Every July, I become a citizen of the world of sport -- as opposed to just of the Red Sox and the Yankees -- and become magnetized by the Tour de France, cycling's greatest extravaganza. This is not a bike ride in the park. Americans love their own brand of football and American-born basketball, especially the kind the semi-professional college kids play each March. But cycling is something else all together. The world loves the sport, especially the version put on each year in France when for 21 days of racing dozens of the world's elite riders challenge each other and the mountains in a test of courage unlike anything else in sport.
Created in 1903 by the L'Auto newspaper, the Tour covers 2,200 miles and serves as a magnificent travelogue of the beauty of France. (Are we allowed now to say something nice about France? Can I order French fries?) Combine the beautiful countryside and the enchanting villages with the real risks of cycling, and you have a splendid sporting event, covered live by motorcycled cameramen and helicopters. Each day's race, a stage, has a winner who often just has enough kick left to stretch across the finish line ahead of the on-rushing pack of riders, known as the peloton. The daily race results are accumulated and ultimately victory goes to the rider with the lowest combined time. The race ends with full pageantry on the cobble-stoned Champs-Elysees in Paris, a spectacle worthy of Charles de Gaulle marching to the Arc de Triomphe.
If you have never vicariously experienced the extraordinary performances of these world-class athletes, it is worth a look. (It is hidden on your basic cable dial on Versus and replayed each night just in case you can't take the days off from work to catch the live broadcast each morning.) These cyclists, organized into teams sponsored by corporations who pay the freight and receive valuable advertising in exchange, set out each day to traverse the French countryside at speeds above 50 mph. Just when you thought this was a simple road race down the picturesque landscape of the Loire valley, the course takes a turn up to (and over) a mile-high mountain. Injuries are common; fatalities are not unknown. (There have been three in the century-old event, the most recent in 1995.) Spectators stand for hours along the roadway waiting for the few moments when their heroes whiz by. Hundreds of thousands attend each day, and the price of admission is quite reasonable. It is free. Some rush into the roadway to run along with the riders. One can only wonder how the cyclists and the spectators avoid daily collisions.
The problems with the Tour, of course, are familiar ones for American sports fans. Some (many?) riders cheat. For more than a decade, the Tour has drug-tested riders and found an abundance of performance-enhancing drugs. There are many commentators who remain unconvinced that the great American cyclist, Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, could win seven Tours in a row without help from banned chemicals, but he never tested positive. Cyclists are drawn to EPO and other substances almost as a matter of survival. The Tour has responded with serious testing and disqualifications mid-race. Whole teams have been banned. Now that would be enough to cripple most sports, but cycling persists.
Should we condone the use of the "juice?" The fans booed Italy's Riccardo Ricci last week after he won two stages of the Tour, then tested positive. For those riders who suffer each day in the mountains, the possibility that another cyclist might have a less-painful ride must be painful indeed. The sport has tried to clean up its act, but to no avail. Already in this month's race, three top riders have tested dirty and been banished. The prospect of winning overwhelms the deterrence of shame for winning dirty.
The fight against doping continues, but it will ultimately fail. New ways to beat the testing system are already in the lab as this year's race continues. Unlike steroids, the drugs of choice in cycling do not disfigure the athletes into incredible hulks with bulging biceps, so we cannot tell who is a user. Will cycling's rabid fans lose interest in their sport if they know that their favorites take the juice? I think not, as long as there is a level playing field and all participants are allowed the same privilege. Would use of drugs by cyclists encourage youngsters to endanger themselves by following a similar regimen in hopes of prevailing in the Alps or the Pyrenees? Perhaps, but the current regime simply does not deter use. One would think that if a relatively-safe pharmaceutical assist was available, all athletes would consider using it in the same way they use other pain-killers.
Let me propose the following: The Tour now has a refined list of favorite (but banned) drugs. Let any cyclist or team chose to use anything on the list. They would then wear an appropriate letter on their jersey indicating their drug of choice, e.g., E for EPO. Like Hester Prynne's "A," these letters should be bright scarlet, so they would be visible against the various colored jerseys worn in the Tour. If a leader with a letter prevails in any stage, we would all know (or at least suspect) why. If the druggies failed to prevail, then their drug of choice might slip in the cycling marketplace. Would companies still sponsor a dirty team? I would think pharmaceutical manufacturers would run (or bike) towards the opportunity. We accept drug use everywhere in society with the notable exception of sport, where we shun those who partake.
Other cycling teams, of course, will chose to remain clean, and, like Lance Armstrong, some will win. Those would be victories for the ages as were his triumphs. There would still be work for drug testers. We would not want to put them out of business. They would insure that the victorious EPO team was only using that drug. This scheme would let the marketplace determine drug use rather than the moralists. We can get back to enjoying the racing, and this year's final week promises to be spectacular.
The drug prohibitionists, however, have the upper hand for now. We will grow tired of them as we did with those a century ago who drove our beer underground. While waiting for the peloton to make it to our spot on the mountain, let's hope there is time to have a Belgian Budweiser.