The Tour is in its final week, and, against my expectations, it has been an exciting and rewarding race to follow. Now that we have finished with the Alps and this year's Tour has defined itself, let's look at some things we've learned.
1. The Tour is still a great sporting event, perhaps the most challenging test of overall human athletic skill and endurance devised.A Tour GC rider needs aerobic condition to simply stand the blistering pace of moving a human-powered vehicle over 100km a day for 19 days. He needs strength to climb mountains, agility to conquer descents at over 50 miles an hour. He needs determination and the ability to overcome the range of pain from discomfort to agony just to stay on the seat for the thousand miles from Brittany to Paris. Other sports require many different, difficult strengths and skills. But I still consider this event to be the most all-around demanding on the body and mind of the contestants.2. A huge part of the appeal of this race is the place, and the history behind it. To be able to compare the riders today with the great riders of the past who also climbed the Alpe d'Huez or raced the narrow lanes of the little villages in the Cotes-de-Rhone; this is the stuff that makes sport into lore, and eventually into legend.
3. The Tour still faces a very, very difficult battle with cheating in the form of drugs and performance-enhancing substances like EPO. The performance of the Italian rider Ricardo Ricco of Saunier Duval on the Col d'Aspin and the Super Besse had seemed like wonderful racing and brilliant riding by a team not considerd a GC threat. But, as with the "heroic" comeback of Floyd Landis in 2006 and the dramatic rides of Alex Vinokourov last year, the real "hero" turned out to be Ricco's doctor. His blood test revealed a fairly sophisticated cheating using a form of EPO not commonly seen before.The Saunier Duval team withdrew, and, later, Barloworld, one of the older sponsors of cycling in the Tour, announced that it was leaving the sport.
Make no mistake: the Tour isn't clean now, and it won't be for some time. These guys ride for a living; they're not in this for the honor of the side and the nobility of the sport. They're in it for a paycheck and because they want to win. The sport HAS to distrust them, and test them, and ensure that the cheaters are caught and punished. Only then will the sport be sure that athletic skill, and not creative chemistry, is winning these races.4. There's something about great champions. But there's something to be said for NOT having a great champion. The Lance Armstrong years were fun. He was a great rider, and he and Johan Brunhyl made U.S Postal (I still can't think of them as "Discovery") into a great team. It was fun to try and figure out how he'd managed to defeat his challengers, and he was awesome (in the slightly frightening way that truly monumental things can be) to watch.
But great champions can also be pretty boring. No one ever wondered who was going to win the American League pennant in the 1920s and 1930s. No one ever lost sleep trying to figure out the chances of a Fuzzy Zoeller victory in U.S. Opens that Tiger Woods played in. This year has been a terrific fight for the yellow jersey; at the beginning of yesterday's stage six men were within one minute of each other - three within 10 seconds! Today there were still four riders inside of a minute, and that with the monster, the Alpe d'Huez, coming up. Now THAT'S a dogfight!5. Having said that, it seems to me that Team CSC is proving to be the big dog in this fight. I was tremendously impressed with the fight that CSC took up the Col de la Bonnette, although other observers castigated them for missing the opportunity to put the other GC contenders in jeopardy. Still, with Carlos Sastre and both the Schleck brothers (one in yellow as of this morning) in the top ten, you have to think that CSC is going to be hard to push off the top step of the podium in Paris...
So if you're reading the stories about the dopers and concluding that this year is just another sleazy sideshow, think again. For all its problems, for all the little men with their little games, the Tour is once again both great race and great human drama. Once again, the winds of paradise are blowing atop the Col de la Croix de Fer; where are you who long for paradise?