I'm a cyclist. I love my bicycle. As I've aged and the injuries from repetitive lifting have gotten easier to suffer and harder to heal my bicycle has become my number one source of exercise.
I found out a few years ago that I also like to watch competitive riding, including the Tour de France. The problem is that professional bike riders are synonymous with performance enhancing drugs. The drug of choice is EPO but Blood Doping and stimulants are and have been used extensively. Many pro riders have been caught but the doping was so widespread and endemic that the entire sport was in real danger of dying. And good riddance it would have been. Riders have been banned and teams have dissolved, doctors have been stripped of professional credentials, some have done time for smuggling. It even seems pretty clear now that Lance Armstrong was doping and that is a real kick in the nuts to fans like myself.
Lu and I started watching the Tour in 2001. We watched as Armstrong won and continued to win. 7 Tours in all. It was always apparent who the strong men were and there were damn few of them. Compared to those few the rest of the peleton looked pretty average. In succeeding years the script was the same. Two, or at the most three, riders were light years ahead of the rest (think men against boys) until one would kick in the next gear and simply blow the competition away. The winner most always seemed to win fairly easily (for certain values of easy).
Of course we now know that their competitive edge came from a syringe and a transfusion bottle rather than being honestly won. I got disinterested fairly quickly. The various anti doping agencies, both in Europe and here in America, were pretty ineffectual but then the systematic doping with doctors and experts involved made any detection chancy at best. There is now a new system in place called Blood Profile or Biological Profile. It's based not on a failed drug test or a criminal investigation but rather on telltale changes in the blood that signal the use of performance enhancers. There is no way to be certain but anecdotaly it seems to be working.
This years Tour is like no other I have watched. Everyone seems to be on an even level. The current leader, a man who should have had absolutely zero chance of winning, is a Frenchman named Thomas Voeckler. He's a good rider but not in the same league as those past, enhanced, winners. Yet this year he leads by almost two minutes after stage 16 of 21. The big names are down, some way down, in the standings. My pick, Cadel Evans, is an Aussie who I am confidant has been racing clean for years. He's in second and, if reports are to be believed, in "incredible"physical shape. That means his performance edge is coming from his body and training and not from a moral shortcut. The rest of the peloton, the mass of riders who make up the body of the race, are taking turns racing heads up against the big names and are more than holding their own. The racing is close, intense and sometimes violent. There's been more crashes, and more injuries, than I can ever remember seeing. Such conditions are indicative of racers who are evenly matched and trying for every advantage on the road that they can get. Heck a sprinter, Thor Hushovd from Norway, has won two mountain stages. A feat previously unheard of. Jonathon Vaughters put together the Garmin-Cervelo team, derived from the old Slipstream-Chipotle team, expressly to show that clean riding was not only possible but clean riders could win at the very highest levels of the sport. In a case of great minds think alike, Vaughters agrees with my assessment.
We're seeing riders and teams choosing not to dope. It may be because of the fear of getting caught (along with the literal millions of dollars at stake). It may be an attempt to emulate Vaughters. It may be because the participants realize just how close they came to losing their sport. Or it may be that the riders are finally just plain wising up.
Whatever the case I'm watching this years race with renewed enthusiasm and excitement. I want an unexpected winner. I want those domestiques, the nameless faceless drones shepherding the name riders, to win and place high. I want to be amazed by the sheer guts and determination of a Frenchman riding for glory and honor, hanging on to the yellow jersey with his teeth and his nails and his courage. I want people to know my sport is clean and to be awed by the things these men can do from the saddle of a bicycle.
I have admitted many times that I am a man of deep emotions. A man who can be easily moved by demonstrations of human exceptionalism. I make no apologies. Anyone who cannot be moved by courage and effort and overcoming long odds is missing out on a wonderful experience.
Finally, I can watch and cheer and be completely and wonderfully ignorant of the final outcome. And that is a very good thing for those of us who love bicycle racing and the men and women who abuse their bodies in search of fleeting and elusive glory.
Viva le Tour!