27 July 2007

The Catch

Tour de France: The Catch
By Benoît Hopquin and Stéphane Mandard
Le Monde

Thursday 26 July 2007

Whoever wins the Tour de France 2007 this Sunday, July 29, one thing is virtually certain: his photograph will not figure in the hallways of the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) in Issy-les-Moulineaux. The event organizer used to hang up big autographed portraits of the winners. The series stopped with Miguel Indurain, the yellow jersey from 1991 to 1995.

Subsequent laureates - all involved in doping - had to be consigned to the basement. The Dane Bjarne Riis (1996) confessed. German Jan Ulrich (1997), implicated in a transfusion affair, was ordered to do the same thing by his former Deutsche Telekom teammates and German public opinion. Italian Marco Pantani (1998) tragically ended a life of addiction. American Lance Armstrong (1999-2005) has been accused by some members of his entourage and confounded by a number of tests. Lastly, his compatriot Floyd Landis, declared positive for testosterone after his 2006 victory, is trying to keep the Tour payout through legal action. From what we have seen up to now, this litany continues in 2007, after the Danish yellow jersey holder Michael Rasmussen was thrown out by his team on Wednesday, July 25.

"The last fifteen years, it's been impossible to know who would have been the best cyclist of his generation," observes Greg LeMond, three-time Tour winner (1986, 1989 and 1990). "Doping now allows a racer's abilities to improve by 30 percent. It has consequently totally upset the rankings." The American had to leave the field at age 33 when EPO arrived, while others of the same age have set out to defy the laws of physiology. "Today, if we had to participate in the Tour with our best racers of the period, Hinault, Fignon and myself, we wouldn't even have been among the top fifteen racers," the former racer continues.

Year after year, the insane escalation continues. "In the final Beille plateau ascent (July 22), Contador and Rasmussen were faster than Armstrong and Basso in 2004." This statistic comes from the best source: the personal web site of Doctor Michele Ferrari. That Italian introduced EPO to the field during the 1990s and has taken care of prepping - among others - Lance Armstrong and Alexander Vinokurov, who was eliminated from the Tour Tuesday July 24 after testing positive.

The doctor, who had largely sculpted Armstrong's dazzling performances, claims to be "impressed" with the changes in rhythm Michael Rasmussen and the Spaniard Alberto Contador, new leader in the overall standing, proved capable of. He is no more impressed than Gilles Delion. The former great hope of French cycling, also prematurely chased off the squad at the beginning of the EPO years, oscillates between anger and amusement as he follows the mountain stages on television. "When we remember how Bernard Hinault climbed these hills and we watch today's speed, we can clearly see there is a problem."

"Athletic credibility is ruined. The gangrene follows us and doesn't let up," Martial Gayant, athletic director for La Française des jeux, recently vituperated to Agence France-Presse. Even the ASO no longer has any illusions about the value of the athletic performances. This Tour "was a fantastic opportunity to win back [our reputation]. It's been blown!" conceded Christian Prudhomme, the contest's director.

In Germany, disconcerted by the repeated confessions, public television has decided to suspend coverage of the race. On that side of the Rhine, less than 15 percent of the people polled by Financial Times Deutschland still assert they take an interest in the Tour. After the latest affronts, part of the European press is heralding the death foretold of the Tour and of cycling. Sponsors are wondering what to do. In France, according to a poll commissioned by Le Journal du dimanche, 78 percent of those surveyed "doubt the honesty of the results."

But 52 percent of them still say they "love the Tour." Television audiences have remained more or less stable since 1998 and the Festina affair. After the Council of Ministers' meeting on Wednesday, July 25, government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez assured the organizers of presidential support. "The Tour de France is one of the symbols of French identity and a month of July without the Tour de France is no month of July," Nicolas Sarkozy declared to his ministers.

"People take pleasure in seeing their time punctuated. The Tour is part of the cycles that have come to be set. It has become a ritual," François Jost, Professor at Paris-III University, television specialist and author of the recent "L'Empire du loft (la suite)," published by La Dispute, says the same thing in a different way.

So, even denuded of a good measure of its athletic value, the Grande Boucle continues to interest people. "We enter the fictional domain a little. The television watcher says to himself: 'Yeah, I know, but still ...' He watches the race like a soap opera," François Jost continues. "The Tour brings together all the conditions for a good story. There's the quarry and the pursuer. In a certain way, doping just spices up the story by adding a new angle."

"The Vinokurov affair revolts bicycling fans. But for other people, it supplies a subject for workplace, cocktail or dinner discussion. Those people don't watch the Tour as a sport, but as a show," Christophe Bassons asserts in the same vein. This former racer rejected doping and got himself thrown out of competition at the end of the 1990s for his hard-line positions. "The question of whether or not to stop the Tour must be preceded by another one: Is it a sport or is it a show?"

That's the syndrome of the American "catch," a "comedy" in which, as per a recent study, a number of actors gorged on steroids die in their forties. Greg LeMond does not want to believe in this nightmare. "People come to see clean racers, otherwise they'll stop watching."

The American praises the recent efforts of the ASO, keenly criticizes the inertia of the International Cycling Union and pleads that the former emancipate itself from the latter. "I want to believe that things can get better," he insists. "There is no comparable athletic event. The landscapes traversed, the people who follow the race from the side of the road, the atmosphere that radiates from that, make it something unique. The Tour de France cannot die."

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