Saturday, July 28, 2007

Cycling Fans Retain Passion in Face of Scandal

Sports of The Times
July 29, 2007

One thing I have discovered during the past cataclysmic week of the Tour de France is that thousands of literate and angry cycling fans out there resent the sport’s being linked to suspicions about dog-torturing quarterbacks, steroid-bloated sluggers and crooked referees.

My correspondents, many of them avid cyclists, insist that the heightened testing and the handful of dropouts from this Tour make cycling the cleanest sport around. They say, look at the riders being bounced for the mere appearance of mendacity, to say nothing of a trace of dope.

All the tension of the last three weeks was temporarily obliterated yesterday during the sensational time trial as Alberto Contador, a Spaniard with Discovery Channel, barely held on to his lead going into today’s normally processional final stage.

Contador had supplied the new motto for the Tour on Thursday while assuring reporters, “Yes, I’m clean.” Then he added, “If I were not, I wouldn’t be here.”

Nothing against Señor Contador, but all of us have been burned in recent years by damning samples or suspicions about one rider or another. On Wednesday, Michael Rasmussen, the Dane who was leading the Tour, was bounced for having told his Rabobank bosses he was training in Mexico while in fact he was in Italy.

These suspensions are offered as a good sign by passionate cycling fans, several of whom said that if such high standards for honesty were enforced in other sectors, then members of Congress, Cabinet members, clergy and business executives would be sacked regularly. Maybe even the odd journalist.

This loyalty to cycling is touching. Anybody who goes out for a spin identifies with these lean athletes who punish themselves on the highways and mountains of La Belle France. Watching the kaleidoscopic beauty of the Tour in recent weeks, listening to the knowledgeable Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen on the Versus network, made me love the sport even more.

But as a reporter who covers this sport, I have to say this: Even serious amateur riders who put in hundreds of miles are essentially living in another universe from desperate Tour cyclists, who have been allowed — or forced — to cheat, and have paid for it with their lives.

Start with Tom Simpson, who died on Mont Ventoux in 1967 with a supply of amphetamines on him; or Marco Pantani, the 1998 Tour winner, who died alone in a hotel room in 2004 after he had wrecked his career with performance-enhancing drugs. Then there was the plague of more than a dozen sudden deaths around 1990 from a synthetic blood booster, described by David Walsh in his book, “From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France.”

Walsh writes how the drug erythropoietin, or EPO, “produced more red cells, the blood thickened and caused clots when the flow slowed during sleep.”

“After the clot came fatal cardiac arrest,” he said.

Walsh describes how some cyclists hooked themselves up to pulse monitors at night and, if the alarm went off, they would frantically exercise to save their lives.

Some of the great cyclists of the postwar era died young, including Jacques Anquetil at 53 and Fausto Coppi at 41, both of whom used to joke about the drugs they put in their systems.

For decades, the world cycling body, the International Cycling Union, did not want to know, and neither did the company that runs the Tour. Now the two groups are feuding over who is to blame. The news media and fans also overlooked signs of chicanery over the years. It took upgraded Olympic testing and scrutiny by law enforcement agencies all over Europe, and perhaps profit-related shame of the sponsors to embarrass cycling into taking steps now being applauded.

“In fact, this is really good for the sport,” David Millar told The Times of London last week. “Finally, team management are assuming their responsibilities, which they weren’t before.” Millar, a British cyclist, would know, having confessed to doping in 2004, then serving a two-year suspension. Now he’s a crusader for higher standards.

How clean is cycling these days? On Thursday I angered American cycling buffs by calling for a citizens’ rebellion against drugs. That day, the director of the Tour, Christian Prudhomme, was quoted as saying: “We need a revolution. Only a revolution will change the system. The system doesn’t work. We need to change that system. It’s clear that the system has betrayed the fans.”

Other readers insist that athletes should be allowed to use drugs because they are hurting only themselves. If only that were so. In an age of bulked-up pro athletes, high school coaches have been telling spindly youngsters to put on more muscle, or not make the team. It took deaths of youngsters who tried steroids before Congress shamed baseball officials and union leaders into realistic testing.

As we saw again yesterday, the Tour is still a compelling spectacle. After this last week of ghastly publicity, American cycling buffs insist the sport has moved far ahead of other pro sports. That may be true, but it is hardly a compliment.



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