TOUR DE FARCE
It is the eve of the individual time trial that will determine the winner of the 2007 Tour de France. I wish I could say that I don’t care who wins, but that would be a lie. Despite the best efforts of the spoiled sport of cycling to alienate me as a viewer and a fan, I will still watch the time trial tomorrow and the ceremonial ride into Paris on Sunday. But I will do so under extreme protest.
I am a rabid sports fan. With the exceptions of NASCAR and the WNBA, I closely follow every major sport. For the past seven years or so, every July, I have watched as much of the Tour de France as is humanly possible. TiVo now allows me to ingest each stage as I see fit. Essentially, I scroll through to the moments of truth in each race. If it’s a day for the sprinters, I’ll find the point when the peloton is about to catch the breakaway and watch until the speedsters cross the line. If it’s a mountain stage, I’ll search the telecast for the decisive climb when the leaders separate themselves from the pack and challenge each other until the best of the best emerge. I thoroughly enjoy the grueling nature of Le Tour, a true test of endurance and will, that sees a new hero come to fore on a daily basis. I love the beauty shots of the French countryside, the majestic Alps, and the unforgiving Pyrenees. Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen bring a wealth of knowledge and contagious enthusiasm to the race with their astute commentary. There’s so much to love about the Tour de France, and even without the obvious rooting interest of a dominating Lance Armstrong, I’m willing to give myself over to it. But my devotion and pleasure were undermined this week.
I suppose the first blow smacked me across the jaw at the end of last year’s Tour. I watched as another American rider, Floyd Landis, put in a monumental effort on a heroic ride that put him in position to win the race just one day after cracking on a severe climb, all but ending his dreams of winning the overall race. It was truly amazing. Phil, Paul, Bob Roll, and Al Trautwig gushed over the performance, calling it one of the greatest single day rides they had ever seen in cycling history. I bought into it. Landis was a hero. And then, of course, it was all tainted by a positive drug test that revealed highly unusual amounts of testosterone in his body. But the drug test results didn’t come out until the tour was over and Landis crowned the champion on the podium in Paris, with the Arc d’Triomphe as a backdrop. Although Landis denied doping, it was hard to believe him. Along with every other fan of cycling, I felt betrayed that his heroic day was nothing more than a drug-fueled farce. But because it was after the fact, I didn’t have to watch the Tour continue day after day with this cloud hanging over its head.
And then the 2007 race began. With the case still pending, Landis was not welcomed back. Ivan Basso, one of the exciting up-and-comers of the sport who seemed to be the only one capable of hanging with Armstrong in the mountains, didn’t make the trip because he was suspended for two years for… you guessed it, doping. Jan Ullrich, for many years Armstrong’s chief rival, was also absent on drug suspicion. So the race started for the first time in I don’t know how long without a rider who had previously worn the coveted yellow jersey into Paris. Someone new would win the Tour. It seemed like everyone was pegging Alexandre Vinokourov, an aggressive rider Kazakhstan, to win the whole thing. Vino, as he is nicknamed, is an unpredictable cyclist who seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom whenever possible. He attacks when others wouldn’t dare, and that scares the crap out of the peloton. However, early on in the race, on a flat stage with no apparent danger, Vino fell hard. The cameras didn’t catch the actual crash, but he and a teammate both went down and ended up on the side of the road. Vinokourov ripped the Lycra off his cycling shorts and exposed a nasty gash on the back of his thigh. In addition, he was bleeding profusely from both of his knees. The entire team came to his aid and paced him back into the race, limiting Vino’s loses on the day to just a couple of minutes. In heroic fashion, Vinokourov pressed on, riding in pain the next few days with huge bandages on his knees. When they hit the mountains, it was apparent that Vino just wasn’t the same, and he slid back even further in the General Classification, which measures each rider’s cumulative time in the three-week race. It became obvious to all that the favorite wasn’t going to win, which in turn left the field wide open.
Then Vino resurrected himself from the dead. In an individual time trial (simply the rider against the clock), the Kazakh blew the field away by a remarkable two minutes. Once again, Phil and Paul praised the rider they’ve known since his teenage years for his historic performance and welcomed him back into the conversation of who would win the Tour. But, the next day in the mountains, Vino cracked. Unable to keep pace with the leaders in the steep Pyrenees, Vinokourov even waved goodbye to the television camera, symbolically admitting his chances to win were gone. However, he would not go quietly. Climbing up the mountain the next day, Vino got into a breakaway with some serious riders that made it extremely difficult for the peloton to track down. Eventually, Vino left the exclusive pack in the dust and rode alone to glory on a mountaintop finish, aggressively pumping his fist in the air as he crossed the line. He was a hero yet again.
