It’s July again and a couple of years ago this would have given a definite structure to my daily routine; come home from work in the late afternoon and turn the TV on to watch the last hour or so of the Tour de France. There was something intensely relaxing (I found) about sitting down to watch nearly two hundred men compete day for day in probably the most gruelling sporting event in the world, with tactics, drama, excitement and the beauty of the French countryside all thrown together.
In the past few years, my interest for the Tour has waned; the constant revelations of doping and the level of the cheating mentality they signify have finally gone beyond my tolerance levels. It is, in my view, a great shame, because it detracts from the marvellous spectacle and what it says about the possibilities of the human will and spirit. But I shall return to this theme presently.
For a number of reasons too complex and boring to go into here, I was ten years old before I learned to ride a bike. But, having learned, I found my bicycle to be an amazing extension of my freedom. Living in a small town in the west of Ireland with practically no public transport worth speaking of, my bicycle extended my radius of action to the whole town – and beyond, into the marvellous countryside around Sligo known as the Yeats Country, which I have already written about here.
My attachment to my bicycle waned considerably as my teenage years advanced. The more my consciousness of cool developed, the less attractive the bike was. And this had a lot to do with the nature of cycling itself.
Despite the fact that you can go cycling with others, there is something solitary about it. Admittedly you can have conversation with your companions when you’re pedalling gently along on a flat road – provided the traffic doesn’t force you to cycle single file. But – unless you live in areas like
Holland or Northern Germany – long, flat stretches of straight road with little motorised traffic are generally more the exception than the rule. The increased energy you need to put into climbing hills, along with the increased demand your body has for oxygen, tends to concentrate your attention on yourself, your effort, your breathing, your goal of reaching the summit. The desire for conversation fades into the background. And the pleasure of racing downhill, combined with the concentration you need to keep on the road and the fact that the wind will whip your words away anyhow, is also a fundamentally solitary one.
Undoubtedly, if one of the girls I was interested in a fifteen had been an avid cyclist, I would probably have had to be surgically removed from my bike, but such girls are few and far between (particularly in their teenage years) and there weren’t any like them in the circles in which I moved. No, cool meant “hanging out,” walking, talking, preening – all the exciting rituals of puberty – and bicycles are of limited use for most of them.
The solitary nature of cycling is also one of the factors which characterise such major professional events such as the Tour de France – one man, taking part in a competition with all others, testing his body and character to the their limits and beyond with a goal which only one can achieve, wearing the maillot jaune at the end of the final stage around the Champs Élysées in Paris. Of course, in the course of the years the Tour has become so complex that it contains many other goals worth reaching; winning a stage, being the overall leader (and thus winning the right to wear the Yellow Jersey for the next stage), winning one of the various classifications like King of the Hills or the Green Jersey for the points leader, etc. But, significantly, all of these goals are individual ones.
At the same time, no-one can win the Tour de France on their own; you need a whole team behind you and a good one too. The complexity of the three-week event, cycling around 3,500 km with all sorts of different stages which include travelling through two major mountain ranges (the Alps and the Pyrenees) involving climbing elevations which have been estimated to total three times the height of Everest, necessitates all kinds of tactical and strategic thinking, co-operations, temporary alliances and, above all, team work. This is the other aspect of the Tour which I have always found so fascinating. It’s not enough to get up every day and ride your damnedest to get to the finish as fast as you can. It’s not even enough to get up every day, analyse your weaknesses and strengths (and those of your opponents) and plan your stage accordingly. Because, depending on all sorts of factors, what you achieve is dependent on what the others let you achieve and what kind of dedicated support and help you get from others.
This is where the teams come in. They are composed of all kinds of specialists (and I’m only talking of the riders here, the whole support apparatus is also vitally important), from sprinters, to climbers, from those who can keep a long sustained effort going to those who are capable of short, sharp attacks. The tactical and strategic planning becomes more complex, because you have to coordinate the various talents in the team to support the rider they see as their leader (who, depending on the way the Tour has been developing, may not be the formal team leader) and, more, depending on what the other teams do and what their strategies and tactics are, you have to enter into short-term tactical alliances with your opponents.
Every year, there are only around ten candidates who can be seriously seen as candidates for the overall victory. Most team members will never be any more than one of the mass of the peleton. But one of the attractive aspects of this incredibly complex event is that there are always individual chances for glory, for every rider. A small group, or even one individual, may make an early break in an individual stage – it’s something that nearly always happens. Even if they manage to work up a lead of many minutes, the pack – by sharing the hard work of controlling the pace – usually catches them in the final hour and they (exhausted by their hard work) are generally swallowed by the group, often coming in far behind the stage winners. But sometimes – and this is something you can never predict – the strategies followed by the teams of major contenders, combined with the overall placement of the members of the small group (or the one lonely man) may lead a collective decision to just let them go. And so, it’s always possible that an ordinary humble spear-carrier may achieve the undying glory of having won a stage of the Tour.
