PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica (AP) — They grew up watching Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France every year. Now American riders like Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen carry the burden of regaining from fans back home the trust so violently broken by his doping.
Talansky and Van Garderen are 24 years old and the pick of the six Americans in this year's 100th Tour, which begins on Saturday in the Corsican harbor town of Porto Vecchio, and they will be battling for the white jersey awarded to the best young rider.
It is the first Tour since Armstrong admitted to doping and dealt another blow to cycling's credibility. Cycling may well be much cleaner due to aggressive anti-doping measures, but the stigma won't just wash off the jerseys in the laundry, and Van Garderen thinks it will be hard to fully regain the trust.
"I mean, we can try, but what can you really do? You have to just make a decision to ride clean, which I have, and hope people start taking an interest again," Van Garderen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his hotel room. "Other than that, I can scream from the top of a building that I'm clean but I think many people have done that before."
There are relatively few Americans in this year's race. On the 1999 Tour — the first of the seven consecutive wins Armstrong has been stripped of for doping — seven of the nine riders on the U.S. Postal team were Americans.
Van Garderen, a powerful climber who placed fifth overall on last year's Tour, hopes to win the showcase race one day. "Absolutely," the BMC rider said. "It's been a dream of mine since I was 10 years old."
Van Garderen and Talansky were 10 in 1999 and among the legions of fans transfixed by the comeback of cancer survivor Armstrong. After years of aggressive denials, Armstrong told interviewer Oprah Winfrey in January that he doped on all of his Tour wins. The confession followed a scathing 200-page report compiled by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency on systematic doping by Armstrong and his teams.
No sooner had Armstrong's faux-glory era ended than Floyd Landis was also stripped of his Tour title in 2006 for doping. Armstrong said on Friday in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde that it was "impossible" during his era to win the Tour without doping.
Jonathan Vaughters, Talansky's team manager and a teammate of Armstrong's on the '99 Tour — as well as a key witness against him in the USADA case — insists cycling is much cleaner, though he acknowledges that fans may take some convincing.
"We're in a place where the sport has moved forward. Now, how do we keep it that way? We change the perception," he said. "On the 1996 Tour de France, no one was talking about doping, but that was when the problem was the worst. So, now you've got everyone talking about it but when you look at the speeds on the key climbs and the races on the mean (average) they're down, they're way down."
Vaughters took the performance enhancer EPO when he was riding. Many years later, he has instilled a rigorous anti-doping stance at Garmin and has high hopes for Talansky, a second-place finisher at the Paris-Nice race in March.
"I think he can win a Grand Tour. Whether it's next year, five years from now, I don't know, but he's capable," Vaughters said. Talansky is trying not to put pressure on himself in his first Tour de France.
"If you let this whole thing overwhelm you then it's going to affect your performance," he said. He echoes Van Garderen's belief that it is a crucial time to restore cycling's credibility, to move away from Armstrong and Landis.
"It depends on people 100 percent believing in what they're watching," Talansky said. "For the most part they're willing to accept that myself, and Tejay and Taylor are racing clean and standing up for the future of the sport."