30 July 2008

I want to believe

So there I was the other day in front of the computer, preparing to write a serious piece on the Tour de France, when suddenly my vision got blurry, and I started to violently convulse, and then a brilliant white light surrounded me, and the next thing I remember I was waking up in a pile of hay in a barn some miles from my house, so then I staggered home and turned on the computer and saw, well...

But then, it's hard to think straight about professional cycling. Take this clip, for instance. To set the scene: as Laurent Fignon sprints to victory in Stage 21 of the 1987 Tour, the real story is further down La Plagne. Pedro Delgado, in yellow, has dropped the second man overall, Stephen Roche, on this final climb of the day. He has amassed a minute-and-a-half lead on Roche, which will probably be enough to seal victory come the end of the Grand Boucle....

Drama that appears so cheesily scripted that it could only be unscripted; adult, responsible human beings telling their brains to shut up for a few minutes while they push their bodies beyond reasonable exertion...this is sport.

Thing is, the following year, again in yellow and this time on his way to final victory, Delgado tested positive for a masking agent which, although on the IOC's list of prohibited substances, was, due to an oversight on the part of the UCI, not illegal for a cyclist to take. More recently, a shadow was cast over Roche's career when it was heavily implied by an Italian judge that he had taken EPO (the statute of limitations means it will never be legally confirmed).

Of course, the list of cyclists who have given themselves a wee dram o' blood boosting product or similar is presumably kept on a Kerouac-style endless scroll in the offices of WADA.

If one could see the matter in monochrome it would be easy to dismiss the whole caboodle and concentrate on trying to get one's kicks from that crucial Malaysian XI-Chelsea game. There is, perhaps, no valid reason to invest one's time in it. It may be part of one's summer routine, but then washing your hands exactly twenty-three times and counting to fifty and twirling twice before one dares to leave the bathroom is also a routine, and no-one is writing a blog post about how wonderful that is.

Sport may not be a religion, but it does engender its own blind faith. It is often manifested at this time of the year as a fan takes comfort in the boundless potential of a league table where every number is 0. But it also operates on the larger scale. When you see such thrilling fare as last Wednesday's stage, featuring three Super Category climbs, a leading group containing all of the top riders in the general classification, a series of cat-and-mouse mini-breakaways all hauled in before Carlos Sastre made his decisive move, Denis Menchov's crash when it looked like he was about to strike the definitive blow - all on the monstrous Alpe d'Huez, after six gruelling hours on the road - the suspension of disbelief becomes, if not automatic, then at least reasonably easy to accomplish.

Then you have to wonder if you've crossed the line between optimism about the system and genuine faith in what you are seeing on one side, and moral duplicity on the other. As the cases of Sminky and Fawn suggest, perhaps we are are due some portion of the blame. Though our consciences may be salved this time by the apparent consensus that Sastre is clean, the questions remain: by our perennial and seemingly endless capacity to roll with the punches, are we validating that very violence? Have we forgotten that we can just walk away?

Photo by rcvernors


Steve 5/8/08 11:27 PM  

How I wish they weren't tainted. As a second best alternative, and perhaps the more realistic one, maybe everyone could take roughly the same amount of yet undetectable illegal substances so at least the playing field is level (if that expression can apply to the Tour).

I saw something about the aftermath of Roche's heroic climb that you might find interesting. From wikipedia: "Despite being almost 1 and a half minutes in arrears midway up the last climb, Roche pulled the deficit back to 4 seconds . Roche collapsed and lost consciousness and was given oxygen. When asked when revived if he was okay, he replied "Oui, mais pas de femme toute de suite" ("yes, but I am not ready for a woman straight away")."

fredorrarci 6/8/08 10:35 PM  

It begs the question: was it normal practise for a cyclist to make love directly after a stage? They say exercise raises your testosterone levels, so I guess six hours on a gruelling Tour stage must leave one rather eager, shall we say.

Steve 7/8/08 3:55 PM  

If so I guess hormones trump physiological stress. I'd have thought chafing from the saddle would take that notion down a peg.

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