Whether he likes it or not, Christian Prudhomme could have a testing debut as the Tour de France chief when the world's biggest bike race bids for a smooth transmission on the streets of London Saturday.
As a former television journalist who grew up with a huge passion for the sport, Prudhomme was once used to bringing the exploits of the peloton to life for the wider public. But since taking over fully from the recently retired Jean-Marie Leblanc, Prudhomme has spent the past nine months trying to inject some much-needed credibility back into the race.
"I want the guy who raises his arms in triumph on the Champs Elysees to be, and remain, the irreproachable champion," said the Frenchman.
It's a reasonable request, but not an easy ask. The drugs and cheating which seem to accompany cycling have risen to the surface in spectacular fashion in the past 14 months. The 'Operation Puerto' doping affair in Spain unveiled a network of blood doping and substance abuse run by sports doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, who was reported to have 200 clients, 60 of whom are cyclists.
Former Tour of Italy winner Ivan Basso, one of 13 riders suspended from the Tour last year because of suspicious evidence, was recently handed a two-year ban due to his links with Fuentes.
Most of all, the Tour is still suffering a huge hangover from 2006, when American Floyd Landis's spectacular victory was followed by the deflating news of his positive test for testosterone. The former Phonak rider has yet to learn his fate, but there is little ambiguity about the organisers' predicament. For the first time in the race's 104-year history, the Tour will begin without a defending champion.
Prudhomme, however, prefers to look on the bright side. "We need a breath of fresh air and a fresh start for the Tour," he said here Wednesday.
A recent admission by 1997 champion Bjarne Riis that he used the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) throughout his career has hardly made Prudhomme's job any easier. The Frenchman called for the Dane to hand back his yellow jersey, and requested that he and his team - he manages the CSC team - pull out of the Tour.
"We have the right to challenge whichever rider or team official we want to," Prudhomme told AFP following Riis's revelations in May.
CSC team manager Scott Sunderland told AFP Tuesday that Riis is unlikely to appear at the race this year. But the Australian feels that Riis's presence would make no difference. "Bjarne may or may not come to the Tour, but whatever he does do he will be doing it for the good of the team," he said.
"But I don't think the Tour people handled their reaction very well. Bjarne knows he has done wrong, and he's got to live with that, and so does his family."
Prudhomme's job however is all about making sure the Tour runs smoothly, and that includes trying to keep the cheats away - something the sport's authorities failed to do in 1996 when Riis ended Miguel Indurain's five-year reign. To the Frenchman's credit, even before a landmark anti-doping charter was launched by the International Cycling Union (UCI) last week, he sent out a defiant warning to the teams participating that they were on shaky ground.
Prudhomme told the teams that if they did not sign: "We will block their entry to the race."
It remains to be seen how effective the UCI's measures will be. But Prudhomme will keep to his word. Last year when Operation Puerto erupted, Prudhomme - as assistant to Leblanc - was instrumental in calling for the suspension of Basso and 1997 winner Jan Ullrich prior to the start because of evidence linking them to doping in Spain.
© AFP 2007