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 Bal├Ęs 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.

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