The 2009 Tour de France ended like a long breath
held and exhaled. It seemed like we were all waiting for something
to go wrong- the other shoe to drop. A positive dope test- a
scandal- something else to further discredit a sport already
on the ropes. It never came.
This was a Tour of hope, of rebuilding. A return
to innocence. A return to bicycle racing.
The Tour de France and cycling in general were
wounded. Positive drug tests, a non-defined cast of characters
and a lack of confidence in competitive drama had jaundiced
the Tour until it became a less and less convincing competitive
satire. Everyone was suspect of doping; the characters seemed
shallow and suspect. Cycling may not have died, but its pulse
was very weak.
Like any reversal of a trend it wasn’t one
thing that helped the Tour de France turn a corner in 2009.
And like any significant trend the cynicism hasn’t been
wholly reversed. An amalgam of factors contributed to the healing
we saw at this year’s Tour de France.
Lance Armstrong returned. Regardless of your opinion
of Armstrong you can’t deny his celebrity. Whether it
is a visit by the Dalai Lama or a plane crash people want to
see it. Same with Armstrong. His supporters were out in droves,
his detractors too. Television ratings worldwide for the Tour
de France were up over 50% according to one source. In short:
there was a show of force- a surge of passion. It wasn’t
boring. Armstrong returning to the Tour de France put the event
back in U.S. headlines. On Sunday The U.S. news tickers did
not read “Contador wins” they read, “Armstrong
Third in Tour”. In the United States, cycling is back
on the radar. Let me ask you this, after Armstrong retired,
can you name the men who won the Tour de France and the year
they did it?
There was even a détente between two men
who had become estranged. I’m a friend of OLN Commentator
Frankie Andreu, former teammate of Armstrong. Andreu is the
very best of people, candid and forthright. The rift between
Andreu and Armstrong wasn’t a secret. This year the two
men worked together as journalist and subject. Andreu knew the
questions we all wanted answers to. Armstrong answered Andreu’s
interview questions thoughtfully- except on the occasion that
Andreu’s reporter’s sense came to close to the core
of the matter. In any event, both men worked well together and
provided a rare insight into The Tour and Lance Armstrong. It
speaks well of both of them and offers some hope for further
healing of the divisions in the sport.
It wasn’t just a reduction of the negative
that drove this year’s Tour. It was an emerging cast of
animated characters. The Boy from The Isle of Man, Mark Cavendish,
was a blinding bright spot in this year’s Tour. His commanding
stage wins and his failure to secure the green points jersey
made for drama. Protagonist Thor Hushovd was cast in the Lurch-like
role of villain to Cav’s boyish candor and a star was
born. It’s easy to appreciate them both: The older, more
calculating Hushovd who won his well deserved green jersey with
guile and calculation and the brash but appreciative Cavendish
who smacks of arrogance but is quick to thank team mates for
their laser guided lead-outs. The green jersey points competition
is intended to be a race within a race and this year it delivered
like few previous Tours de France.
As we held our breath for the scandals that never
came subterfuge boiled between Armstrong and Contador. The lid
never boiled off the pot during the race even though the journalists
turned up the burner. The BBC World News and Velo-News did report
the two aren’t best buddies after the race, but during
the race they wore the same jersey as sportsmen, cyclists and
teammates. Good for them, better for us. Now that the jerseys
(and gloves) have come off we’re already wondering about
next year’s Tour de France.
Our winner this year, Alberto Contador, is a sheepish
man. Soft spoken and awkward with rehearsed victory salutes
as he tries to feign the swagger of a pistolero. Contador isn’t
a swashbuckler. He’s a quiet kid who can pedal a bike.
The media coaches’ attempts to make him into a character
are heavy handed. He’s a rube dancing at the end of someone’s
strings. I say put Contador on a Spanish team with his bumpkins
and let them unleash a running of the bulls all over Armstrong
next year while the Texan tries to pull off the last round up.
Al Condator may be able to out pedal the Texan, but the pistolero,
the Frito Bandito won’t be able out horse handle Armstrong
in the mind game rodeo.
The BBC World News reports that Tour de France
Director Christian Prudhomme is “relishing” the
idea of a grudge match between Armstrong and Contador on different
teams in 2010. The French may revel in this since the rank n’
file French cycling fan holds Armstrong in much less regard
than U.S. cycling mavens. No doubt the French fans will side
with the doe-eyed Contador while the Americans will hope for
Armstrong to defy looming geriatrics in addition to cancer and
provide another Texas style tour de force.
Cynics suggest the 2009 Tour de France wasn’t
a return to innocence but the result of new doping techniques
that are more difficult to detect. It is a case of the fox watching
the chickens that the race organization itself and its governing
body are in charge of testing for drugs. They control the mechanism
of their own demise. Few organizations as vast as pro cycling
and the Tour de France are willing to bring themselves down
through internal revelation of a scandal. It isn’t wise
for the culture to consume itself. Some degree of cynicism will-
and should- always exist. A succession of clean Tours may restore
confidence in the validity of cycling’s athletes. It doesn’t
mean they should stop testing and developing new tests. The
motive for developing new performance enhancing drugs that subvert
detection trumps the Tour’s internal desire to destroy
itself through another succession of drug scandals.
I’m a fan of the Tour de France and its
heroes and legends. I want to believe the race is clean(er).
It inspires me. I’ve never made it through watching an
entire Tour de France with dry eyes. There is always something
that touches me on a very essential level. The themes of struggle,
tragedy, sacrifice and triumph. There is enormous tradition
and history- not just of the sport, but the struggle of a beautiful
nation on a world stage. A nation so connected with the aesthetic.
As world history has gone, so has the Tour de France. The struggles
and triumphs of the race mirror our own personal ones, but played
out in conspicuous and clear cut terms: A bike, a man, the weather,
a mountain, the other racers- if only all of life were so simple.
A rider’s entire life and worth are distilling to a single
mountain ascent or a dashing sprint. Such definition and clarity
in life’s struggles is rare.
So I’ll tell you the Tour de France is back.
I’ll suggest this year’s Tour went a long way toward
healing deep rifts between cycling and its fans. I say this
year’s race produced drama and suspense on many levels
I’m happy we’ve begun a process
of healing in what is the most beautiful sporting spectacle