Monday, July 14, 2008

Vive la Tour de France

Posted By on Mon, Jul 14, 2008 at 2:18 AM

Was it arrogance, fear of failure or an ingrained culture that resulted in Liquigas team member Manuel Beltran’s arrest and expulsion from the Tour de France after he tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug EPO? 

With the tour’s all-out war against doping, Beltran would have had to be extremely arrogant or an idiot to think he could outmaneuver the rigorous testing in place during the tour. As it was, the drug test that found erythropoietin, or EPO, was administered after the first stage on July 5. EPO is an artificial hormone that allows the blood to carry more oxygen, which enhances endurance.

One has to wonder what the 37-year-old was thinking. He has probably ruined his own career and undoubtedly has damaged his team’s reputation and its chances of winning the 2008 tour. But he also has smudged professional bicycling and the tour itself, which already is reeling from Floyd Landis being stripped of his 2006 Tour de France win because of doping and a scandal last year that took out race leaders Michael Rasmussen and Alexandre Vinokourov. That year also saw the T-Mobile team drop Patrik Sinkewitz and Cofidis withdrawing its team from the race altogether after Cristian Moreni of Italy was found to have used synthetic testosterone.

T-Mobile and Discovery chose not to renew their sponsorships of biking teams.  There has been an acknowledgment that blood doping and using performance-enhancing drugs and steroids were both widespread and a tolerated aspect of the cycling culture for years. Even Garmin-Chipotle team captain David Millar has admitted to using such drugs in the past but now is a strong anti-doping advocate.  

So far Beltran’s has been the only doping incident in the first nine stages of the Tour de France, which concludes July 27. Many teams are taking a harder line on drug use both on and off the course. Power sprinter Tom Boonen, who won the green jersey in the 2007 Tour de France, was sidelined from the Belgian Quik Step tour roster after he tested positive for cocaine during non-competition testing the weekend before the 2008 race.  The 2007 scandal made a big impression on the bicycling world as both fans and sponsors either withdrew support or clamored for change. Much of this change has come from a rebellion within the cycling world itself as is evident in a poster issued by the Take Back the Tour campaign: 

“Screw the dopers, politics and critics. … They ripped the soul out of this race. But the tour doesn’t belong to them. We’re the ones grinding every mile, pushing past the limits of pain and exhaustion. The most grueling competition in the world. It belongs to us. We’re masochists. We’re believers. And it’s our time. Take back the tour. Join the movement.” 

Many racers have. Two new American-sponsored teams – Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia ? have led the charge to clean up the sport. Their teams were assembled with the knowledge they would be constantly tested for drugs during training and the off-season and that there would be a strict zero-tolerance policy concerning any banned substances. Other teams around the world also have tightened their standards. 

From this fan’s perspective, it has made for one of the most exciting Tour de France races in years. Because so many traditional leaders have been dropped, it seems like a whole new and wide-open race. Even better, you feel that when you see tour cyclists perform exceptionally it’s because they are superb athletes and have worked hard to develop endurance and winning strategies.  

We get to have heroes again without fearing a stomach punch after they are led to the drug-testing tent. 

Vive la Tour de France.

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