7.25.2007

A joyless spectacle


Almost a decade ago, a team car was searched at a border crossing in Europe as it was being driving to the start of the Tour de France: Inside there were enough doping products to fuel an entire peloton's season of racing (recap of the 1998 race here). The scandal finally revealed how the pros ride so fast for so far and so long: Scaling high mountains one day, racing against the clock at breathtaking speeds the next and rarely having an off day or suffering a collapse. The events of 1998 may have changed somewhat the willingness of the cycling federations, legal authorities, and race organizers to better police the sport (note my qualifier).

Then in 1999 Lance Armstrong -- coming back from a bout with testicular cancer -- won the Tour for the first of seven consecutive times. Armstrong was never caught doping but there is lots of circumstantial evidence that strongly suggests he was not as pure as driven snow...

Since Armstrong retired, however, many of his ex-teammates and rivals have become embroiled in doping scandals. Any rider capable of being competitive in a three week grand tour is highly suspect: Ulrich, Basso, Hamilton, Heras (as well as others) have all been caught out and suspended. Then at last year's race, Floyd Landis managed to stage an improbable comeback and win the race... only to fail a controversial drug test. This year's tour started without a race #1 that is traditionally assigned to the previous year's winner.

So the scandal of the 2008 race broke yesterday. Alexander Vinokourov, winner of two stages of the race, shows evidence of a blood transfusion -- I won't say 'tested positive' because the test results were just leaked to the press, as usually happens. This is a big scandal, his team withdrew from the race, very little coverage of the actual sporting event itself.

Compounding this squalid situation is the fact that the likely winner of this year's race has a dodgy past and perhaps shouldn't be racing at all based on doping technicalities. More illuminating than these technical violations (though, given the atmosphere in professional cycling, I tend to believe allegations of wrongdoing), is this story on Velonews about an attempt to smuggle a plasma supplement made with cow's blood to Italy -- to me, this is what it means to be a pro these days: sneaky, not very smart, and taking some really strange drugs. What a freak show.

The moral of this situation is, I suppose, to not invest too much in the antics the pros (in any sport), it will only lead to disappointment. Get off the couch, stop watching TV, spend some quality time outdoors. Tonight I'm going over to Catamount to look at a new bike that would allow me to do some of these things.

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