Le Tour – sport’s most enduring institution

Cycling, it seems, is the sport that won’t die. That isn’t to imply that it is a zombie among sports, a weird pastime reserved for eccentric enthusiasts, the sporting equivalent of a character in a George Romero film. It won’t die because it transcends the familiar human failings that would have killed off lesser pursuits. It’s not Teflon coated, but it is in some nebulous way apparently scandal proof. Otherwise, how could it possibly retain public interest after the myriad scandals that have rocked the sport in recent decades. Their cumulative effect hasn’t even prevented the professional sport increasing its global footprint. Outside its European strongholds, there are top-level events in places as far flung as California, Australia and Oman. Recreationally, cycling is thriving as never before.

The greatest race, the Tour de France, begins this weekend in Utrecht, and as ever I am enthused at the prospect of what the next three weeks will bring. The coverage – sweeping helicopter shots, motorcycle cameras whizzing between breakaway groups and the peloton – never ceases to feel visceral and compelling. With its ability to present a coherent real time narrative of the unfolding of a race, television is arguably a more satisfying way of watching cycling. I say that as somebody who has seen the Tour in person three times. The first time was when I spent three hours sitting on the pavement by Patrick’s Bridge in Cork waiting for the bunch to flash by during the infamous 1998 Tour. Were it any other kind of occasion, it would have felt utterly futile and anticlimactic. The second was by the Serpentine in Hyde Park to watch the prologue of the 2007 Tour. I positioned myself as well as I could that time, on a bend, so I could see the riders for a few seconds longer. It was relatively easy to tell which riders relished the time trial, like Fabian Cancellara, and those who were just trying to get around as best they could. And then again last year, when the last stage in the UK paraded out of Cambridge.

Last year’s Tour, of course, belonged to Yorkshire. The event has rarely seen a more spectacular Grand Départ, and I have never seen TV footage of any kind like it. Watching the riders passing over the “Côte de Blubberhouses” and other passes that were renamed in French for those few days was extraordinarily moving. In the South, we did our best to show comparable levels of enthusiasm, but one has to be magnanimous about these things. Watching the buildup to the beginning of the stage in Cambridge, there were some announcers on a stage who had a few hours to pass before the riders signed in and rode off. While fielding questions from the crowd, somebody inevitably asked about Lance Armstrong, which elicited embarrassed chuckles, theatrical intakes of breath, and all the rest of it. At another point in the morning, seven times King of the Mountains winner Richard Virenque was introduced for an interview on the stage. Virenque, whose career was far from untarnished, was presented to the crowd as a Tour legend. It made me wonder whether Armstrong’s biggest crime was less his doping, and more his vindictive Godfather-style presence in the peloton during his pomp.

The question is worth exploring further. Has the cycling following public a more nuanced position on performance enhancing drugs than is generally believed to be the case? Is cycling a unique sport in this respect, in that it is perceived to have a limit of human endurance and endeavour beyond all others? Many of its participants have certainly thought so. Throughout the history of professional cycling, riders have often felt that the demands of races like the Tour have required them to take what measures they deem necessary. Henri Pelissier, winner of the Tour in 1923, used cocaine “for the eyes”. Five-time winner Jacques Anquetil famously said “You can’t ride the Tour de France on mineral water”. And at some level it appears a sizeable proportion of the public tacitly agrees.

But of course you can ride the Tour de France legally. The elite are more than well conditioned enough to get around the Alps, the Pyrenees, and whatever other challenge is presented to them. It long ago stopped being a test of survival – if it ever truly was – and is now, like every other modern day sport, about finding an edge. And finding an edge became especially cynical in the 1990s. To take but one example, 1996 Tour Winner Bjarne Riis, who confessed to using drugs in 2007, was given the moniker ‘Mr 60 percent’ because of his rumoured high haematocrit levels, a clear indication that he was taking EPO. Most riders don’t get into the sport with the intention of cheating, but it seems over time moral trade-offs are made, the justification being that they are only “leveling the playing field” because everybody else is doing it. That’s what Armstrong and many others believed.

There is a lot of sports science interest in cycling today, with power to weight ratios offering strong indications as to how clean the top riders are. The power levels of general classification contenders on the mountain stages are of particular interest. The times on the big climbs in recent years have been a little slower than they were between ten and twenty years ago, which suggests that we have a “cleaner” sport today. Though with performances hovering on the borderline of what is deemed physiologically possible without illegal performance enhancement, many would hesitate to confidently aver that cycling has fully eradicated doping.

Patrolling sport’s integrity will forever be a concern for its administrators. Where there are limits to be probed, intensely competitive sportspeople will always probe them. But cycling, it seems to me, will not live or die according to how people play the game. Cycling’s greatness, in my opinion, rests on its democratic nature. Its theatre is the public highway, and therefore it is closer to the people than any other sport. The greatest sporting event in the world kicks off today, and most of us will try to enjoy it as much as we honourably can, even in the knowledge that, without being complacent, no amount of scandal will likely ever derail it.

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