A tough Tour | AspenTimes.com

A tough Tour

Paul E. Anna
Aspen, CO Colorado

I love the Tour de France.

Each July, in our house, it is the nightly wallpaper in our living room. Our television screen glows with images of vineyards, mountain roads, ancient towns and quaint countryside. The skill, determination and heart displayed by these magnificent young men on their flying machines is as inspiring as it is fun to watch.

And yet … and yet this year, things are different.

The Tour is hemorrhaging any credibility that remained following last year’s disgraceful ending when winner Floyd Landis had his title withdrawn after failing a drug test. Every day there is a new allegation, another rider or team dismissed, a new scandal.

On Tuesday it was Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, the pre-race favorite who overcame falls earlier in the tour and won a magnificent stage in the Pyrenees, only to be disqualified for failing a test for illegal blood transfusions.

Wednesday the Cofidis team became the object of the French gendarmes’ attention when Italian Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone.

And then the biggest blow. Later on Wednesday, race leader Michael Rasmussen, who had worn the yellow jersey for nine straight days and had won the stage that very day, was dismissed by his team for lying about his whereabouts in June, ostensibly to avoid a drug test.

What are these guys thinking? How could they continue to try and outwit a system when it is so geared to finding them guilty? How could they continue to risk their careers, not to mention their health, when the odds are so stacked against them?

One has to understand the culture of the event. Since its inception in 1903 every rider has tried to get a leg up. And can you blame them? Imagine riding more than 2,200 miles in 23 days. Race days of 140 miles. Climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees that numb the mind as they deplete the body. And then do it all it again the next day.

Then there is the money. Over the past couple of decades the Tour has trailed only the Olympics and the World Cup in global television ratings. Winning a stage, much less the Tour itself, can be a ticket not just to financial security, but to a kind of immortality as well.

Aside from those factors, these guys are just different. They are so focused, so consumed with performance enhancement that they, for the most part, don’t look at things as we do. They are in their own world, and their desires and expectations have to do with the finite goals of winning or performing well.

There is a great photograph from an early Tour that shows a pack of riders with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. On the surface it is a picture of camaraderie from a different time. But consider the rumor of the day was that smoking would enhance the capacity of lungs ” giving the smoking rider a leg up.

While watching the Tour has taken some twists and turns this year, in our house it is still on nightly. After all, the vineyards, mountain roads, ancient towns and quaint countryside of France are still beautiful.