitist aficionados, who never appreciated Lance Armstrong's focus on winning the Tour de France above all other races, find themselves cheering his exploits.
The Tour de France is a sporting institution. You can be sure it will survive not only the doping scandals that have bruised it these past years but also the shame of running a race without its returning champion, who also happens to be, inarguably, the best stage racer in the world at this point in time. Contador, Leipheimer and the rest of Astana find ourselves not only surviving our Tour ban but thriving as we face thrilling new challenges, including the rare chance to make history by winning the Vuelta. It's the fans of the Tour de France who have lost this year - who have been banned from seeing the current best bicycle racer in the world compete against all comers. And, though Evans and the other contenders are remarkable riders and one of them will ultimately wear this year's yellow jersey, it's they who have lost something, too - the kind of pure victory that would have kept them from always having to answer fans who ask if they could've beaten Contador.
After all those years on top with Lance, and now with Contador, I like to think I know a lot about winning. One of the things I understand best is that there's always something else to learn about the subject, and this season didn't disappoint. I found out that if you stay focused on being a winner, you will find your way to triumph even when it seems every path has been closed to you. But I don't count that as my most valuable lesson. Instead, it's the insight I gained about sport's fight against doping: The solution has to come from inside. Whether it's cycling or baseball or swimming or track and field, the governing bodies and umbrella organizations can try all they want to implement policies and studies and widespread disciplinary procedures, but they're always going to suffer from the built-in politics, bureaucracy and ill-considered "big picture" initiatives that got Astana kicked out of the Tour while allowing in other teams more recently associated with doping scandals. Whether it was well-intentioned bumbling or deliberate vindictiveness, the Tour de France has done nothing more than cheat its fans this year; meanwhile it's Astana and the other teams with independent, internal doping controls that have advanced the fight against doping in a very real, measurable, specific way. Each director on each of those teams can, at any time, access detailed profiles of the internal body chemistry of each of our athletes. If we wait for commissioners and governing committees or even the World Anti-Doping Agency to try to draw a big, broad line for us, only one outcome is a certainty: Just as in this year's Tour de France, fans will find themselves on the wrong side of it.