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You thought baseball was in trouble when suspected steroid-user Barry Bonds took the most hallowed record in the game? Try cycling. The Tour De France, the world’s most prestigious bike race and the greatest annual sporting spectacle on earth, is allegedly in dire straits.


Comparisons to performance-enhancing drugs in baseball (currently occupying precious time in Senate – you’d think they had more pressing matters, what with Iraq and the like) are moot. On major league diamonds a few select beefcakes are under suspicion. On the roads and mountains of Europe every rider is presumed guilty until proved innocent. This isn’t malicious hearsay. It’s a considered view by experienced cycling watchers, and it’s backed by the hard evidence of what’s happened to the sport over the last 10 years.


This isn’t the place to go into detail about the convictions and suspicions of champions past and present. If it were, we’d be here for a while. Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour De France, is still technically an innocent man. However, a string of allegations, detailed in David Walsh’s L.A. Confidential: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong, has cast severe doubts of that innocence.


Marco Pantani, the winner of the 1998 Tour, is dead from a cocaine overdose, the legacy of a career spent as a chemical guinea pig. Last year’s winner, and I use that word in its loosest term, is Floyd Landis. Days after his triumph in Paris (a week after one of the greatest stage victories in race history) it was announced that Landis had failed a drug test. He’s still vehemently defending his innocence. It takes a lot of faith to take him on his word. The official winner of the 2006 Tour De France is still unknown. As, it’s worth mentioning, is the official winner of the 1996 Tour, as the organisation has stripped Bjarne Riis of his victory since he admitted using performance-enhancing drugs. 1997 Tour winner Jan Ulrich has retired from cycling in disgrace.


Ivan Basso? Banned. Alexandre Vinokourov? Reinstated after being forced to sit out last year’s Tour. Alessandro Petacchi? Disqualified days before this year’s Tour started. Every contender has either a blemish or a conviction on his record. I have no doubt more riders will fail drug tests before this article goes online.


Try to name a race winner who you can absolutely say was clean. Greg Lemond? Stephen Roche? Possibly. But back in the early ‘60s it was five-time race winner Jacques Anquetil who cryptically explained, “You can’t ride the Tour De France on bread and water.” Doping, whether it was a flask of opium-laced brandy to numb the pain or an amphetamine pill up the bum, has always been the hidden factor in the sport.


There aren’t many jobs as a professional race cyclist. If you can’t keep up with the peleton—helping your team leader when the time comes—you’ll be out of work in a matter of days. For a three-week race like the Tour De France, riding over 200km a day, at speed, up mountains, fitness isn’t enough. The price of failure is too high. The riders know it. The teams know it. The risk of being caught doping is outweighed by the fear of failure. The nature of the sport demands that you put in a huge effort. If you can’t deliver that effort, you’ll be chewed up and spat out. It’s a system documented with harrowing first-hand accuracy in Paul Kimmage’s 1990 Rough Ride: Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist. The names and the drugs may have changed since this book came out, but the pressures on the athletes haven’t changed a bit.


Perhaps to give the Tour De France a much-needed shot of positive publicity, this year the race made one of its regular trips into a neighbouring country. This July the Prologue, Le Grand Depart, was in your correspondent’s hometown of London, England. And on the afternoon of Live Earth and a Wimbledon Final, it was never in doubt where I was spending my Saturday afternoon.


***


Despite the enormous marketing campaign, I didn’t know what to expect as I stepped out of the tube station and walked to Buckingham Palace, the centrepiece of the 7.9km course each rider would be hurtling round in the time trial that determines the initial standings for Stage One, which would run from London to Canterbury the following day.


The sight that greeted me was spectacular. Throngs of people lined the road, three or four deep, as a parade of odd-shaped promotional vehicles and dancing girls hurled out product samples of items only available in France. An hour and a half before the first rider would roll out of the start gate the crowds were huge and the atmosphere electric. The next day the police would declare that a million spectators were lining the course. Standing in the midst, it seemed a conservative estimate.


I’d seen the Tour De France in person before. I’d been in Paris for the last stage of the 1991 Tour. It was a baking hot day, and tempers were strained as spectators wrestled for a spot up against the roadside barriers. I ended up watching the race from the air-conditioned second floor of the McDonalds overlooking the Champs-Élysées. Give me comfort over authenticity any day.