But it was all bullshit. The next day was a rest day for the Tour, and as riders, managers, and tour officials addressed the media, word spread that Vinokourov had failed his drug test following the individual time trial three days prior. The test indicated that Vino had received a blood transfusion before his miraculous ride. The cycling world, and I, were devastated. Vino was supposed to be one of the good guys, a highly likable athlete who rode on guts and courage in addition to his abundant natural talent. Yet he turned out to be just another cheating cyclist on an ever-growing list.
That night, I watched the rest day coverage on Versus, a recap of the previous week of racing. The show was pre-recorded before the news broke, so the dominant story of the rest day was how Alexandre Vinokourov somehow managed to overcome his injuries to ride back to the top of his sport. I couldn’t help but feel for Phil and Paul, who day after day announce the action with pure love and admiration for the brave athletes. Along with everyone else, they were made to look like fools in hindsight. Besides the commentators, who really are the face of the sport, my heart sank when I thought about the riders on Vino’s team Astana who were removed from the Tour as well. One of them, Andreas Kloden, sat in fifth place overall going into the final stages. Despite all appearances to the casual observer, cycling is a team sport. Those who do the grunt work but rarely taste the glory are called domestiques. They bury themselves for their leaders, unselfishly sacrificing their bodies for the greater good of the team. What about those guys? They dragged themselves all over France and up two mountain ranges, only to see their team leader get caught for doping and eliminate them all from the race.
When the dust settled, the Tour rode on. Following the rest day, the riders faced one more brutal day of climbing in the Pyrenees. This would be the day that separated the contenders from the pretenders. Michael Rasmussen, a Danish rider for Team Rabobank, and the wearer of the yellow jersey as the race leader for over a week, found himself under attack from two riders from Team Discovery Channel. 24-year-old Alberto Contador, an unbelievable climber riding in his first Tour de France, and American Levi Leipheimer were the only ones able to stay with Rasmussen on the final climb. Contador was second overall in the General Classification (GC) and Leipheimer fourth. This was it, the moment of truth in this year’s race. Contador and Leipheimer worked together to try and crack Rasmussen but couldn’t. Finally, Rasmussen attacked back and flew free, getting to the top of the mountain first and winning the stage. For all intents and purposes, the Dane had just won the Tour de France. Then, later on that night, news broke that Team Rabobank was removing Rasmussen from the race for lying about his whereabouts in the months leading up to the Tour and missing two random drug tests.
During that climactic climb, I must admit I was watching with a skeptical eyes. For the first time, I actually doubted the veracity of what I was witnessing in the race. How could Rasmussen be that good? How could he go the entire three weeks without cracking once? After all, this guy may be good but he’s no Lance Armstrong. I secretly wished Rasmussen would fail the drug test and Contador would be the new leader of the race. Never in a million years did I imagine his own team would kick him out without proof that he was doping. Rasmussen didn’t even fail a drug test! Of course, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t doping. In all likelihood, he was. But Team Rabobank didn’t want to win that way. In spite of themselves, they made Rasmussen the sacrificial lamb in their desire to show commitment to cleaning up the sport of cycling. And in the process, they killed whatever joy remained in watching this year’s Tour. Contador took over the yellow jersey, but it felt hollow. We didn’t get to see him take it. It just fell to his shoulders.
Yesterday and today were flat stages that saw the peloton unwilling to chase down the breakaways. In comparison, they were boring racing days. But even more than that, I had a bitter taste in my mouth as I fast forwarded through most of the coverage. The Tour has soured for me and for anyone who commits themselves to watching three weeks of a bike race in the middle of the summer. Yet, taking all that into account, there was still an intriguing storyline to the day’s race and a new hero emerged. Sandy Casar, a veteran French rider, was one of the guys in a small group who broke away from the peloton early and stretched their lead to the point where the main pack decided not to chase them down. Along the way, a dog suddenly dashed into the road ahead of Casar. The Frenchman had no time to brake and slammed into the dog, sending both of the them crashing to the surface of the road. The scared dog ran away while a bloody Casar mounted his bike again and pressed on. He rejoined the breakaway group and out-sprinted them to the finish line to win his first ever stage in the Tour de France.
It’s a crying shame that drugs have ruined the sport. Cycling, and the Tour de France in particular, produces high drama on its own. Steroids and performance-enhancing drugs have infiltrated every major sport and their days of reckoning are upon us. One can only wince at the thought of Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s home run record when everyone knows he had to juice to do it. It’s hard to watch. Just like the doped-up Tour de France. I truly hope they find a way clean up the sport and return it to its natural glory. But I have my doubts. My cynicism now runs so deep I find myself wishing the International Cycling Federation would allow them all to enhance their performance by whatever means they choose and let them go at it. At least then it would be a level playing field.