Cyclists love cycling. And the peak of our infatuation are these 10 stone heroes who race the Tour de France. An unimaginable feat of suffering lasting 21 days, racing 150 miles a day across plains so hot the tarmac sucks at their wheels, or noses tucked low over the handlebars at 60 miles an hour through curtains of rain down the side of a mountain.

Earlier this year, a dozen of the world’s best cycling journalists – and me, enthusiast, not specialist – were invited to sunny California to meet the riders and team of HTC-Highroad, the world’s most successful pro-cycling outfit.

Meet them? Heck, we were going to meet them, watch them lab-tested to exhaustion; and when they’d recovered, we’d be fitted up with our own team bikes and ride with them. Even for the hardcore journos, this was more than work.

Like all true lovers, we cyclists worship the heroic values of the other; like all true love, it’s a form of insanity. The deeper the love, the greater the insanity.

We started with an exclusive, behind the scenes tour of our co-hosts Specialized Bikes. If you love cycling, you can’t imagine a better place to work. The first floor is an acre of open plan offices with windows on three sides, wide aisles between desks, ping-pong tables and sofas where you can flop out. On the ground floor, someone swipes a card, opens the double doors and there’s a warehouse hung with racks, where tattooed mechanics work full-time on company bikes, personal bikes, and the fantasy bikes which end up scattered like sculptures through the rest of the building. If you work here, you ride here and there are lunchtime spins every day, so behind the garage there are the office showers. Not the clingy plastic shower-curtain type. Here there are 30 cubicles, with hygienic poured-resin floors and bundles of freshly laundered white towels, tied up with string. Everyone who works here wears a Specialized t-shirt; they want to wear a uniform. The sign in the loo shows you what colour your pee should be, so you know when you’re over-doing it.

Our tour moved to the labs, where the physiology team were “ramp-testing” the riders: progressively increasing the resistance on a static bike until they fall off. This is no Champions League soccer set up. The whole phys team, as far as I could see, is two guys. Riders aren’t based together during the training season and so the phys team sit up late into the night downloading and analysing read outs from the riders’ workouts wherever in the world they may be, to have the information ready for them when they wake up the next morning.

It’s not about the money for the riders either. In the 2010 season, HTC-Highroad was winning twice as many races as any other team. You might have heard of Mark Cavendish, Britain’s most successful pro-cyclist ever. Aged just 25, he’s already sprinted to 15 Tour de France stage victories. In Italy, France or Spain he’ll never need to buy dinner again. But Cav doesn’t get to the finish line on his own and most people haven’t heard of Renshaw, Grabsch or Eisel, the guys riding hard on the front to protect Cav, or dropping out of the slipstream of the pack to go back and fetch water bottles. Cav will earn a 7-figure salary but the unknown names can earn as little as the girl who sits on the checkout at Tesco.

There just isn’t a lot of money anywhere in the sport. A team owner’s core skill is to make the cash last until the 365th day of each year. After that, it’s the hard slog to retain sponsors and find new rider contracts that fit the budget. Sometimes the cash runs out too soon and team owners – often ex-riders– stick their hand in their own pocket to keep things going. You can expect the average pro-cycling team to last for about 4 years before the love or the money runs out.

Team HTC-Highroad is not average and that starts with the team owner, Bob Stapleton. He’s reputed to have made a billion when he sold VoiceStream Wireless to Deutsche Telekom. So he’s probably not in it for the money either. He stressed to me how much he wants to bring commercial attitudes to what is often an amateur set up, talking about giving managers freedom, without hierarchy, in a highly supportive environment.

“Sport parallels business well… we can’t be too proud of what we’re doing. If it isn’t working, we have to change… Cav’s success in the Tour de France was really a change of strategy… we lost some athletes and we had to adapt and change. And we did that without wetting our pants.”

So will the world’s most successful pro-cycling make a profit? “That’s a question I constantly ask myself. I support it and put all my energy into it, but I don’t pay myself anything. Longer term, I’d like to rethink this whole sport. I’d like to make a proper professional league. I’d like to see exciting television product that people really want to follow.”

And those ideas are about more than money too. Bob says, “I’d actually like to see all these controversies being a catalyst for change.”

