Tour de France or Tour du dopage?

If you’ve been following this year’s Tour de France, you’ll have been surprised, shocked or stunned by the past three days. Three successive riders have been excluded from the Tour: two-stage winner Alexander Vinokourov, who tested positive for “blood doping”, or being transfused with the blood of another person to boost his red blood cell count; Cristian Moreni, who tested positive for testosterone; and Michael Rasmussen, who tested positive for stupidity (he had told his team he was training in Mexico, when he was actually in Italy—cyclists have to be very up-front about where they train). And prior to these three, there was Patrick Sinkewitz, who had tested positive for testosterone, but during a previous race; the results only came down during the Tour. (The entire teams of Vinokourov and Moreni were also excluded from the Tour; as I write, it is not clear whether Rasmussen’s team will be excluded, or if it will drop out on its own initiative.)

What can one say about a race that has become a farce as this year’s Tour has? That it is “riding into infamy“, as Samuel Abt, International Herald Tribune sportswriter and cycling Yoda, said? It is the greatest cycling race in the world, and the most difficult; this difficulty, is, in part, the reason why so many riders try to improve their riding through chemistry, but tests are so sophisticated these days that it’s close to impossible to succeed. Or at least one would hope so. Given the number of riders who get caught, it makes you wonder if there aren’t many more who manage to avoid getting tested. After all, only the winner of each stage and a few other racers get tested each day; there are some random tests, but I don’t know if every rider in the peloton gets tested once during the three-week race.I’ve been following the Tour de France since 1996, when I started working as a freelancer. The Tour is the ideal television sport: you can only get a glimpse of it on the roads of France, but on TV, the French broadcast for 4 to 6 hours a day. Since I live in France, I get all this excitement live. In addition, I live along a road that the Tour often follows–the road that leads to the col d’Izoard–and the race comes by my home every two years or so. It’s spectacular and exciting to see this behemoth of sweat race by at speeds that I can only attain in a car. Over the years, as I learned to understand the subtleties of this individual sport raced by teams, I have come to appreciate its difficulties. But now, with the suspicion that any winner is on chemicals, is there any point in watching?

Some commentators have suggested that the Tour should stop; that continuing on to Paris this year would be a travesty. I agree; as sad as it would be, finishing the race would be even worse. Can you imagine the politicians standing next to the “winners” on the Champs Elysées on Sunday? The Minister of Sports (yes, there is one in France) as already been vocal about the first couple of cases of doping discovered; if she were to appear on Sunday as the prizes are awarded, that would look hypocritical.

Part of the problem is that this race, like all others of its kind, is a private enterprise run by a private company. They certainly don’t want to lose money, so they hang on by their fingertips to a situation they can no longer control. Yet as the years go by, and doping is an issue in every single race, they cannot continue as they are. (Already, the IOC is talking about removing cycling from the Olympics; the damage is to more than just the Tour.) They would do much more good by stopping the race today and confronting the problem head-on than by limping on to Paris, only to start the whole cycle again next year.

I hope that they powers that be in cycling can find a solution to this problem. This is a noble sport, one that is interesting to watch and that inspires great popular interest–you only have to look at the roads during the race to see some of the millions of people who come out to watch the Tour whiz by. I know of no other sport where you can be so close to the action (albeit for a very brief period; they ride very fast), or even practice the sport yourself on the very same arena as the professionals. It would be a shame for cycling to turn into a mockery of itself; think professional wrestling on wheels. (See Rob Griffiths’ tongue in cheek idea for new rules for the Tour.)

We’ll see soon if the politicians get involved. French president Sarkozy made a well-publicized visit to the Tour this year; he’s long been a fan of the event, as well as an amateur cyclist. It’s time for him to speak out, or to convince the organizers of the race that it’s time to cut their losses.