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Stricter testing at the Tour de France has meant more busts

BEHOLD THE two faces of cycling. There was the moon-faced mug of Team Columbia's wunderkind sprinter Mark Cavendish, 23, his expression a blend of joy and disbelief as he crossed the line first last Friday in Nîmes, wrapping up his fourth stage win at this year's Tour de France.

A day earlier the world saw Riccardo (il Cobra) Riccò looking sullen and a bit scared as gendarmes escorted him off the Saunier-Duval team bus. After winning two stages with a series of extraterrestrial accelerations, the Cobra, 24, was expelled from the race, his A sample from stage 4 coming up positive for EPO. At the sight of him, the crowd hissed and booed.

As the 95th Tour snaked its way toward the Alps last week, the question remained: Are the good guys winning or not? While drugs grabbed the biggest headlines—Ricc√≤ was the third rider busted for EPO at this race—the sport is in a better, cleaner place than just two years ago. The serial scandals blighting the 2006 and '07 Tours left cycling hemorrhaging credibility and cash, with corporate sponsors bailing. With its survival at stake, cycling is making a comprehensive effort to heal itself. Its governing body, the UCI, is establishing an $8 million "biological passport" program. (A series of tests establish a rider's baseline parameters, deviations from which then, ideally, raise red flags.) It has also ramped up targeted testing, going "from dozens of out-of-competition tests in 2006 to over 3,000 this year, with plans to do as many as 8,000," Bob Stapleton, Team Columbia's owner, told SI. "With that level of testing, you're going to catch more people."

Columbia is one of three teams in the race, along with Garmin-Chipotle and CSC Saxo Bank, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to subject its riders to extra, independent testing. It's heartening that all three squads are having strong Tours. At week's end, after 15 of 21 stages, CSC's Frank Schleck was the race leader. In addition to those four stage wins for Cavendish (the Isle of Man native bailed on the Tour after Stage 14, citing exhaustion), Columbia's Kim Kirchen held the yellow jersey for four days. And Garmin-Chipotle's Christian Vandevelde, a former U.S. Postal rider and Lance Armstrong bottle fetcher, was fifth.

"Clearly, it's not great for the sport to have these [doping busts]," says Stapleton. "But this is the painful price we pay for progress."

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GETTING TESTY Fans booed as Ricco (above) was led away by the law, but Cavendish's four wins gave them something to cheer about.