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Tour de Freaks 

Five reasons to watch the Tour de France (despite the drugs).

Sure, professional cycling has been plagued by drug scandals over the years. But despite all the convictions and accusations, the Tour de France — which began its 96th running on Saturday (and airs through July 26 on Versus) — can still be a lot of fun to watch.

Here are some reasons why. 

THE RETURN OF LANCE

When 37-year-old Lance Armstrong announced that after three years of retirement he would return to the race he had already won seven times, there was a collective gasp in the cycling world. Could he do it again?

Whether he’s seen as a cancer survivor’s hero or a Frenchman’s ultimate villain, there’s no denying that Armstrong’s presence in the race totally changes the calculus.

And for no one as much as Alberto Contador. Arguably the most exciting young cyclist in the world right now, Contador is widely considered Armstrong’s heir apparent. And now not only does he have to compete with the old champ, but he has to do so from within the same team. Both men are riding for Kazakhstan-based Team Astana, which is coached by Armstrong’s old Tour mentor. And while coach Johan Bruyneel has named the young Contador as the team leader, Armstrong has never been known as a selfless supporter when it comes to racing the Tour. (As of press time, he had already jumped to within a fraction of a second from first place.)

Might the Texan throw his own teammate under the bus? Does he even have the legs for it? This will be one of this Tour’s most gripping storylines.

THE HATCHET FROM WENATCHEE

Mark Cavendish is widely considered the fastest bike racer in the world right now. The little Manxman, who races for the American team Columbia, is unparalleled when it comes to sprint finishes.

But he’s got a legitimate threat this year in Tyler Farrar, a 25-year-old from Wenatchee (and the first Washington native ever to compete in the race). Farrar, who won the Tour of the Bahamas last year (as well as briefly wearing the leader’s jersey in the Tour of California), is having the best year of his career. On Saturday, he crossed the line only a hair behind Cavendish in a sprint finish. (He beat him in Stage Three of March’s Tirreno-Adriatico race.)

He may have “Inner Peace” tattooed on his wrist, but watch for Farrar to tear it up with Cavendish and the other sprinters during flat stages on July 14-16.

LIGGET-ISMS

While the seasoned commentators on Versus, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, may not be able to consistently pronounce “Vincenzo Nibali,” their often acrobatic prose is a delight to hear. This is especially true of Liggett, whose English voice is smooth as hot tar, and who is famous for colorful exclamations like, “He’s dancing on his pedals in a most immodest way!” and “The chicken skin is about to fall!” 

Start your own drinking game, taking a chug any time either commentator mentions “digging deep in the suitcase of courage” or wearing “the mask of pain.” 

MOUNTAIN MEN

Once the Tour reaches the mountain stages (in the Pyrenees this weekend, in the Alps July 19-22), watch for the weirdos to come out. Namely, “El Diablo” himself — 50-something German cycling fan Didi Senft, who for over 15 years has dressed up in red leotards and horns, brandishing a trident as he runs alongside the riders chugging up the hill.

Also look for Dore Holt, a 20-something Seattleite who’s been making a reputation for pacing riders in a football helmet with a giant rack of antlers attached to it. He’ll be wearing either a Texas or Montana jersey. (The latter bears the surname of Astana rider Levi Leipheimer, who’s a Butte, Montana, native.) (UPDATE, 7/18: Holt was spotted on Stage 14 of the Tour, from Colmar to Besancon, running alongside American George Hincapie in a breakaway at the head of the race. But it looks like he's trying out a new look — Holt wore a yellow checkered jersey, and instead of his trademark rack of antlers, the head and wings of a bald eagle sprouted from his helmet, as he hoisted high the flags of Washington and the U.S.A.)

Pay special attention on July 25. The penultimate stage of the Tour is an intense, muscle-tearing haul up one of the race’s most legendary hills, Mont Ventoux. The crowds, no doubt including Senft and Antler Man, should be out of their minds on this decisive day.

TOUR DE EVERYWHERE

If nothing else, watch the Tour for the scenery. French television cameras often do a beautiful job of framing the zipping lines of racers against expansive shots of the Mediterranean, fields of sunflowers, vertiginous mountain valleys. And this year the Tour visits a total of six countries — France, Italy, Spain, Monaco, Switzerland and Andorra.

On top of this, there are all the strange, euphonious (though often butchered) foreign names — Haimar Zubeldia, Vladimir Karpets, Joost Posthuma, Yaroslav Popovych, etc.

It’s not just a provincial bike race. The Tour de France is an entire geography lesson.

OH YEAH, AND THE DRUGS

Though professional cycling seems to have finally gotten serious about eliminating the use of performance-enhancing drugs (with new testing procedures, more checkpoints, whole teams devoted to evangelizing clean racing, etc.), the incentive to cheat will always be there, so riders and teams will always find new ways to do it.

But look on the bright side. Challenging the validity of the race’s winners just drags out the spectacle even longer. Why settle for a three-week Tour de France when you can enjoy the legal wrangling for months and years to come?

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