The shadow of Lance Armstrong looms large as the Amgen Tour of California starts its weeklong run Sunday in Escondido.
Cycling has reached a crossroads with its first big event in the United States since Armstrong acknowledged in January that he used performance-enhancing drugs, a startling revelation that has left some wondering whether American audiences will keep watching the sport.
"For cycling fans, it was all or nothing with Lance," said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at San Francisco's Baker Street Advertising. "Marginal sports needs superstars. That's what Lance Armstrong provided."
Armstrong carried a sport perhaps like no other individual ever did. Not Michael Jordan or Joe Montana or Michael Phelps.
The Tour champion was beloved for winning a record seven Tour de France titles after overcoming testicular cancer that almost led to his death. The cyclist's Livestrong campaign with yellow wrist bands dramatically increased cancer awareness and went hand in hand with the seven yellow jerseys he won from 1999-2005.
It's difficult to imagine another fairy-tale story coming along to mesmerize the masses the way Armstrong's did.
His legions of disciples were invested in his riveting survival story more than they were in a bicycle race.
"Armstrong was Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth wrapped into one," said Bob Dilenschneider, a New York branding and communications expert. "Then he let a lot of people down and changed people's minds -- some forever."
The sport hit a low point in October, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency made public a report of its investigation that detailed drug use by Armstrong and ex-teammates. The report characterized Armstrong, 41, as the ringleader in team-wide efforts to use illegal drugs and avoid detection. The Texan was banned for life and stripped of the titles he had won since 1998.
The sport's current crop of riders and officials expect cycling to survive their version of the "Steroid Era" as they eagerly want to move forward.
"Armstrong is yesterday's man," Dilenschneider said."He's only an example of what shouldn't be done."
The anti-doping agency's troubling conclusion hasn't worried officials of the Tour of California, which comes to the Bay Area with the final three stages Friday through next Sunday.
"It didn't take Lance to build what we had built today," said Kristin Bachochin, senior vice president of Anschutz Entertainment Group and the race's executive director. "We never viewed this race as focusing on one person."
However, Armstrong's unprecedented popularity ushered the way for the tour's debut in 2006. By the time he briefly retired in '05, Americans were familiar with other U.S. stars such as Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer -- California tour competitors who have since been exposed as drug cheats.
Furthermore, cycling can't hide from its past as much as it would like to forget the sordid tales of blood doping and illegal injections. Some of the cyclists targeted in the Anti-Doping Agency investigation of Armstrong are participating in this year's tour.
That includes David Zabriskie, a four-time Tour of California runner up, who served a six-month ban for his role in drug use. He rides for Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, a team managed by Jonathan Vaughters -- a former Armstrong teammate who testified in the anti-doping agency investigation that he took drugs while competing.
Jim Miller, USA Cycling's vice president of athletics, remains optimistic about the sport's future despite the tainted history.
For him, the tipping point came in 2007, when he accompanied America's promising youth team to Belgium. One of the cyclists, now considered a rising star, asked the coach why he should continue in a sport so dominated by drug use.
Miller, who said he never neither used drugs nor had firsthand knowledge of anyone's use of them, had a ready answer: "You can win, and can win the right way."
He told the group that whatever might be going on with drugs would eventually catch up to the cheaters. Now that it has, Miller sees a change.
"It is a better time to be in cycling," he said.
Slovakian star Peter Sagan of Canondale Pro Cycling agrees.
"I grew in a different cycling world, and I didn't look to the past but to the future," he said in an email interview. "The new generation is different: we know how to be clean and we know we will be able to give new credibility to cycling."
U.S. Olympian Timmy Duggan of Nederland, Colo., said cyclists talk among themselves about the cultural shift in the sport.
"We never even had to make that choice," Duggan said of taking drugs. "For all of my colleagues, that's a pretty telling statement about the current state of the sport."
But presenting a clean image goes only so far with a fickle fan base that is drawn to iconic figures such as Armstrong.
"You are now back to square one," Baker Street's Dorfman said.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.