At 6:30am on Wednesday, the doorbell rang at George Hincapie's Italian-style villa here.
"Doping control," one of the two unannounced visitors said.
They showed their credentials from the US Anti-Doping Agency. A weary Hincapie, who had been tested three times last week during a bicycle race in Belgium, invited them in. He provided the urine sample they wanted. Thank you, and goodbye until next time.
For more than a decade, Hincapie has been one of the world's premier cyclists. He was a willing teammate in each of Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories. This year, he wore the leader's yellow jersey for a day. At 33, he has become an elder statesman in a sport torn by drug scandals.
"It's been a terrible year," Hincapie said in an interview on Thursday at his home. "It's bad for the image of the sport. We all want a level playing field. I just hope that young riders learn from this and not take the risk."
Hincapie will race here tomorrow in USA Cycling's national professional road race, an event he won in 1998 in Philadelphia. He skipped yesterday's time trial, in which he would have been a favorite. For the first time, the championship road race will be limited to Americans, and for the first time there will be a time-trial championship for professionals.
Like many of his peers, Hincapie sympathized with riders who had been penalized for actual or suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs. He said no other riders had told him they were taking banned drugs. But one former rider, Jonathan Vaughters of Denver, now a team director, said he knew riders who did take them.
"Most of them weren't looking to win races or gain an advantage. They wanted to be competitive and keep their jobs. They didn't want to get fired. You can't condemn someone for that," Vaughters said.
The best-known riders racing here are Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Dave Zabriskie and Jason McCartney, all with international credentials. Before leaving home in Santa Rosa, California, to fly here, Leipheimer, 32, said by telephone that the drug incidents could help cycling.
"It's hurt the sport, definitely, but in the long run I think it can be very good, because the sport can go a long way in the fight against doping," he said. "We've had a lot of problems, but we also go after doping most aggressively. I don't know if you can say that about other sports. In Madrid, the police said 200 sports people were involved in drugs. They said 50 or 60 were cyclists, but they didn't identify any other sports."
Leipheimer criticized guilt by association.
"It's crossed my mind that some people associate all cyclists with what has happened," he said. "That's no different from being racist or otherwise prejudiced."
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