So, yes, I did watch. I had some hesitation about watching this year, after all the doping scandals that have undermined the sport and tainted so many of its great champions. The jury is still out on some of them--including Contador and, sadly, Lance Armstrong. But like a good addict, I allowed myself to get hooked again and watched every grueling stage from start to finish, twenty one of them in all. Thanks to the marvels of modern TV technology, I did speed through the commercials and the boring parts--which consists, usually, of the first couple of hours, when a breakaway group speeds up ahead of the main peloton without, usually, much expectation of still leading at the end. The peloton is a curious, shift-shaping, amoebic creature, a hundred and more cyclists in a meandering but somehow purposeful bunch, and more often than not they swallow up their prey before the finish line. It's the last few minutes of each stage that are gripping, with individual riders vying desperately for the glory of winning a stage.
It's all rather complicated, but fascinating to watch the strengths and weaknesses of men emerge when they are put to the test. You have to admire the grit that takes them up long, steep mountainsides, sometimes between dangerously pressing ranks of cheering spectators. (What is it, I wonder, that compels men with pot bellies to shed most of their clothes at the top of icy mountains and run alongside the riders shrieking wildly? Is it the beer?) There is no other sporting event, I think, that demands so much of its athletes. They need every last ounce of their energy each day, simply to survive.
I was glad, too, that the American team of Garmin-Cervelo turned in the best team performance. They had made much of their strict, exemplary anti-doping policy, and proved a point when they finished with three riders in the top twenty, even though they had lost their team leader, Dave Zabriskie, to an earlier crash. The New York Times published an article yesterday, "A Doping-Free Tour de France?"--with a question mark at the end of the title. At least one rider was disqualified for breaking the rules on this score.
It did seem that efforts to control this problem have paid off. Still, if only because of the past history, I watched the most astounding feats of strength and stamina this year with a regretful touch of skepticism. The spectacle of Alberto Contador, a champion whose performance had been frankly indifferent thus far this year, streaking up ahead of the pack on the infamous Alpe d'Huez, left me unhappily suspicious. The same, even more sadly, with the incredible time-trail performance of Cadel Evans, which won him the Tour. The pleasure is tainted with the edge of suspicion: did they or didn't they?
It all comes down to a matter of trust. And professional cycling is not alone in having undermined our trust in the fairness of the playing field. Nor, indeed, are sports in general, despite the particular attention they receive. Can we really take the good faith of business on trust any more? Can we trust the media, responsible for providing us with the information that we need? Can we trust the fairness of the political election process? I fear that as we humans continue to overpopulate the world and find ourselves in increasingly vicious and competitive battle for survival, we become more ready to cheat others in our struggle for primacy. It's a matter of doing whatever it takes to win. In this, the Tour de France is not some deplorable exception, but rather simply a mirror of our culture.