July 27, 2007 -- If sport is art then cycling at the Tour de France is often a masterpiece -- a tightly-knit pack of riders scaling a mountainous French canvas and testing, like all great artists, the limits of human possibility.
But draw your eye closer to the surface, and you'll see that so much of it has been counterfeit -- a product of illegal doping that boosts performance but taints the sport.
ABCNEWS.com spoke to several former pro riders -- some of whom admitted to doping -- who explained the temptation to dope as a make or break career decision for anyone who hopes to remain competitive in world class professional cycling.
2007: A Tour Destroyed?
After years of suspensions and suspicions surrounding many of the tour's top riders, including last year's winner, Floyd Landis, illegal doping allegations have virtually destroyed this year's Tour de France. Two of the race's highest-profile riders, the leader and projected winner Michael Rasmussen and another early favorite, Alexandre Vinokourov, were kicked out mid-race, casting doubt on the validity of the sport and questions about the Tour's future.
It's an incontrovertible fact about cycling: Doping works -- a stark reality that influences the professional lives of many riders.
The former pro riders who spoke to ABC News said that most cyclists -- highly trained athletes who race across the countryside at high speeds in such close proximity that one awkward move could send the whole pack falling -- face a difficult and extraordinarily solitary choice: Dope or go home.
Though they travel in packs on the course, after the race there is little cooperation. Cyclists have no union that might limit or control the testing of riders. While rumors of doping fill the air, riders rarely speak of their doping decisions to their own team members, much less to other riders or the fans.
But with the dismissal from the Tour this week of two racing teams, the illusion of order and authenticity has been violently lifted from the peloton.
The former riders, including two Tour teammates of Lance Armstrong, spoke with surprising candor about the difficult and lonely culture of professional cycling, with some admitting that their secret decision to dope helped them stay competitive -- while others said their choice not to dope effectively forced them into early retirement.
To Dope or Not to Dope
Brian Walton could have been a contender. A 1996 Olympic silver medalist, he went to Europe for four years to compete in the top pro circuit. Rumors of doping racers were everywhere, but Walton refused to take performance enhancers. He said he kept getting stronger, but kept falling further behind in the peloton.
The choice, he said, was simple: He could either dope, or he could go home.
"The writing was on the wall for me," Walton said.
For riders like Walton, a refusal to dope often spells an early retirement. And that's exactly what happened. Walton, who is a cycling coach today, said he returned home rather than compromise his values.
Jonathan Vaughters and Frankie Andreu were contenders. They were both part of the 1999 U.S. Postal Service team that helped Lance Armstrong win the first of seven consecutive Tour victories. They both, it seems, may have cheated to get there.
Andreu, who also raced with Armstrong in 1998 and 2000, has admitted to doping in the run-up to the 1999 campaign. He told ABCNEWS.com that he did it because it became "a matter of survival" on the Tour. How else, after all, could you excel in a three-week, 2,000-plus mile race through some of France's most difficult terrain?
Vaughters, too, seemed to effectively admit that he too had taken performance-enhancing drugs at some point in his career. When asked by ABC News if he had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs, he sighed and simply said, "I made a lot of mistakes in my life."
Riders sometimes do have a change of heart about how high a price they are willing to pay for their survival. Today Andreu is a vocal opponent of drug use in the sport, and there is a growing group of former riders, led by three-time tour winner Greg LeMond, who are trying to break the silence that surrounds the culture of doping.
But for many riders, their victories over doping are private, while publicly they may appear to be failures. Just ask Wilson. Or even Vaughters, who said he retired at age 29 because he was tired of doping taking over the sport he loved.
"I retired from my career early because I was tired of just constantly having to deal with that decision," he said.
E Pluribus Unum
Once the peloton of riders reaches the finish line, that extraordinary unit breaks apart, and riders are left largely to fend for themselves as they're run through a postrace regimen more rigorous than that of any other sport.
While cyclists have one of the highest incentives to dope of any pro athletes, they also face doping tests of a severity and frequency unrivalled anywhere else in sport. Tests are random and frequent; riders must constantly keep their team apprised of their location even when they are not racing.
Because the testing procedures are so decentralized, aggregate numbers are difficult to come by, but it is estimated that cyclists are tested 10 times more than competitors in other sports.
These testing rates can largely be traced to the lack of a strong riders union. Without a union, there is no entity to collectively resist testing, as happens in American sports like the NFL or MLB.
"There is no players union. There is no one basically protecting the players," Vaughters said.
So would cyclist testing be this strong if there was a union?
"No, of course not. Without a doubt there would not be," Vaughters said.
"It goes back to money and power. It gets down to the whole core of society right now," added Walton, who also noted that cyclists' salaries do not begin to rival those of American sports stars.
But not all cyclists agree on this point. Andreu and David Chauner, a two-time Olympian, attributed the extreme testing practices to a desire by riders and administrators alike to clean up the sport, and said the measures would likely be in place regardless of the presence of a union.
For today's riders, the consequences of their lonely decision of whether to dope or not are becoming more public than ever.
In the short term, many riders are breaking their silence about doping and working together to fight the problem. This Wednesday dozens refused to start a Tour stage at the appointed time, a protest against doping by their peers.
But all is certainly not well in the cycling culture. At the end of the race one of those protesters, Italy's Cristian Moreni, was kicked out of the race for failing a testosterone test.