Drugs and Le Tour - who's winning?

Who says Le Tour isn't badass?

If you’re awake at around 6am you’ll likely see them.

Lycra clad.  Shaved legs.  Cries of “car back!”

Yep, it’s likely one of the many pelotons snaking its way around Sydney’s suburbs.  However, it’s highly probable that the number of cyclists combining to create these pelotons has dwindled of late.

That’s because many of their members are still asleep, catching up on sleep from the night before where they were rugged up on their couch screaming at their TV at 2am.

The Tour de France is back on our television screens and it’s brought an army of fans with it.

Cadel Evans’ triumph on the Champs-Élysées last year has catapulted the Tour’s profile amongst Australian sports fans.  Even traditional not-so-sporting fans have been champing at the bit to see a bit more cycling action.

There are those, however, who remain steadfastly opposed to the Tour.  And should one broach the subject with them you will be shot down in cascading fireballs.

The biggest reason for this, in my experience, is drugs.

I don’t mean that the people who don’t like the Tour are on drugs.  Rather, a significant number of non-fans reckon the Tour is rubbish because all its athletes are on drugs.

And there, my friends, is the dilemma.

For many sports there is a stigma attached to them they struggle to shake.  Cricket struggles to win over female fans because it goes for five days.  Rugby League fails to win over impartial observers because of its players’ questionable off-field conduct.  AFL struggles because it just looks plain weird to the non-fan.

Cycling's biggest stigma?  Drugs.

Its poster-child, Lance Armstrong, has been struggling to shake off drug-use allegations for over a decade.  The most recent repeat winner, Alberto Contador, is currently serving a suspension and had his 2010 Tour title stripped from him due to drugs use.

Heck, the guy who was leading the Peloton towards the end of last Tuesday night’s stage, Ivan Basso, is a convicted drug cheat.

Cycling is a sport with few peers in terms of susceptibility to drug cheating (although baseball has been knocking on its door for years now). 

Earlier this year, The Economist wrote one of its excellent special reports analysing whether scientists can keep up with drugs cheats. 

It all started when, apparently, in 1959, two Harvard students demonstrated that short-distance swimmers given amphetamines swam faster than those who received a placebo.

Thus a whole industry was born of those who seek to illegally enhance their sporting prowess.

I reckon the biggest problem cycling and indeed many sports face is that the so-called legal technology is developing at speeds seldom seen outside the space industry.

Swimmers, until recently, swam through the pool with the assistance of full body suits scientifically created to minimise drag and maximise buoyancy.  Cycling is little different.

The average cost of a Tour de France racer is well over $20k.  Every participant’s diet, sleep patterns and training regime is monitored and regulated to within an inch of the athlete’s life by their trainers.

In essence, legal sporting technology and performance enhancements are moving so fast that I wonder if the line between illegal performance enhancements and legal performance enhancements might become blurred?

Swimming took the radical step of banning the improved suits (to a certain extent) as the world records being set were becoming borderline ridiculous.  There’s zero chance cycling will take a step back from a technology perspective.

So until the world’s anti-doping authorities and boffins catch up with the skills of the anti-dopers themselves, it’s likely cycling will never be able to fully reach the ceiling of its potential fan base.

Which is a shame, because I love the Tour.

But it’s probably great for Australia’s productivity, because it means less people trying to operate on too-little sleep.

I guess there’s always a silver lining.


kerryn said…
good insight.... how much sleep u running on today? lol
Tim H said…
In life i believe everyone should always be given a second chance...except filthy drug cheats in cycling. Can't stand seeing a 'ex' cheats driving the peloton forward, chasing down breaks or even winning stages. Life time bans are the only way to go. Allez!
Todd said…
I think they should run 2 tours in parallel. A "clean" tour with the strictest drug testing, and a "dirty" tour in which anything goes. Run them in parallel for a couple of years and then keep the more popular one.

If anything, at least the "dirty" riders would be honest about what they are doing. And as it wouldn't be 'cheating' then there would not be any of the stigma attached.
todd neal said…
I disagree with Todd. Organisers of sport have a responsibility to the athletes to provide rules which ensure the competitor safety (within acceptable degrees of risk). The risks of having a free for all in the drug department in the context of competition is way too dangerous.

On the points you make Dylan:
- anecdotally, it would appear there are more cyclists on the road than ever during TDF time, which is a worry if they are all sleep deprived!
- there will always be people who want to cut corners. It's good evidence of 'total depravity' in humankind. Pious finger pointing (not accusing anyone here) ignores the possibility that the culture of drugs was once pretty strong and placed in the same situation, many would succumb. I'd also add, the fact we 'hate' cheats is also an indication of an innate desire for 'justice'.
- not sure the line between legal and legal sporting enhancements has become blurred. There are rules as to what is and isn't allowed in cycling also (i.e. seat angles, weight of bikes etc). While there have been improvements in the technology, what is interesting is that the watts per kilogram of each ride has also reduced, meaning the Tour is now riding the cols slower than ever before. Some would say this is an indication cycling is cleaning up.
- the battles provide great entertainment, the scenery is great, and people live vicaroiusly throuhg their 'heroes'. Hard to see it's interest subsiding.

Todd [Neal]