Ah, the controversies. Cycling’s got a habit it just can’t seem to kick. That morning on the radio there’d been another revelation: Alberto Contador, winner of three of the last four Tours, had been found with suspicious substances, “plasticizers”, in his blood during the previous year’s race. Plasticizers are the chemicals that maintain the properties of red blood cells while stored in transfusion bags – had he been extracting his blood, then storing it ready to transfuse it, illegally during the tour? To the sport’s outsiders, it sounds crazy; to those already too familiar with the sport’s habit, it’s more than believable. Contador was already defending the discovery of the banned performance-enhancing Clenbuterol in his blood during the Tour, blaming its presence on some dodgy meat given to him as a gift. (The teams have their own chefs, their own kitchens. Why would you eat unknown meat during the most important 21 days of your year? The Spanish meat industry threatened suit).

Contador was successor to Floyd Landis -who ‘won’ the Tour in 2006, but then was found to have a dodgy testosterone/epitosterone ratio in his blood, spent four years denying he’d done anything wrong -and then finally confessed. Before that there was the scandal of Operación Puerto, which implicated among others, Jan Ullrich, winner, Tour de France 1997. Ullrich lost the title the next year to Italy’s Marco Pantani, who was later suspended for blood irregularities and committed suicide. Ullrich had taken the title from Bjarne Riis who won in ’96, instantly becoming a hero to all of Denmark (my wife’s elderly grandmother kept a signed photo of him on her bedside table). Eleven years later he admitted it he’d won while doping. Apparently the owners of the Tour de France are still trying to get their Yellow Jersey back.

They know where to find him. For years Bjarne managed a pro-cycling team competing in the Tour de France. The team’s star rider was Ivan Basso. In 2007, Ivan admitted to have doping connections. Things move on, and this year Bjarne manages another team in the Tour de France, Saxobank – Sun Gard, whose star rider is Alberto Contador.

Professional cycling seems to have all the guilt but none of the shame.

During our tour, we’d stopped in Specialized’s studios for a fun “design your own bike” competition, with all the joshing you’d expect amongst journalists high on excitement, camaraderie and free hotel pastries. The camera man, the only other person there who doesn’t earn his living in the world of cycling, held up a (badly) drawn bike made entirely from cylindrical objects marked regularly along their length and with plungers at one end. “What are those?” asked the legendary chief designer. “They’re syringes,” laughed the cameraman. “Cycling’s got so much, you know…”

Silence. No, no one did seem to know.

Bob says, “[The sport of cycling is] almost fundamentally associated with cheating and we’ve got to break that”. Bob, who’s used to making things happen, believes it could be done one season. But it needs clear governance.

Cycling’s governing body is the UCI. In between Landis and Pantani, there were the Lance Armstrong years. Seven straight wins, 1999-2005. Untouchable. A man who brought heroism, via a lifestory of defeating cancer then coming back to defeat everyone else, back to the sport. But this is cycling, and in cycling there can be no winners without someone pointing their finger at them and mouthing the word ‘dopeur’. There’s absolutely no evidence out there. Just swirling suspicion. For example, Armstrong’s one time team-mate was Floyd Landis and Landis said it was Armstrong who gave him the testosterone patches, while Armstrong kept his own blood in the fridge. But surely, one of the most tested athletes on the planet couldn’t avoid detection if he was cheating. Wouldn’t the sports’ governing body, the UCI find out? You’d think.

But then, Pat McQuaid, President of the UCI, admitted that in retrospect, with the gift of 20/20 vision and all that, it had been a poor decision to accept a donation of $100,000 from Lance Armstrong (the only rider ever to have donated to the UCI) in 2002. Nothing to do with a cover up. And anyway, Pat confirmed, there was just the one payment. Except for the second payment, which he confirmed a couple of months later. Is the sport’s governing body mad or bad? Or both?

Each new revelation is followed by denials, then fantasy excuses and finally, new promises. In the classic model of addiction, there are the addicts and then there are the facilitators. Cycling stinks not just because of the dirty riders; because most of the riders aren’t dirty. It stinks because of a few dirty riders and because too many of the people who are meant to call the dirty riders to account – the governing bodies, the journalists, the clean riders – are standing around in embarrassed silence. And because we, cycling’s naive lovers, keep on believing the denials.

On our last day in California, it rained. About 200 people turned out and together we rode with our heroes. Some rode up alongside them, some of us kept a sensible distance from them on slippery roads.

At the time of writing, Alberto Contador is racing again and favourite for this year’s Tour de France. The Chief Executive of the UCI has announced he’s got another idea, which he’ll take to his board sometime next month. And just this morning, another of Lance’s riders has admitted doping. But come July, in sitting rooms around the world, 15 million will pull their curtains closed against the midday sun, turn on the TV and sit down to suffer with their heroes.

Thanks to Specialized and HTC-Highroad. You are fighting to make it a clean sport: good luck in your continuing battle to make it a sport we all can love again.

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