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Healing.
By Tom Demerly.

 

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 except cheating.

I’m happy we’ve begun a process of healing in what is the most beautiful sporting spectacle on earth.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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