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Needles out for cheats as 2009 Tour set to roll

FRANCE'S anti-doping crusaders are stockpiling needles for testing blood and cups for sampling urine, and two new books on Lance Armstrong have just been released in France.

Must be about time for the Tour de France.

The seven-time champion is back from retirement, four years after his last victory. Teammate Alberto Contador, the 2007 winner and a top pre-race favorite, returns after Astana wasn't allowed to compete last year. They are allies, but could become rivals too.

The race starts on July 4 with a challenging 15.5-kilometer prologue in Monaco, the tiny principality in southeast France. The pack will then head out along the Mediterranean, through the Pyrenees, across central France, into the Alps and then up the fabled Mont Ventoux a day before the July 26 finish in Paris.

Riders will dip into Spain, Switzerland and Italy during the 3,500-kilometer trek and face 20 major mountain climbs during the three weeks. Tour designers have spiced up the route and revived some rules from the good old days in hopes that fans will have something -- anything -- to get their minds off the drug use that has marred cycling's premier event in recent years.

Judges from UCI, the sport's governing body, will be back, a year after they were kept out because of a bitter spat with Tour organizers over doping that has now been patched up. The UCI has rolled out its "biological passport" anti-doping program, in which samples were taken from 840 riders to determine their body chemistry profiles. Any suspicious fluctuation from those levels could lead to penalties, even if no specific substance turns up in tests.

For Armstrong, who insisted he was the world's most-tested athlete during his glory years and has never tested positive, the welcome back to a still largely suspicious France may not be warm. Just weeks before the Tour's start, two books -- "La Grande Imposture" (the Great Impostor) by anti-doping doctor Jean-Pierre Mondenard and "Le Sale Tour" (The Dirty Tour) by Pierre Ballester and David Walsh -- have come out in France to capitalize on the media frenzy over the American's comeback.

Both books lay out repeated suspicions about Armstrong over the years, though neither breaks significant new ground.


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