For some reason I’ve become addicted to Le Tour de France. Maybe not addicted, but I’ve watched some of each stage this year and I’ve seen the finish of most of the stages. I guess for me it’s all about the finish.
It’s amazing to me that a group of almost 200 guys can start out on bikes, travel 140 or so miles, and the difference between first and second that day will be the width of a bike tire. For me, it’s similar to auto racing. I’m not a huge fan of auto racing, but I appreciate the science, engineering, and level of support it takes to get a car to travel 500 miles at full speed.
My favorite finishes in the TdF are the ones where 2, 3, or even 4 teams have organized and are at the front of the peloton with 4 or 5 kilometers to go. The teams arrange themselves in columns with their top rider at the rear. Then as they approach the finish, less than a kilometer away, they all start sprinting, and the lead riders of those columns start peeling off the front in succession until, at just a few meters to the finish, the top riders are left to battle it out, having benefited from the draft of their team.
The other thing about the peloton is how fast it moves. I know it doesn’t look so fast watching on TV, but they tell me it’s moving at 25-28 MPH over flat roads, and 21-25 MPH up hill. And that’s over a course measuring 100 miles and more. Each day. For three weeks in a row. With dozens of cyclists just inches from each other. I’ll admit, cycling is not for everyone. Most people see it the way I see soccer on TV (zzzzzzz), but there’s something mesmerizing about watching the peloton wind its way around the French countryside (just like it’s mesmerizing to watch Snoopy sneak across the French countryside in the Great Pumpkin every year, but that’s a digression).
I have to admit, I’m not a great cyclist. I can’t even say I love to go out and ride, but watching le Tour makes me feel like I could go out a ride a century no problem.
There’s not any one rider for whom I root. I don’t know any of the guys well enough to get behind them. I do dig the drama on Team Sky where they decided to leave Bradley Wiggins (the winner two years ago) at home in favor of Chris Froome (the winner last year), but Froome crashed early in the race and is out. Surely they rue the day they left Wiggins and his sideburns home and off the rue de Rivoli.
No discussion about the Tour de France is complete without mentioning doping, is it? May I get a little philosophical? Rules are rules and when we voluntarily enter a race we should go by the rules of that race, but why should doping be illegal? They are called performance enhancing drugs. As athletes, almost everything they do is performance enhancing. Nutrition, work outs, massages, hydration, practice-it’s all performance enhancing. So why is a performance enhancing drug not allowed?
To answer my own question I guess I’d say it’s because it provides an unfair advantage over those who don’t want to use a drug to enhance their performance. Why wouldn’t they want to use a drug? Because there could be harmful side effects. But what if there weren’t any harmful side effects, at least not any more harmful than the rigors of completing a 2000 mile race in three weeks? The possible side effects of erythropoietin (EPO, one of the drugs Lance used) are high blood pressure, swelling, fever, dizziness, nausea, pain at the injection site. I had all that and more after my last marathon. EPO is given to cancer patients to make them feel better!
Then there’s the whole question of what’s a drug and what’s a supplement. I use protein powder in my shakes. It’s said to be performance enhancing and is certainly not natural in the sense that it’s naturally occuring in the form I use it. In fact it had to be developed in a lab and then produced via man-made processes.
Me? I go by the rules. I don’t draft (triathlon). I don’t cross the double yellow line, I don’t wear my earbuds, I don’t even use performance enhancing drugs. I do understand, however, why an athlete would be tempted to do so. I suppose a world class athlete is always looking for that something that will put him over the top. Once you’ve trained as hard as you can train, and your bike weighs next to nothing, and your coaches are introducing you to it, I can see why someone would free base a little EPO, especially if he thought he could get away with it.
In the end, though, le Tour did the right thing in vacating all those titles. Sure, eveyone was doing it, but rules are rules. Let’s hope the fellows this year are clean as a whistle so we don’t feel dirty later for watching all these stages.