2012 was a year to forget for Lance Armstrong.
Photo: Getty Images
BURNING QUESTIONS FOR 2013: Will road cycling founder in the post-Armstrong era, or can a new generation restore the fans' faith?
In many respects, 2012 was cycling's annus horribilis. Two of the sport's supposed greats, boasting a combined 10 Tour de France victories, were found guilty of doping. Neither showed any remorse.
Spanish star Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour title after he failed to have his positive clenbuterol test from that year's race overturned. However, he retains his two previous Tour wins. Retired US cyclist Lance Armstrong wasn't so fortunate, having all seven successive victories stripped after pleading no contest to a damning report from the US Anti-Doping Agency.
For those not au fait with the lore of road cycling, these successive bombshells were akin to tennis champs Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi being found guilty of match-fixing. How does a sport recover from such a blow? Some would say it can't - but they would be wrong.
If you consider the punishments handed out to Armstrong and Contador as akin to life-saving cancer surgery - where the diseased tissue is excised from the body, allowing the patient to recover - then these verdicts are a positive for cycling. The stain of cheating has not been erased from the sport, but the shadow of two of its most dominant figures has cleared to a degree.
Unfortunately, the use of performance-enhancing drugs and procedures has been so endemic at the elite level that to banish everyone who has ever been involved in illegal practices would be to destroy the sport as we know it.
The testimony of Garmin team boss Jonathan Vaughters is illuminating. Having quit the sport of his own volition after doping, the American vowed to start his own drug-free team. Garmin is now a model for how a transparent elite road cycling squad should be run.
But, under the zero-tolerance approach advocated by the harshest critics, Vaughters should have been run out of the sport after his confession to doping. How does that benefit the sport as a whole? Surely Vaughters, a staunch advocate for anti-doping cycling, is better off being in the sport where he can actually drive meaningful change.
That is not to say that every offender who professes their sorrow at previous offences should be granted amnesty, as some bleeding hearts suggest. Like so many of these complicated issues, cycling's fight for credibility and integrity is drawn in shades of grey, rather than black and white.
Given the UCI's demonstrated inability to be proactive on systemic doping under current boss Pat McQuaid - and McQuaid's stubborn refusal to step down from his post - change must come from those at the coalface, and those who pay them.
More team bosses must follow the lead of Vaughters, and more sponsors need to heed the decisions of Garmin (who insist on clean cyclists) and Rabobank (who pulled out of the sport, citing a lack of confidence in the UCI's governance). The cheats must not be hired, and teams who fail to comply must have their sponsorship pulled. Money, as always, is king.
It should also be noted that while road cycling's soiled reputation is largely of its own doing, nay-sayers should recognise that there is hope amid the gloom. For a start, the average speed of the Tour de France is finally falling after almost two decades of constant rises.
Australia's untarnished champion Cadel Evans remains a force, while a new generation of brilliant young riders emerges underneath him. Anyone who has watched Norwegian star Edvald Boasson Hagen and Slovenian sprinter Peter Sagan boss the peloton, or Evans' American protege Tejay van Garderen control the white jersey classification en route to fifth in this year's Tour de France cannot help but be heartened for the sport's future.
The past year has given those who do not love road cycling plenty of ammunition for their broadside attacks. It is no surprise that casual fans, many of whom were drawn to cycling's beauty by the magic of Armstrong's story or Contador's sheer audacity, are drifting away.
But fans who still want to love the sport - to marvel at its combatants, to celebrate in their successes and efforts - will not go wanting for reasons to approach 2013 with optimism. In time, the rest will follow.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
Follow BigPond Sport on Twitter: @bigpondsport