It’s estimated that an aggregated four to five billion TV “viewings” take in the world’s greatest bike race and in the eyes of millions including this writer, the planet’s greatest annual sporting event. How bizarre then that as the Tour de France has never been more popular or widely followed thanks to its brilliant televised production that provides such spectacular action and human drama; the race is now beset by more drug controversies in its lead up than ever before.

While it’s heralded as an unsurpassed test of super endurance for the elite 20 team 180 rider 2009 peloton competing over its punishing 21 stages (3455km) starting in Monaco from Saturday, July 4; the Tour has also long been sport’s most competitive chemical laboratory. It has meant decades of abuse of performance enhancing drugs; that became an avalanche with advent of the ubiquitous EPO as a blood doping agent along with other more recent advances in blood loading (transfusions). It reached its nadir in the ultimate humiliation of a Tour winner, Floyd Landis actually testing positive on his way to victory in 2006 before being disqualified.

Such has been the historic prevalence and acceptance of doping in European cycling fuelled by avarice and ambition by conniving team management either knowingly or obligingly looking the other way, dodgy team medicos and support staff, but always riders intent on “keeping up with the Jones”; that the list of dope assisted Tour winners continues to expand. Just last week French champion and two-time winner Laurent Fignon revealed his wins were doped.

It’s those kinds of links in the chain that continue to dog Lance Armstrong’s reputation as a “clean” rider, where notable critics headed by former three-time winner Greg LeMond, despite facing litigation by Armstrong continues to question his former relationship with notorious Italian doctor Michele Ferrari. LeMond recently told a sporting conference when he was racing in the early 1990’s, Ferrari was known for one thing: “He could make you go very fast, and it wasn’t because he knew physiology.”

The great conundrum of road cycling is why so many talented riders over the years and even more so now with the greater expertise for detection; are still prepared to risk shredding their reputation as drug cheats. While it can be reasoned that for so long the odds of getting caught made it worth rolling the dice; as recent events and massive testing internationally now show; the dope detectives are very much on the case. Hence and with some irony in the lead-up to Monaco; the doping crap shoot has ballooned to the point where the composition of the final race field is now mired in the kind of circus of the absurd where litigation and political threats are thick in the air.

All of this serves to further confuse the prospects of Australia’s Cadel Evans, our best hope to win the 96th Tour. Runner-up for the past two years; overnight in his major pre-Tour tune up in the eight stage Dauphine Libere; he was again runner up just 16 seconds behind controversial winner, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde. Another Spaniard and Evans greatest Tour threat, 2007 winner Alberto Contador came third just over a minute behind the Aussie. Although Contador was noticeably racing well within himself, despite being in different teams, the two Spaniards combined to work Evans over after he had earlier in the week held the race lead.

While Contador missed last year’s tour through guilt by association that has not yet completely evaporated over a long running and still on-going blood doping investigation known as Operation Puerto, after joining the Astana team (Lance Armstrong’s 2009 outfit) that was refused a 2008 Tour invite for doping disqualification the previous year; it’s now Valverde’s Tour participation that’s triggered an almighty row that’s taken on diplomatic status.

Valverde is facing a world-wide two-year ban already being enforced in Italy, as a consequence of a matching DNA profile taken from him during last year’s Tour that is claimed to have matched a 2006 Operation Puerto blood sample. Italy’s Olympic Committee backed by the government has declared Valverde will not be allowed to compete in stage 16 that passes briefly through Italy; which would effectively bar him from the race. France’s State Secretary of Sport Bernard Laporte takes the same stance; while also declaring Belgian champion Tom Boonen Tour persona non-grata following his third positive cocaine test. Boonen’s lawyers threatening litigation, argue such exclusion is unreasonable on the basis of his offence originating from out of competition testing and that cocaine is not a performance enhancing drug.

Valverde is likewise employing a posse of lawyers to retain his Tour entry; but irrespective of the French or Italian authorities or the Tour’s own organisation telling him to stay home; the UCI is poised to rule on his fate based on evidence submitted to it by the Italian Olympic Committee. UCI president Pat McQuaid is also threatening to bring the boom down on an unspecified number of riders later this week, as a result of what he said at the weekend were abnormal biological passport readings from a target list of 50 riders. The passport which provides a DNA profile of riders is designed to highlight any biological anomalies including blood, that’s become the sport’s primary weapon for detection of doping.

As if all this isn’t enough to throw pre-Tour calculations into chaos; the ranks of the riders themselves are now threatening to sue disgraced and now retired admitted doper, Austria’s Bernard Kohl for what he now claims are misquotes in French publication L’Equipe. Kohl claimed that by his reckoning any of last year top 10 Tour riders where he finished third, could have tested positive. Not surprisingly he’s now backed away from any such claim.