THE TOUR IS FINISHED, 2007
“The Tour de France is finished. It has been killed by its own success, by the passions it has released, the injuries and filthy suspicions caused by the ignorant and the wicked.” Not a lament over this year’s tarnished edition, but the reflection of the organiser Henri Desgrange after the 1904 race, ruined by widespread cheating, with the first three finishers disqualified and victory awarded to Henri Cornet. Desgrange was wrong, but his words may ring true 103 years on.
As a journalist first, and a cyclist second, it’s hard to navigate the tortured currents that have swirled around the Tour for the last nine years; Desgrange would have understood that. At times, I find myself vigorously defending the event and some of the men who do it, against those who doubt its worth and assert that every cyclist in the field must dope, without exception. A minute later I am speculating, yet again, on who is or isn’t doing what, in the face of some naïf who believes in the probity of some Spaniard or Italian who has a nice face, a dodgy doctor, a bent team manager and blames the press for the doping crisis.
Like anyone who loves this sport, who races a bike for pleasure, I am sick of this, completely and utterly fed up with it. I didn’t begin riding a bike in order to become an expert on blood values, testosterone ratios and the Kremlinology of interpreting which cyclist works with a particular controversial trainer and who says what about doping. I love cycle racing as a spectacle, as a sport to write about, but the days of covering the Tour “straight” ended in 1998. As a journalist, there is a certain grim fascination in it all: the bizarre lies, the extent of the deception and the self-deception among the drug takers, the spectacular twists of events. Bad news is a good story.
It is not an easy story. As a specialist writer in cycling of 20 years standing, I am expected to know exactly who is taking what. I don’t, any more than the rider who asserts that X is clean, any more than the managers who wonder what the guy who won the day’s stage took, or the officials who run the sport. I know the problem is massive, and have my ideas about who is flouting the rules, but libel law usually means I have to keep them to myself. Sometimes I simply get it wrong.
With that in mind, here is my prognosis. The Tour is not finished: for the moment at least, copious television fees from the French broadcasters will ensure its survival. But what is completely uncertain is whether the 2007 race marks the “dead cat bounce”, the low point after which the sport becomes cleaner, or whether it is the first of several “difficult” years through which the race struggles for credibility before either slipping off the scale altogether or gradually regains what it has lost. No one can tell. There is a fourth scenario, however, one that is hard to contemplate at present: things could get worse. And if you discount that one, bear in mind that when Floyd Landis tested positive, that seemed as bad as it could get…
This column appeared in August 2007. Clearly the Tour wasn’t finished that year at least…