For more than a decade, suspicion has chased Lance Armstrong, doggedly pursuing the seven-time Tour de France champion like the pack of riders in the peloton behind the leader.
Armstrong isn't competing in this year's tour, which completed its ninth stage on Monday, but neither he nor his sport has managed to leave doping allegations behind.
Formal doping and conspiracy charges were filed in June by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, barely four months after a two-year federal criminal investigation was dropped. The agency says blood samples collected from Armstrong in 2009 and 2010 were "fully consistent with blood manipulation," including the use of endurance-boosting drugs, testosterone, masking agents and transfusions.
The controversy rolled into Sonoma County with news reports last week that five ex-teammates, including Santa Rosa's Levi Leipheimer, agreed to testify against Armstrong in return for six-month suspensions for their own doping violations.
For many people, Armstrong is an inspiration, a cancer-survivor who returned to dominate a challenging sport. He says the charges are the result of a vendetta by the anti-doping agency and is seeking a court order blocking the agency from pursuing the case against him. If the charges are sustained, he could be stripped of his titles and barred for life from cycling and other sports covered by the World Anti-Doping Code.
For the most devoted fans, Armstrong's legacy is probably safe regardless of the outcome. Authorities can rewrite race results, but memories of his victories will survive. That may not be true for ordinary fans and others already skeptical about drug use in cycling.
Leipheimer and the other former teammates have said little about the doping case, though local cycling enthusiasts say it won't affect two popular events associated with him, the Tour of California and the King Ridge GranFondo.
We hope not, but the damage to the reputations of both Armstrong and Leipheimer would be as regrettable as it would be undeniable if the doping charges are upheld or the case is dismissed on a technicality, leaving unanswered questions.
Some people wonder why so much time and effort is devoted to policing athletic competitions. The answer is simple: Not everyone cheats, and results are suspect when promoters — and fans — turn a blind eye to violations.
Venerable competitions such as the Tour de France — and upstarts like the Tour of California — are billed as tests of endurance for world-class athletes. They're not supposed to be tests of chemistry and pharmacology masquerading as sport. The same is true for the Olympics, which open in London later this month.
Persistent doping allegations against Armstrong — and provden charges against many other riders — feed public cynicism about race results and have caused some sponsors to back away from competitive cycling, just as the steroid scandal undermined some of professional baseball's most cherished records.