On the Chaps Elysess

Gaul couldn’t do without pain: pain was his motor. It’s a mistake to leave it up to the facts to tell themselves.

The Rider, Tim Krabbe

What is it about the Tour de France? It has a similar feel to Test Cricket: long periods where nothing much happens, interrupted by short bursts of excitement. Where a cycling stage or race differs is the culmination of events. There’s no draw, no stoppage for rain delays. The finish line may be at the end of a stage, perched up on top of a hill, but there is an end point in everybody’s day where their body either has a hunger for the pain or has had a gutful. It appeals to my sensibilities of watching sport; appreciating the contest on a level where bare facts such as time, points totalled, or an overall place don’t tell the story. It doesn’t touch on the heroic failure of a champion going round for the last time, a man who sacrifices his race again and again for his team leader, or the unfathomable power of a debut rider, with no style on the bike, striding up a mountain. These are moments within the stories of Alexander Vinikourov, Yaroslav Popovych and Juan Moritizier Soler-Hernandez, respectively. Only moments – summations – of hundreds of hours in the saddle.

But what happens when the efforts seen are a falsehood, enhanced without effort? When the drama is prescribed by the use of performance enhancing drugs? It can bring about a bi-polar response: exhilaration as the winner crosses the line; scepticism, when they give a press conference – after five hours in the saddle – looking as fresh as the French country-side sunflowers. Even the staunchest supporter would admit doping scandals leave the Tour open to looking like a motor-race; cyclists the drivers, their body’s engines that just need a pit-stop and quick tweak of the engine.

The media providing blanket coverage of such events as the Tour are prone to recouping the losses of the day and finding the positive in any situation: riders are being caught by the testing system; we’ve guaranteed a ‘clean’ winner. But as long as riders attempt to cheat, no matter how many are caught by the doping and drug tests, there will still be a scandal, a fall out and suspended belief in what we see. This leaves reporters like Mike Tomalaris (SBS) at the side of the road spruiking the positive steps taken by the sport, while carefully alluding to bickering between various cycling administrations who govern the race and the sport.

Winner or Cheat?

Alexander Vinikourov, who tested positive to a blood transfusion after his second stage win, is contesting the result. Vinikourov’s lawyer suggests we (the public) keep an open-mind while the validity of the testing, which saw both the A and B sample come back positive, is scrutinised by the courts. He should have taken some advice from French biophysicist Michel Audran:

“A homologous transfusion is done with the blood of someone from the same blood group, for example A+ or even Rhesus (negative or positive),” Audran said. “Thus it’s different from an autotransfusion with your own blood, which remains undetectable.”

Are we prepared to wait? The stages were already affected by his presence on the road. We’re still waiting for the court to pass down a verdict on last year’s winner, Floyd Landis, who tested positive for using testosterone. Although the choice of methods to cheat were different, both cases have the same Clark Kent to Superman transformation from one day’s stage to the next. The reason elite athletes [should] make it to the top of their chosen sport is because they don’t have bad days.

Feel the burn... feel the incline.

Paradoxically, the reason we watch elite sports is to see these invincible bodies succumb to being mortals: when a rider can’t go any further without taking years off their life, when they can’t haul themself up the hill at the same speed as the wheel in front – they crack! They lose rhythm, style, speed; their face can’t hide the pain, and they wobble from one side of the road to the other as if they’re learning to ride for the first time. This is what sports fans – sadists that we are – watch for. There’s no such thing as a perfect win. In cycling, you have to watch someone lose before someone can win.

Cycling needs to build up a rapport with the general sports fan, and take steps in the short term to build long-term trust. Riders in the wrong are the minority and they’re being caught. And not all riders are playing with the faith of fans: Australia’s Cadell Evans comes off the mountain ragged, barely able to step off his bike, unable to speak. Cadell is not a natural mountain climber: his style makes his front wheel look like he’s covering ground sideways as well as straight ahead. But we can believe what we see.

Cadell Evans in the peleton

Record books can be re-written – positions altered and titles stripped – but sport exists in the exuberance of the moment. When Michael Rasmussen danced up the hill at end of a gruelling stage, where he was outnumbered by Team Discovery, had been tested with attack after attack, I believed what I was seeing. But, of course, what happened will exist in that moment alone. History can condemn Rasmussen, and remove him from the record books, the footage could probably be re-edited and digitally altered, as if Contador and Evans were chasing a ghost up a hill. But it’s difficult to forget that first moment; b to remember the style of Contador as he danced on his pedals up the mountains; better to remember the look on Evans’ face as he searched for the top of the climb on the horizon, and the small twitch of pain that gathered at the corner of his eyes when he realised there was still some way to go – more pain for the motor.

Moments of the Tour:

Every time the Quickstep team formed a long train coming up to the finish-line. With each rider that pulled off to the side the speed increased. And then finally, within site of the line the frame of Tom Boonan leaped out from behind his team-mate, overtaking him with his own power. This is technically brilliant leading out for a sprinter, and when done properly makes it almost impossible for anyone else to win. Some prefer the man-on-man, scrambled sprint to the line, which suits lighter frames such as Robbie McEwen and Robbie Hunter. But for pure power and high speeds you can’t beat Tom Boonan.

Levi Leiphemer’s ride in the final 55km time-trial was astounding. After surrendering the title of team leader to Yellow Jersey winner, Alberto Contador, from the second mountain stage I almost thought he was going to leap-frog Cadell Evans and steal the race from his own team-mate. Evans also put in a great ride, and showed how close everyone was to their limit when he and Leiphemer rode the final sector in the same time. On the penultimate stage, after eighteen days of racing, it was possible that any one of the top three riders could have secured the overall lead. The winning time by Leiphemer was the fourth fastest in the Tour’s history. Admittedly it was wind assisted, but I doubt the guy who holds the record rode through a snow-storm to set the record.

Can we even remember back to week one of the tour? Australian Michael Rogers was riding in a breakaway group with Michael Rasmussen. They were navigating down a tricky descent. After an impressive time-trial a few days earlier Rogers was the virtual leader of the Tour halfway through the stage, and looking comfortable in the mountains. As we rode shotgun with the cameraman, swerving between team cars, we turned left around a blind corner. Lying against a road barrier, in his pink T-Mobile jersey, was Michael Rogers. But there were two bikes. The other rider, whose line into the corner Rogers had presumably followed scrambled up and out from the undergrowth on the other side of the barrier. Rogers got on a new bike and rode back up to the lead group. But something was wrong. He couldn’t hold the handlebars. Was it his wrist, his shoulder, or worse, his collarbone? The next climb. Rogers was slipped by the lead group, all up out of the saddle. He sat back and watched. A pursuing group passed him. The peleton caught up to him. He moved to the back of the group. The Tour doctor looked at his collar bone. He rejoined th back of the group. At the start of the next climb he slipped off the back. He slowed. He stopped. He rested on his handlebars, head-down; a crowd gathered around him. The team car stopped alongside. In forty-five minutes he had gone from leader on the road to Tour de France withdrawal.