07/27/2012 09:20 EDT | Updated 09/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Long shadowed by doping and scandal, cycling has a strong new look as it rides into Olympics

LONDON - Pat McQuaid has reason to be glowing this week.

The president of the UCI, the world governing body for cycling, just watched the Tour de France go off without any major controversies. It was won by Bradley Wiggins, energizing a British fan base that has already reached fever pitch as the Olympics begin.

Now, cycling is prepared for centre stage on the first full day of competition.

The men's road race starts Saturday on the Mall outside Buckingham Palace, and will bypass some of the city's most iconic sights before finishing right where it began, giving Queen Elizabeth II — a new cycling fan, it turns out — the opportunity to cheer from her own balcony.

"It's very important for the sport," McQuaid said. "We can showcase the country. The finish here on the Mall is the most iconic finish in the world. You can talk about the Champs-Elysees, which is beautiful as well, but when you're coming down the finishing straight on the Mall, the view for the photographers is Buckingham Palace. You cannot get anything better than that in the world."

The TV broadcast should resemble a 6-hour infomercial for London, but also for a sport that has been dragged through the mud in recent years by doping scandals too numerous to count:

— The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's rekindled quest to convict seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong and his longtime team manager, Johan Bruyneel.

— The suspension of three-time Tour champion Alberto Contador, who was stripped of his 2010 title after testing positive for the banned stimulant clenbuteral.

— The confession by Tyler Hamilton of doping throughout his career, and his decision last year to return his Olympic time trial gold medal from the 2004 Athens Games.

The extensive list goes on, and includes Luxembourg's Frank Schleck, who was pinged during this year's Tour for using a banned diuretic. The RadioShack Nissan Trek leader has steadfastly declared his innocence, even suggesting that he may have been poisoned.

Either way, McQuaid is quick to point out that recent positive tests prove how tough cycling is on drug cheats, and that its ever-evolving blood passport program — which uses samples as a baseline against which future samples can be compared — has been largely successful.

"We are competing against 27 other sports here. That's why it's important that cycling deals with this doping issue," McQuaid said during a session with reporters this week.

"I have a meeting with my colleagues on the IOC, in Buenos Aires next year. We will be pushing a button to push one sport out of the Olympic program," McQuaid said. "I think we are in a good place now. It is recognized by the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency that cycling is the most advanced sport in the fight against doping."

That leaves fans, much to McQuaid's relief, to focus on the racing.

The men's and women's road races this weekend depart from Buckingham Palace, cross the Thames at Putney Bridge and offer a glimpse of Hampton Court Palace. They then head south into the Surrey countryside, where circuits up the punchy Box Hill could create high drama.

More than a million people are expected to line the course, and they'll be packed especially deep along the Mall, where the riders finish once again in front of Buckingham Palace.

"It's great for all of us when the sport grows, when more people are interested in it," said American Tyler Farrar, who expects to sprint against British favourite Mark Cavendish at the end.

"So OK, all those people on the road out there won't be cheering for me personally," Farrar said, "but they're still out there cheering, and that's a motivator."

The timing is set for the best possible impact, too.

The leaders should be making their final push about 4 p.m. local time, which means fans in the United States who will be waking up for the first full day of Olympics competition will be turning on their television sets just in time to see the race's conclusion.

"That's huge. You can't time it better," said Jim Miller, the vice-president of USA Cycling. "If we can put on a good show, a good finish, it could be a real eye-opener to people who are new to the sport, who haven't seen it before. It doesn't get any better than that."