Friday, July 27, 2007

TOUR DE FRANCE - MY LAMENT, MY HOPE

GETTING INTERESTED. Okay, though I've been an avid cyclist since who knows when, I really didn't tune into the Tour de France in particular until after the year Lance Armstrong won it for the first time. Here was an incredible story: a gifted American professional cyclist who'd ridden the Tour de France and won a stage at age 21, who then had testicular, lung and brain cancer that was successfully treated (at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis), who returned the next year to win the Tour--the world's greatest stage in cycling.

GETTING HOOKED. Since then, I've been on board--big time. Along with many Americans, I've been inspired by Lance Armstrong's saga. I've read his books and I've met him. Not only has he piqued American interest in a predominantly European sport, he's done a world of good in advancing cancer treatment and clinical trials. His legacy off the bike may become greater than what he was able to do on it--win an unprecedented seven consecutive Tours de France. The title of his first book may ring true: It's Not About the Bike.

GETTING COMMITTED. Over the past seven years, I've really enjoyed the Tour de France. I've followed it online and on TV. I love the picturesque setting, intense competition, and subtle strategies. I've come to understand its nature, its language and its terms. I've come to appreciate its finer challenges and dimensions. Lance is no longer riding the Tour de France, but I'm still hooked on it. I now pay some attention to other professional road cycling events and applaud the emergence of great cycling events in America like the Tour of California and the Tour of Georgia. It's not easy to follow because mainstream media doesn't cover it, but there are relatively good online sources for seekers (let me know if you're interested).

WRITING THE TOUR. I'm not typically an overtly excitable person, but a few years ago I discovered that come July I just went into a temporary mania for the Tour de France. So, instead of suppressing it, I decided to focus it. I've posted and e-mailed "My Amateurish Tour de France Updates" for six years as an exercise in sheer enthusiasm. I started blogging through the Tour for the fun of it last year. Again this year, I've had fun with The Tour de France for the Rest of Us. Sometime in the next twenty years or so, I'd like to spend the month of July in France, just following the Tour (of course I'd take my bike!).

TEMPERING MY ENTHUSIASM. Revelations of widespread cheating via doping have challenged my enthusiasm and love for the Tour de France over the past twelve months. Like most professional sports, the use of performance enhancing drugs or blood doping procedures have been a part of cycling for a long time. There is a cat-and-mouse game going on. More sophisticated drug testing is countered by stealth doping methods and undetectable drugs. It's become a sad scenario. In response, cycling authorities have cracked down. No athletes are drug tested more than professional cyclists these days. Any rider suspected is considered guilty until proven innocent.

BAD APPLES SPOILING THE BUNCH. All this came to a rather ugly head at end of last year's Tour de France. American Floyd Landis was found to have used exogenous testosterone in his win. His year-long appeal is still pending. I hope he's innocent, but it doesn't look good for him. And even after heightened efforts to interrupt cheating cyclists and prevent anyone under investigation for doping from beginning this year's Tour de France, a few bad apples are spoiling it again. Three top cyclists--Alexandre Vinokourov, Crisitian Moreni and Michael Rasmussen--have exited this year's Tour due to doping or lying about their involvement with doping.

SILVER LINING. As a result, the news media is having a heyday. "Tour de Farce" read the headlines. Some French newspapers call for the death of the Tour. Evan mainstream American news media and ESPN only get it half right and sensationalize the worst of it. I actually think this is a necessary time of cleansing of the sport. The silver lining of this year's revelations of cheaters is just this: they ARE getting caught. In the past, they've slipped through undetected. Doping controls are working and clean teams are turning up the heat. We may have a virtually clean Tour de France in a few years.

ALTERNATIVE TO WALKING AWAY. The problem with watching or following the Tour de France is the same with watching MLB baseball, NFL football, professional track, or even PGA golf. In the back of my mind I'm wondering: "Is this guy for real, or is his performance enhanced by steroids or testosterone or EPO or a blood transfusion? Is it real or make-believe? At this point in time, with any of these sports, you just can't be sure. So, what to do? Walk away? Dismiss it all? Not me. I write about and appeal for and applaud anti-doping measures in cycling. I want to see it change for the good. And I'm willing to help make a difference in any way I can.

WHAT'S LEFT OF THIS TdF. There are two stage left of this year's Tour de France. The championship is up for grabs. An American is in 3rd place and could be on the podium in Paris, if not outright win the Tour. Watch for Levi Leipheimer. Or, an Australian could win the Tour for the first time. Watch for Cadel Evans. Eighteen stages are complete, two remain. It all comes down to this. It's still worth tuning in.

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