Wednesday, February 7, 2007

7/4/06 - Vive' le Tour

Yes, it's cheesy and probably a little cliche', but I don't care; this is my favorite time of year! I love the Tour de France. I am one of those geeks who checks out and several times a day for the latest news and the gear reviews on what the different teams are riding. I set my VCR every day (Bike shop employees don't make enough to have TiVo...ha, ha) to catch the live action while I'm at work and then watch it when I get home. I can recite the winners of the yellow jersey for the last two decades and then some (which is made easier by the fact that 2 Americans have won ten times and there have been three riders who have won 5 or more times in that time period...thank you Hinault, LeMond, Indurain and Armstrong...see, there I just named half of them.) The month of July is my favorite month - the Tour is my SuperBowl. Heck, the tour even ends on my birthday every once in a while!
And, wow! Was I ever anticipating this year's race. With Armstrong out, the race was finally as wide open as it has been since Indurain's fantastic flop in 1996 when current CSC Director Bjarne Riis won. But things started to change back in May when Manolo Saiz was arrested (former Director for the former Liberty Seguros - a.k.a. Astana-Wurth - now Astana squad) on blood doping allegations under what we now know as "Operacion Puerto". And now, we're watching a tour lacking many of those who had been tapped as "heirs to the throne" and an entire team with a promising rider (Alexandre Vinokourov; who has not been implicated in the case, but lost enough team members that they did not have a large enough squad to start the race). So, how do I feel now that we do not have Basso, Ullrich, Mancebo, Vino, et. al.?
Illegal use of performance enhancing substances (EPO, blood doping, amphetamines, or the method du jour...) is rampant in professional sports world wide. As a fan of track and field, I've watched sadly as many athletes like Ben Johnson and recently Marion Jones have been scrutinized, banned, proclaimed to have damaged the sport or made it "impure" - and yet the sport lives on. Athetes continue to compete for Gold Medals, the drama continues to unfold, and records continue to fall. While it is discouraging to watch people (sometimes our favorites - for me it was Tyler Hamilton and David Millar) try to gain unfair advantages - occasionally at the cost of their health (Tom Simpson's tragic death in the Tour on a mountain stage) - we must continue to strive to improve drug testing and emphasize the importance of a clean and fair competition.
In all world-class competitions, the athletes and equipment are so evenly matched that they must scrape for every advantage they can get. These events - whether cycling, running, or others are often decided by a margin as small as one-tenth of one percent and if you can gain that much over your opponents through refined equipment like a more aerodynamic skinsuit or lighter bike or more efficient technique it can mean that you have a better chance of winning. But some athletes try to take the "work smarter - not harder" principle to a different place and stretch the boundaries through the use of performance enhancing substances.
All this is not to say that I am against "enhancing performance." If I were, the two energy gels, energy drink, and recovery drink that I consumed when I rode the other day would make me a hypocrite (as well as the countless PowerBars, Gatorades, bananas and other things I've ingested in my years in Soccer, Track, and Cycling). I just disagree with performance enhancers that put an athlete's health at risk. And the methods in question have well documented health risks. It is possible to run a clean competition, use substances and training that allow athletes to perform at their pinnacle, and not harm a person's health.
So, in the end - I'm still excited about the race. Don't let the choices that a few athletes, doctors, and coaches have made dampen the spectacle that is the Tour de France. This is the single most spectacular annual sporting event on the planet (with proper recognition to the Olympics and World Cup every four years - also favorites of mine) with the most fit, courageous athletes, most amazing physical performances, and most striking scenery of any sporting event known. The race is not just the roster or the teams involved. The race is everything involved. Someone will still attack and someone will still pop on L'Alpe d'Huez. It won't be Basso or Ullrich this year - but it will be someone and it will be spectacular!
And a note on the picture. That's my boy, Jacob at just over 4 months enjoying his first stage of the Tour de France. I figure that, based on history, the next American pro cycling revolution will be coming around about the time he's ready for the tour. So, I've already got Trek's Advanced Composites Group working on his bike - but until then one of those super cool Litespeed tricycles outfitted with the new Bontrager time-trial bars will have to do.

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