London was different. The weather was perfect, the crowd relaxed and jovial. Perhaps it was the legacy of the attempted terrorist attacks only a week earlier. Any minor disturbance would have drawn police like flies to poop. Eighteen giant screens strategically placed around the course meant that you didn’t need a place up against the barrier to enjoy the action. The true connoisseur had one eye on the road and the other on the screen, and was perched at the two kilometres to go mark—that’s what I was doing, anyway.


It was going to be a long afternoon. The Prologue sees every rider in the race set out at one-minute intervals. There were 189 of them. And even with a good vantage point, a glimpse of a rider was only lasted between one and four seconds.


But the crowd, comprised of approximately 10-percent die-hard cycling buffs in Lycra shorts and T-Mobile team shirts; 10 percent puzzled tourists; and 80 percent Londoners with a genuine interest in the Tour De France, never waned.  No rider went past without a few cheers and a ripple of applause. There were enough food stalls and entertainment on hand to detract from the spectacle unfolding on the road—and even your correspondent took the opportunity to pick up some garlic sausage and a beer—but for the most part the million-strong crowd’s attention never wavered.


For a sport that traditionally draws minimal column inches in Britain, people sure seemed to understand and appreciate the nuances of cycling. After nearly two hours of cycling, German rider Andreas Kloeden scorched the course to clock a seemingly unbeatable time of nine minutes, three seconds. As he crossed the line where I stood – remember, just two kilometres from the finish line—the crowd burst into applause. Germany is England’s ultimate sporting rival and there was no way Kloeden could have heard us. The clapping and cheering was entirely spontaneous. It was the crowd acknowledging that it had witnessed a moment of superhuman exertion.


As the time trial drew towards a conclusion, the sport’s celebrities started out in rapid succession. For once, Britain had two riders in with a genuine chance of taking the honour of the race’s first Yellow Jersey. Scot David Millar won the Prologue in 2000 but in 2004 was banned for two years after failing a drug test. He admitted his crime, took his two-year ban like a man, and was rewarded on the streets of London by a wall of noise on his trip around the circuit.


Two minutes after Millar’s start, London’s own Bradley Wiggins took off down the ramp. The reigning Olympic 4000m Time Trial champion, Wiggins was considered a serious candidate for victory. As we followed his progress on the screen, the tension was palpable. As his police outrider sped past the noise reached a crescendo louder than anything we’d heard all day, the crowd’s energy focussed on the barely-visible figure in red, haring past moments later.  Alas, both Brits failed to beat Kloeden’s time. They came close, mind, and the crowd appreciated their efforts, the applause again ringing out, even though we all were secretly hoping to be witness the ultimate day for British cycling.


Kloeden looked assured of the race’s first Yellow Jersey, until the halfway split time for the penultimate rider, Swiss Time Trial World Champion Fabian Cancellara, came over the big screen. Far ahead of the German after four and a half kilometres, he shot past our vantage point to roars and nearly overtook his motorcycle outrider as he manoeuvred around a chicane far faster than the petrol-powered machine could manage. His eventual time of eight minutes, 50 seconds was a revelation. We cheered. We clapped. We stood open-jawed. We’d witnessed greatness. And we quite probably experienced the greatest afternoon of free entertainment London has ever hosted.


Reports of the Tour De France’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The million-strong crowd was unrelentingly optimistic about the race and its future. We all know cycling has had its troubles, and that it will probably never be free from competitors seeking chemical and biological advantages. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to give up on it.

Robert Collins is a freelance journalist based in London. Since 2000 he's been Features Editor of Playmusic magazine, edited the musicians' sections of NME and Melody Maker, and has contributed to The Sunday Times, Globe&Mail;, The Toronto Star, thelondonpaper, Ryanair Magazine, FourFourTwo, Sleaze Nation and many others. He earned his degree in American Studies at the University of Manchester, where he developed his exacting standards for chicken kebabs, and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he learnt the finer points of the pick and roll. Robert writes about global sports culture in his column, Sticky Wickets. Before you ask, his favourite sports moment of all time is the Second Test between The British & Irish Lions and South Africa in 1997. He cannot dunk and has never even come close.


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