Shelton:O.J. Syndrome Afflicts Tour | View to the West
by Peter Shelton
Jul 30, 2007 | 888 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print

On Wednesday evening, Randy and Jen Charrette opened their Peak to Peak Bicycles in Ridgway for a Tour Party. As in, Tour de France Party. Only it quickly turned into the Tour de France Doping Party.

It was a great idea. Invite the community in for some food and drink and watch the day’s stage on the big-screen TV. This Tour had been shaping up as one of the most interesting and competitive in years, following the repetitive reign (an unprecedented seven in a row) of Lance Armstrong and last July’s dramatic but scandal-plagued win by Armstrong’s former teammate Floyd Landis. 

This time around a former mountain bike world champion, Michael Rasmussen, had taken the leader’s yellow jersey in the Alps and had kept it, to the surprise of many, for a full week into the mountains of the Pyrenees. 

One smirch on the race had already occurred when the popular Kazakh (and pre-race favorite) Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping following a brilliant – too brilliant – stage win, and his entire Astana team was sent packing. 

Homologous blood doping is the complete indictment, and it involves injecting a rider (or a cross-country skier, or other endurance athlete) with his own or somebody else’s red blood cells in order to boost oxygen to the muscles. A lot of people felt betrayed by Vino’s apparent cheating. Why did he do it? How could he and his coaches/doctors have ever imagined getting away with it? (This particular test has been around for years.) What was he thinking?

Especially this year as the Tour tried to wash itself clean of persistent rumors and damning revelations. Lots of people suspected Lance of doing drugs. Maybe his cancer therapy somehow allowed his doctors to slip performance enhancing substances in under the radar? The French especially – and not just because they invented the race and used to produce its greatest champions – were furious that they could never catch him at it.

Then last year the “Puerto Nine,” including favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were banned before the race began for their roles in a Spanish doping ring. That left the door open for clean-cut Quaker-guy Floyd Landis who won the 2,000 mile-long race after what everyone said was a miraculous ride in the Alps that happened to follow a particularly poor ride the day before.

And guess what? Landis tested positive for synthetic testosterone. (I’m not sure how testosterone, short term, would help a world-class cyclist, unless it helps the body recover between stages?) Landis is still fighting the charge and has just come out with a book, Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France. Even if the arbitration panel exonerates him and he gets to keep his Tour trophy, the stain will stick with Floyd as it has with the race itself.

So Vino was gone, but there was still optimism that the 2007 Tour would produce exciting racing and, especially, a “clean” winner. Hand-painted signs along the route shouted the fans’ hope: “Défense de Dopage.” Then the wheels came off. The day after Astana was banished an Italian rider was met at the finish line and hauled off by police. He admitted taking testosterone. His team, Codifis, pulled out. 

Then on the day of the Ridgway party, a day when Michael Rasmussen again rode powerfully and all but sewed up his eventual victory four days away in Paris, the lanky Dane’s team fired him, and he was out of the Tour. He had not been caught doping, although he may have done that, too. He had instead been caught lying, lying to his team and to the international cycling federation about his whereabouts prior to the Tour, when he missed two random drug tests.

I walked in to Peak to Peak and jokingly asked Randy if he had any EPO (another blood booster) or any good testosterone. He smiled wanly. It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for the sport’s premier event when its stars all seem to be living a lie. Ridgway’s Chris Holland, who is married to former world champion mountain biker Sara Ballantyne, accepted a beer but admitted he was devastated. “I love watching the Tour. I love it…Back in his mountain biking days, Sara used to ride around on Michael Rasmussen’s handle bars!”

So, are they all doing it? David Millar, a Scot who returned to the Tour this year after a two-year banishment for using EPO, told a reporter with no apparent irony that, “There are a lot of us who are clean.”

Maybe so. But local (Norwood) phenom Walker Ferguson has reportedly given up his big-time road-racing ambitions (he trained with Lance for several summers) because he didn’t want to do the drug thing. And in order to break into the elite, he believed, he would have to do it.

“They [Tour racers] live in their own little world,” reported Stephen Farrand of Cycling Weekly. “They think that they have the best systems, the best doctors, the best coaches in the world. And that they won’t get caught.” In fact, the chemists and the willing doctors always seem to be a step ahead of the drug-testing cops. It’s the nature of innovation and response.

Imagine what goes on in the heads of the guys who are doing it and denying it. Deny, deny, deny. In order to live with themselves, they must become like O.J. and actually believe that they are telling the truth. Is that what happened to Floyd Landis?

My daughter Cloe, whose husband, Adam, raced on the NORBA pro tour for years (fueled by team sponsor California Dried Plums), says, half-kidding, that it should all be allowed. “If everyone had the best dope, we’d be back to the place where the best athlete would win.”

Cloe’s “modest proposal” doesn’t address the long-term health risks, of course, or the problem of convincing aspiring 14-year-olds not to emulate their heroes. No. At this point, there just don’t seem to be any good answers.

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