Saturday, July 28, 2007
Tainted Tour's final stage heavy with symbolism
By Bonnie DeSimone Special to ESPN.com
PARIS -- Hey, those wacky folks who put together the Tour de France route have a good one for you.
During Sunday's "ceremonial" 90.7-mile stage from the southern suburbs of Paris into the heart of the world's most elegant city, the peloton will pass through a very special destination at the 74-kilometer mark. Here's what the Tour's official "Guide Touristique" has to say about it:
Chatenay-Malabry: Cyclists are very familiar with the name of Chatenay-Malabry, as it is the headquarters of the national anti-doping research centre, which unfortunately confirms many positive tests on the Tour.
Now, we have to admit we wish we had seen this line in the itinerary before today. But the Tour is a three-week survival test for everyone who follows it, journalists included, and we tend to go day-by-day, never looking too far ahead. Now that we've read the map, we have a question. Did the course designers know something about this year's race that we didn't know?
Stage 20 also traverses Issy-les-Moulineaux, home to the corporate headquarters of the company that runs the Tour, Amaury Sports Organisation. Another one of ASO's holdings is the daily sports newspaper L'Equipe.
This could work out splendidly. The lab techs at Chatenay-Malabry could stand on the side of the road like the team staff members (called soigneurs) who hold feed bags (musettes), only instead of loading them with protein goop and tiny sandwiches and cakes and mini-colas, they'd be full of urine and blood test analysis results.
The Tour riders -- who all signed documents before the race swearing to do all they could in the effort to cleanse cycling of performance-enhancing drugs -- could act as bike messengers, picking up the packets and delivering them straight to the L'Equipe newsroom, where they usually wind up anyway.
You'll have to excuse us. We're a little punchy. The 2007 Tour has been a thrill a minute. Doping busts have spiced up the action with the compelling spontaneity of NASCAR crashes. The race turned on whose cover would be blown next rather than attacks in the mountain stages or the chaotic beauty of the sprint finish.
This Tour will be remembered as the one in which the pendulum swung the other way and stuck. In past years, fans, journalists and industry VIPs gave riders the benefit of the doubt. That chemistry has changed to just plain doubt. ASO president Patrice Clerc said it best: Cyclists now face the presumption of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence.
There will be a lot of wrecks by the side of the road as the sport tries to clean itself up, and not all of them will involve cheats. Some riders who don't deserve to be tarred with the same brush as the dopers will get mired in the muck, and some sponsors and managers and coaches and trainers and families will lose faith and a lot of money in the process.
Will we ever again believe in the sudden acceleration on a climb or the previously unknown rider who bursts onto the scene? Is the peloton cleaner if it's slower, or is it just the headwinds? Once we've lost our cycling religion, can we be re-born, or are we doomed to being athletically agnostic?
Cycling has broken a trust with the people who used to give it unconditional love. The sport got away with its infidelity for a long, long time, but the patience of the long-suffering partner -- that would be us -- has run dry. The estrangement could be lengthy, and divorce is a real possibility.
None of these misgivings are helped by the fact that the organizations that should be uniting against a common enemy are instead fighting a destructive civil war and seemingly relishing it. In the latest episode, the ASO is openly accusing cycling's international governing body, the UCI, of conspiring to make sure bad doping news (is there any other kind?) broke during the Tour in order to sabotage the event.
Way to go. Use the sharp knife to slit your own throat instead of cutting out the warts.
Perhaps there's some symbolism in where Stage 20 starts as well -- Marcoussis, site of France's national rugby center. These guys at the head of the alphabet soup groups are much better at pitching the ball laterally to someone else than they are at running with it and scoring themselves.
Meanwhile, the riders are so fractious and self-interested that they can't even organize the simplest start line sit-in. The divisiveness is a complete departure from the strong-armed players' associations we're familiar with in American pro sports. Unfortunately, that lack of structure doesn't serve the greater good.
A riders' union truly devoted to the health and welfare of its members might be a force against doping. As long as each guy is left alone in his room to make his to-do-or-not-to-do decisions, temptation frequently will trump common sense.
The elite cycling teams are split along moralistic lines, sparring about who's purest on the anti-doping issue. It's just not that easy. Two of the riders whose positive tests were announced during this Tour -- T-Mobile's Patrik Sinkewitz, whose result pre-dated the race, and Cofidis' Cristian Moreni -- belong to teams that are saying, and seem to be doing, a lot of the right things.
Cycling turned into another CSI spinoff this July, with more attention to forensic evidence than results on the road. Young Alberto Contador found himself at the center of this nasty vortex of suspicion at the Tour champion's traditional Saturday evening press conference. Only time will tell if he deserved the skeptical treatment he received.
Contador has stayed collected through most of his brief, unexpected tenure in the yellow jersey, answering questions under a bare light bulb that few of his predecessors could have imagined fielding.
But finally, under repetitive interrogation about why his name would appear in the margins of a couple of pages in the Operacion Puerto doping investigation files, Contador finally did what tired riders do. He cracked.
"I don't have to demonstrate innocence to anyone," he said with a slight edge in his voice. "I am innocent -- what do I do, take some blood and give it to you?"
No. Just peel off at kilometer 74 on Sunday and hand it over to the people in the white coats by the side of the road. Vive le Tour.
Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.