Sunday, July 25, 2010

91 hours in France.

The 97th Tour de France is over.Alberto Contador has won his third Tour, bringing him into the corona of the Greats; the equal of Philippe Thys in the Teens, Louison Bobetin the Fifties, and Greg Lemond in the Eighties and early Ninties. The next step is a fourth and fifth victory; if the Spaniard can manage that he will be assured a place in cycling history alongside Hinault, Merckx, and Big Mig Indurain. His performance in the individual time trial on Saturday was strong enough to allay most of the questions observers like myself had about the athletically acceptable but sportingly questionable attack on the Port de Balès on the 19th of July that put him in yellow.

This edition of the Tour will, sadly, probably be remembered more for the Last Tour of Lance rather than Third of Alberto.The spectacle of Armstrong struggling to keep up, his jersey ripped from crashing, is a worthwhile reminder of the incredible luck needed to even finish, much less win, this most grueling of athletic events. In the seven times the man won this event he never had a really bad day; never took a serious injury, never really fell catastrophically at speed as he did in Stage 8 this year. The pain he endured was the pain of victory, not the agony of defeat.You could make the argument that for a man of 39 twenty-third place is not a defeat. I doubt that Armstrong feels that way; he is what he must be to have won this race seven times - a predator, a man with a tremendous ego and need to win. No, regardless of his age, today must be a bitter end to his cycling career.

And, for me at least, this year asks some real tough questions about the man who was either Lance's strategic partner or his sock puppet, Johan Bruyneel. Because Team RadioShack was, in my opinion, a disaster this year. Yes, it won the "team GC" classification, traditionally a sort of booby-prize for the team with the most organization and least talent at the Tour. The very notion of building a team around a man of 39 was questionable; the notion of not having a Plan B in case that man crashed out or cracked was even more questionable. Sadly, Levi Leipheimer was exposed as merely a nice guy from Butte, Montana. He never put in a serious attack, never even looked remotely threatening. His thirteenth place was the result of grinding out decent, unspectacular, ultimately mediocre rides every day. That's not enough to become a great champion. He will have to step up his riding if he wants to step onto the podium. And at 37 he doesn't have much time.

The man who turned out to be the real GC hopeful for RadioShack, Chris Horner, was misused for three weeks carrying water for Armstrong or Leipheimer.

The question now is whether Brunyeel can find his next Armstrong or Contador. He has shown that he can't win through pure tactics. If he can't find the next Great his day may well be done.

Mark Cavendish won his fifteen sprint stage in two years.

Holy fuck, the man is fast.

Today is Contador's day in the sun on the Champs. His rival, though, will be back next year, with his brother Frank healthy, and there must be some concern in the Astana party tonight about the possibility of challenges from other of the riders that showed well this year such as Jurgen van den Broek of Lotto and Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin.

Perhaps the single biggest story is the one that has not been told about this year's Tour; the question of doping.

The UCI and the Tour organizers will tell you that the extremely low number of riders ejected for using CERA, ERO, tesosterone, HGH, or any of the many other chemical and blood products that the sport has been saturated with since the Nineties means that the testing is working, and that the dopers are being forced out, or forced to cut back or give up their craft.

And the fact is that the 2010 race was more like last year's relatively scandal-free Tour, and has not featured the horrendous doping scandals of the Tour of 2006, and the lesser but still ugly expulsions of 2007, and 2008 Tours.

But here's the thing that disturbs me.

There's no question that the Tour in the Nineties and Oughts was soaked in doping. The arrival of EPO and the EPO-derivative CERA, HGH, testosterone...these forms of cheating helped men fly up mountains and recover overnight in ways that no clean rider could match.

The patrons of the Eighties, the big men like Lemond, and the domestiques like Frankie Andreiu - who themselves knew of tricks like corticosteroids and caffeine - couldn't believe how the peleton flew along the roads at 45-55 kilometers per hour. EPO changed everything.

In the infamous "Tour de Dopage" in 1998 the winner (Marco Pantani) finished riding 3,877 km (2,409 mi) in about 93 hours.

In 2006, the even more infamous Tour of Floyd Landis, the eventual "winner", Oscar Periero, rode 3,639 km (2,261 mi) in 89 hours 40 minutes.

When Rasmussen of Rabobank was thrown out for dodging a doping test in 2007, while still in yellow, Contador's eventual winning time was 3,569.9 km (2,218 mi) in 91 hours.

You would think that if the testing had been effective in reducing the use of the blood doping, the EPO, the hormones and the drugs, that the winner's time would have begun sliding backwards from the dope-saturated Nineties and EPO-drenched Oughts.

This year's winner's time?

3,642 km (2,263 mi) in 91 hours, 58 minutes, 48 seconds.


Big Daddy said...

The consistency between doped and clean TdF finishing times is not unreasonable. As with other sports like running, some of the decreases in time could be attributable to improved training techniques and fitness. Also in cycling, aerodynamics have made even standard road bikes faster and variations in course layout and and conditions would also alter race times. Since it is a convenient source I looked at marathon times and from the late 70s to today the men's record has dropped by around 5 minutes, and the women's record has dropped almost 15 minutes. Assuming the marathoners weren't doping that shows a steady improvement attributable to improved training and fitness, especially for the women. Comparing modern pro cycling team's training to what they did in the 1980s (Joe Parkin is a good source), they now train harder and more scientifically so the riders perform better, even without drugs. Ivan Basso's 2010 Giro D'Italia performance and Fabian Cancellara's Spring Classics rides are good examples of better training leading to better performance. After a 2 year suspension in 2007-8 I'm sure Basso is being watched very closely and is more likely to be racing clean, and Cancellara was so fast some whacko had to come up with the "hidden motor" theory to explain it.

FDChief said...

BD: And it's worth noting that Contador's time this year DID slip back almost an hour - 58 minutes - from his time over the same distance in 2007.

I'm very definately unsure about what's going on. My heart wants to believe that the testers and the clean riders are pulling ahead. My head wonders whether it's possible short of a really draconian hunt for the dopers and the establishment of stringent testing such as baseline HCT levels, DNA fingerprinting (to catch people stockpiling blood such as is still unidentified from Operation Puerto) to root the dping culture out of the sport.

As for the marathon skeptical thought would be...what if the performance gains in other sports are due to the widespread acceptance of the use of EPO/CERA, HGH, tesosterone, too?

I can certainly see how aerobic sports would benefit immensely, much as pretty much everyone knows and accepts that NFL linemen don't get as big as they are by drinking milk and hitting the weight room...

For me loving bike racing is sometimes like dating a gorgeous woman with a string of convictions for fraud. I want to believe her when she says she loves me, but there's always that cold tickle of suspicion...was that brilliant performance, that heroic ride the product of brains, guts, and muscle...or cunning pharmacoepia?

I wish I didn't have to feel that way. One of the reasons I have welcomed Armstrong's retirement is that, regardless of whether he raced clean or not, he was the biggest peak in the mountain range that was cycling in the EPO Years. We need to get over that peak to get closer to a Tour - and racing in general - that is much freer of the sorts of doping that surrounded him and his times.