Today, less than a decade after the roof fell in on the 1998 Tour, professional cycling is supposed to be engaged in the messy and improbable process of reconstructing itself and its “credibility” all over again. And there are compelling reasons to attempt, or at least create the illusion of, some kind of reform. Teams and sponsors have a lot of money at stake, and a loyal army of 15 million fans is ready to line the roads and watch the heroes and the journeymen of the Tour pedal, climb, descend, and display their suffering up close and personal. The question is, however, can this tiger change its stripes?
“I’d like to believe we’re in the final death spasms of the doping era,” the president of the Versus media company, Gavin Harvey, said recently. Versus holds the rights to the Tour, and Harvey deserves credit for candor. Other commentators with their own vested interests have been less committed to realistic assessments of what can be done. The former German politician Rudolf Scharping, now head of the German Cycling Federation, warned against “demonizing” the sport. IOC president Jacques Rogge, apparently ignoring the shameful history of the UCI’s cover-ups, said “It is not the UCI who is cheating, it is the riders who are cheating,” thereby perpetuating the myth that doping is a sin only of the individual, not of cycling itself.
It’s worth noting that Riis has not been fired as director of the CSC team. On the contrary, the suits who hired him say a repentant Riis is just the man to lead CSC into a new age of drug-free cycling.
British rider David Millar, the repentant ex-doper who has returned to cycling, put it more bluntly: “We’ve reached a kind of endgame. It won’t be ethics that brings this whole thing to a halt. It’ll be money.”
For the moneymen to pull this off, they must persuade their hirelings that drug-free cycling is in their best interests. So far, however, cycling officials have been having a rough ride. The UCI is now requiring all ProTour riders to submit DNA samples for the Operation Puerto investigation and to sign an anti-doping agreement that includes the following oath: “I do solemnly declare, to my team, my colleagues, the UCI, the cycling movement and the public that I am not involved in the Puerto [blood doping] affair nor in any other doping case and that I will not commit any infringement of the UCI anti-doping rules.”
Richard Drew / AP
Floyd Landis signs a copy of his book 'Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour De France' for Blair Ely, 11, of Nashville, Tenn. Landis has waged a months-long campaign to rebut allegations that he used testosterone to win the 2006 Tour de France.
However distressed one may be about the doping crisis in global sport, the fact remains that the doping spectacle is one of the great soap operas on earth. On the one hand, doping must be taken seriously, because it is an informal and invaluable referendum on what the human race will want to do with performance-enhancers of all kinds during the 21st century.
Less seriously, there is the irresistible carnival atmosphere of a regional race held in beautiful weather with a few celebrity athletes on display. Just ask Ewald Strohmeier, the chief organizer of the recent Tour of Bavaria. Was Erik Zabel’s doping confession a problem this year?
On the contrary, Mr. Strohmeier replied, “it was tremendous publicity for the Tour of Bavaria, we’ve never had so many spectators.”
With the 2007 Tour about to send this year’s riders down the ramp and onto the roads, the standing of the sport has never been lower. As 3-time winner and American Greg LeMond recently put it, “The current situation is worse than in ’98 for the simple reason that ’98 happened and nothing has changed.”
The Operation Puerto scandal that was revealed last year, which connects more than 50 top riders to a Spanish doctor who is alleged to have managed their blood-doping operations, knocked stars like Ulrich and Ivan Basso out of the 2006 Tour, and their careers remain in limbo.
The French sports daily l'Equipe reported on Aug. 23, 2005 that Lance Armstrong had used the performance-enhancing drug EPO to win his first Tour de France title in 1999. L'Equipe devoted four pages to its allegations, with the front-page headline 'The Armstrong Lie.'
At the periphery of this chaotic soap opera stands Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour champion who has been defending himself against doping charges for almost a decade. "From Lance to Landis," the latest book by the Irish cyclist journalist David Walsh, is full of disturbing circumstantial evidence that Armstrong has consistently and tenaciously debunked.
That Armstrong has survived this assault so far has much to do with the halo-effect created by his unique stature as an icon for cancer survivors around the world. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that even the iron-willed Armstrong is unmoved by the sound of bodies dropping all around him. Many of his closest competitors and former teammates — think Tyler Hamilton — have been exposed as dopers, and the sport that took him to the top is literally crumbling under his feet.
Tour de France
2010 Tour de France
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.