Cyclist Jens Voigt, a fan favorite for nearly two decades, said he hopes… (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images )
ESCONDIDO, Calif. — They're trying.
The cyclists and team managers participating in the eighth Amgen Tour of California gathered Friday at City Hall to speak about the future of the sport.
Not the past. Please, not the past.
At least there was no chance Lance Armstrong would be riding this year.
In the past there was usually a mystery. Would Armstrong ride? He did two times, including the year Floyd Landis blew the doping side of the sport wide open by accusing Armstrong of using illegal substances on the same day that Armstrong crashed in Bakersfield and left the race limping and angry.
It is an apt description of the sport.
Limping and angry.
At the Giro d'Italia last week, Britain's Bradley Wiggins, probably the most famous cyclist at the moment after winning the Olympics and the 2012 Tour de France, was cheered in the press room when he fell. He was then defended by Armstrong, which might not be a good thing for Wiggins.
Armstrong responded on a social media site: "I'd like to see every 1 of those journos mount up and scream down a slick/steep downhill upwards of 50mph."
Even as the sport tries to separate itself from Armstrong, his presence hovers over every big race, including the Tour of California, which starts here Sunday with a 102.7-mile route and ends May 19 in Santa Rosa. Two teams who dominated in the first six years of the race — HTC-Highroad and Rabobank — no longer exist with sponsorship gone.
Riverside native Bob Stapleton, who funded the HTC team, said when he dropped out of the sport two years ago it was partly because the constant doping news made it difficult to find secondary sponsors.
Last month a Spanish judge in the case known as Operacion Puerto announced that more than 200 blood bags that had been seized as part of a raid on a European doping ring are to be destroyed. There had been hope that if the bags could be left intact more would be learned not only about doping in cycling but also in other sports.
After that decision, Dick Pound, former chief of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said the decision of the judge "seriously undermines the credibility of the sports."
Armstrong's performance with Oprah Winfrey in which he finally admitted to doping, also wouldn't seem to have helped the sport.
But there are plenty of officials of the largest U.S. stage race who will be rooting for 24-year-old Tejay van Garderen of Tacoma, Wash., America's best young stage racer. Van Garderen finished fifth at the 2012 Tour de France and has three podium finishes in the early parts of this season.
Van Garderen is part of a group of young Americans, including Taylor Phinney, who is racing the Giro. Timmy Duggan, Tyler Farrar, Matt Busche and 21-year-old Lawson Craddock are also in California and have been vocal in their support of doping-free racing and have been winning stages or coming close.
But none has the overreaching story of cancer survival or the dominating personality of Armstrong that might help capture the casual American sports fan even if one of them wins the Tour de France.
They also can't match the feat of the first American to win in France, Greg LeMond. They can only follow in his path.
Most of Armstrong's contemporaries — George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner — are not racing, though four-time runner-up Dave Zabriskie is here. The race will end in Leipheimer's hometown of Santa Rosa.
But the 24-year-old Van Garderen spoke emotionally Friday about his sport.
"I hope fans can move past what's happened in that whole era," he said. "I think the sport of cycling has taken its hits, but hopefully people don't lose faith in us now."
"I hope what people will see is a million fans out on Mt. Diablo, see that the sport of cycling is still strong, people still love it, some of them will be running half naked alongside the riders, that the future is still strong."
Jens Voigt, 41, and a fan favorite for almost two decades, looked at Van Garderen and said, "Why should he and his generation be punished for things men my age have done? Hopefully we have finally hit bottom, got all the skeletons out. Hopefully we have finished this story, the punishment and the consequences."
"Hopefully we start from here. I am sure the sport is cleaner and better. I'm 41 and can still perform, a lot better than before. I hope we keep catching bad ones and there is no way out, no way to escape. We could talk the next 10 hours about this. There's a million points of view on this subject, but hopefully the spectacular showdown is over now."
And, Voigt said, maybe the showdowns will happen only on the bikes, not in the labs. Or on "Oprah."