Although there have been phases in my adult life where I have cycled quite a lot, I don’t do a lot of it at the moment. Much of this has to do with the topographical characteristics of the Duchy of Berg, the region of
in which I live. Berg is, to put it mildly, a hilly region and that serves to make cycling the kind of sport best described as extreme. The centres of Germany Remscheid (where I live) and (the nearest neighbouring town), for example, are only five miles apart as the crow flies. Five miles – and a valley over a hundred meters deep between them. This may be nothing for an ardent cyclist like my old friend and fellow blogger, Michael, but it’s a food too rich for me. Solingen
But the Tour de France is generally decided in the mountains, and these mountain stages involve climbs which make the hills in my area which generally lead me to leave my bike at home look like mere bumps. Legendary ascents like the Col du Tourmalet in the
Pyrenees or the famous Alpe D’Huez (involving a climb of 1,100 meters over 15.5 km) are the kinds of challenge which many of us would think twice about doing on foot. The guys on the tour go all the way up on bicycles, more; quite a lot of them are capable of bursts of acceleration on inclines where any ordinary cyclist has long succumbed to the consequences of the fact that you only have a finite number of lower gears and got off to push the bike further on foot, gasping for breath as you do so.
It is in the mountain stages that the real decisions over who will win the ultimate maillot jaune take place. Depending on form and the tactics followed on the day, even the best cyclists can lose many minutes in a mountain stage. The ultimate champion doesn’t have to win a mountain stage, but he has to be well up with the field in all of them and, if the competition is close, then he will have to defeat his closest challengers here.
The kind of challenges posed by the Tour push even a perfectly trained human body right to its limits – and beyond. And this is where the contemporary tragedy of the Tour de France, and professional cycling in general, has its roots. For modern research has produced numerous methods of helping the human body go beyond its limits. It’s known as doping. And professional cycling (more than any other sport, with the possible exception of some forms of light athletics and weightlifting) is riddled with it.
Imagine you are a young cyclist, talented and superbly trained, who has made the decision to subjugate his life to the sport which is his passion and become a professional. You have won a place on one of the big teams and been offered the chance to compete in the most prestigious event your sport offers. You know you are good and, even if – as an ordinary spear-carrier – you’re only just earning enough to survive, you have hopes that you can become one of the best. There you are, grinding your way through the torture of the climb up to the summit of the Tourmalet, dragging up the last of your oxygen reserves, when another guy sails, seemingly without effort, past you. And you know that one of the reasons he can do that is because his blood, enriched by EPO, is capable of carrying more oxygen than yours. And you know that there are good chances that he won’t be caught for it, because he took the EPO to build up his red-blood count months earlier, waited until the traces of the substance had reached a low borderline level, transfused a litre or two of it out of his body, and transfused the enriched blood back in yesterday evening. And because nobody is really interested in dealing with this whole situation.
Later that evening, your team manager calls you in. He’s critical of your performance up to now, wonders about your future in the team and comments that you’re going to have to do something to improve yourself if you want to continue competing at this level.
Would you condemn this young rider for doping?
When it comes to the question of doping, it’s possible to take different positions. It can be argued that modern sportsmen and women are adults and, as long as they are aware of the risks they may be taking, it should be their decision whether to take possibly damaging methods to optimise the performance of their bodies. But this argument, in my view, misses the point – particularly when it comes to sport.
Whatever type of sport one is talking about, they all have one thing in common; they have agreed rules, rules which are obligatory for everyone taking part in the sport. The rules of sport don’t even have to be logical, but they are binding for everyone who participates. And, for many good reasons, doping is not allowed in cycling – or in any other sport, for that matter. Which means that anyone who dopes is cheating.
But rules will only work when they are seen to be applied and when the breaking of them has consequences. And this is what has poisoned professional cycling in the last decades. That doping is the rule rather than the exception is something the dogs have been howling in the streets for years now. Many of the top names have been caught, or admitted to doping (Riis, Zabel, Vinokourov, Basso, Rasmussen, Kohl), others remain under strong suspicion, including Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong. Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour, was subsequently deprived of the title for illegal use of testosterone.
And last year’s winner, Alberto Contador, is under suspicion. The case is complicated, he’s been banned, then the ban was lifted, appeals are pending. Under pressure from his lawyers, a decision on various appeals has been deferred until next month. This means that he’s competing in this year’s Tour.
The conclusion I have reached is that cycling is rotten and that there is no great interest on the part of most in cleaning it up. There’s too much money involved, as well as a cult of secrecy and, let’s face it, cheating.
Which is why, reluctantly, I don’t really follow the Tour de France any more. I can only hope that the sport gets serious about cleaning itself up – it owes it, above all, to its young riders. And, to be honest, I’m not very hopeful.
Still, if I happen to be home during the mountain stages, I might just turn on the TV. Despite all the dirt and the cheating, I still find them simply amazing to watch …
Pictures retrieved from: