Monday, July 30, 2007

Tour de Force or Farce

The media, and by extention, those who buy newspapers and watch television, have been deluged by the scandals surrounding this year's Tour de France. One is tempted to shout: LANCE, WE MISS YOU! But has it really degenerated to a Tour de Farce?

During Lance's 7 years the Tour seemed to function as it should: with a leader, with contenders, with the odd scandal forming an appropriately distant backdrop.

But even during Lance's ascendency, one could feel the French baying for blood, anyone's blood as long as he wasn't French. In Lance's books, this suspicioin is confirmed on numerous occasions. But the French aren't entirely biased. In 1998 French superclimber Richard Virenque was implicated in the Festina scandal, but the rider recovered, came back after a ban and mustered a total of 7 overall King Of The Mountain jerseys. Today he remains a national hero.

So is the scandal about drugs French frustration at not having a French leader in a French race? I don't think so. If this was the case, the local French population (in rural villages and on secondary routes) would long since have abandoned the tour. Or, once a non-French rider was leading, there would be a difference in attendance. We continue to see massive roadside support, whatever the newspapers are saying. After all, what these riders do each day is breathtaking, and admirable. And so the race remains the most attended event in the world.

Let's remember that for all the mud slinging, the Tour de France, dope or no dope, is the longest and toughest endurance event in the world. The amount of money invested in this event, in terms of coverage and sponsorship is gargantuan. A rider who wins just a stage in Le Tour will never want for sponsors again. Sponsors achieve massive coverage when their rider crosses the line first, and hundreds of millions see their logo. Brand awareness is magnified on a massive scale, and very cost effectively. Le Tour is also amongst the most beautiful of sports to watch, even if cycling isn't your thing. The helicopter sweeps over French vistas are stunning.

It's important to remember that this cycling race, the most important event on the cycling calendar, and the most prestigious, came into being because a newspaper company thought that by being starting, owning and being affiliated with this event, it would sell more newspapers.

Remember then that all the details about erstwhile yellow jersey holder Rasmussen were known before Rasmussen pushed his first pedal stroke in this years tour. Why wait to confront the Danish rider until at least halfway into the tour, when he had been in yellow for several days and looked certain to win the yellow jersey?

The answer is obvious: scandal and sensation. Break the story at a time when tension is the greatest, a time that will insure the newspaper garners the most attention. It's also clear that many of the journos writing these stories aren't cyclists, and don't appear interested in the cycling. It's the scandal that interests them. It's this aspect that is troubling.

Vinokourov is a more sticky character in this years Tour. One can only imagine the frustration of his fall, and the desire to win, overcame reason. There also seems to be a sense that riders feel they can outsmart the dope checks, using 'masking agents'. Thus, it doesn't seem so much a question of who is doping, but who is able to get away with it.

Such debate is best settled between doctors, riders and the tour organisers. In the end, Le Tour de France is a celebration of cycling, and that's what the riders are there to do, and that is why millions of cyclists around the world (myself included) tune in to follow each day of this festival.

It leaves a particularly awful taste in one's mouth when one hears of calls to call off the tour. What is the point of that? How many riders have spent months preparing for this event? How is cycling served by cancelling an event? No the way to manage this tricky problem is simply to punish dopers effectively; huge financial fines, lifetime bans.

What's happening now is that many are obviously getting away with it, benefitting financially, and thus the risk is justified.
Punish offences with brutal fines, making risk-taking irrational, and you will clean up the sport.

One writer described this year's Tour as ending with a whimper. Admittedly I lost enthusiasm to follow the Tour after Rasmussen was thrown out, but I watched the last stage. I heard the timetrial was amazing, so I am sorry I missed that. The last stage which included many laps of the Champs Elysees, with sweeps over the golden shoulders of Saint Joan, was super to watch.

In 1997 I was in Paris to watch the last stage, and the pavements all along the route were choked with people. It was at least 12 people deep to these streets, meaning it was almost impossible to catch a glimpse of the riders if you were unfortunate enough to find yourself at the back. I stood on my large blue backpack and snapped a few pictures.

Yesterday was a thrilling finish in one of the world's most beautiful cities, once again, filmed beautifully from above.

South Africa's Robbie Hunter, racing for wildcard team Barlowworld put in a desperate effort, but was edged out by a charging Lampre rider, Daniele Bennati. Hunter finished 4th in the sprint, ending an incredible Tour which included a win, numerous top 10 finishes, a stage win and overall polkadot (king of the mountains jersey) for teammate Hernandez.

The Tour de France is a Tour de Force for those who know and follow it; an event everyone ought to respect. Punish the offenders, yes, but concentrate on what the event is really about: the zenith of cycling. Viva Le Tour.

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