Monday, July 14, 2008

Le Tour, Part Deux

I've been enjoying the Tour much more than I had expected this year. In fact, I had not intended to be watching at all, given the disaster of last year when even the winner was disqualified after the event for doping. But I got hooked again, and was persuaded by the efforts that have been made this year to ensure that the competition would be honest.

Other than the exclusion of some riders and teams before the race, there has been only one incident so far this year--with the expulsion of Miguel Beltran, a "domestique" with the Italian team Liquigas. ("Domestiques" are riders whose chief job is to to the heavy lifting that allows the sprinters and the mountain men to shine. Beltran paved many a path for Lance Armstrong, in his days with U.S. Postal.)

Anyway, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this was an isolated case, and that the teams are finally smart enough to control their riders. As a Wall Street Journal article made clear yesterday, it's only good business. The article cites Jonathan Vaughters, the directeur sportif of Team Garmin-Chipotle, as "an anti-doping stalwart" who asserts that "teams like Garmin, Columbia and CSC-Saxo Bank are putting up enough empirical evidence that sponsors are buying into something they can believe in and isn't going to damage their brand."

It's nice that the two American teams, Garmin and Team Columbia, have been in the forefront of the anti-doping movement. "Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia," writes the Wall Street Journal, "(formerly Slipstream and High Road, respectively) in particular are at the front of the movement to clean up professional cycling, and the teams are awash in favorable press. Garmin-Chipotle captain David Millar, for instance, is an admitted former drug user who has since become an anti-doping advocate; and both teams conduct internal testing that exceeds requirements in an effort to always race clean."

"Bob Stapleton," the article continues, "owner of Team Columbia, agrees. 'These clear and concise anti-doping measures need to be implemented by all teams across the sport,' he said. 'Then I think you've removed the biggest risk element for sponsors and you can focus on what is fundamentally attractive—it's a growing and healthy sport, and it caters to very influential consumers.'" It's a good thing, then, that Team Columbia is performing so well, maintaining an overall lead in the race with Kim Kirchen, from Luxembourg, in the yellow jersey four days in a row; and with their young sprint star, Mark Cavendish, winning a stage on Saturday.

Okay. So, fingers crossed, I have been watching. There are those who felt that the new anti-doping move would deprive the sport of its excitement. Not so. From the flats to the individual time trials and, now, the mountains (the riders are in the Pyrenees, with one of the Tour's most exacting days today, le quatorze juillet, July 14, Bastille Day, have been no less exciting than previous Tours. Young, previously obscure cyclists have come to the fore, with extraordinary speed, skill, and endurance. The handful of prospects for the final yellow jersey, on the podium at the race's end in Paris, have ridden strong, canny races, and are likely to have to show their mettle today. The French, particularly, on Bastille day, go all out to make a patriotic showing, and we can expect to see them making a strong challenge to the leadership.

Yesterday, the first serious mountain-climbing day, gave the Italian climber, Riccardo Ricco, the opportunity to streak ahead of the main peloton on a steep mountainside and lead them all the way to the finish. I marvel at the strength of men like this, and their ability to persist despite the obvious pain involved in pushing the human body to its limits and, seemingly, beyond. I'm trusting, for now, that he did it honestly.

1 comment:

hele said...

I don't know much about the Tour but I love the yellow flowers and the image of the winner streaking ahead like a flame.