Time to catch up, now that the first two weeks of the 2013 edition of the Tour de France are complete. Tipped as one of the favorites to win the whole kit-n-caboodle, Chris Froome with the help of his Sky teammates, appears to have a vice grip on the general classification of the race. And he’s turned in some very impressive-looking performances along the way.
The most recent amazing performance was his victory on the stage to Mont Ventoux, leaving all of his most dangerous competitors in the dust, and more than regaining the time he lost a few days before when crosswinds wreaked havoc upon the peloton. Froome was clearly pleased with Sunday’s result, as James Dao of The New York Times reports:
“To win the way so many big names have won on this climb is really special to me,” Froome said, calling the stage victory the biggest of his career.
But, with any incredible performance — especially in cycling — comes questions. Is what we’re seeing real (that is, not powered by doping), or is it a fraud? As always, it’s hard to tell. Some observers have noted that these kinds of performances seem more like the days of rampant EPO use, with a rider who didn’t amount to much four or five years ago now crushing the competition. The similarities to a certain Texan are somewhat eerie.
Again from James Dao of The New York Times:
Some cycling watchdogs speculated online that Froome’s stunning final acceleration suggested he might have used performance-enhancing drugs. Froome, of Team Sky, has rejected such suggestions before and did so again Sunday.
Told after the race that some people were comparing him to Lance Armstrong, the American rider whose seven Tour titles were stripped from him last year after he admitted to doping, an unperturbed Froome smiled and said, “I’m only going to take that as a compliment.”
Well, that’s certainly a different way to look at comparisons to Lance. Other than proclaiming his innocence, how can Chris Froome and his team prove that they’re doing it cleanly? Publish their power numbers from the races, so they can be compared to years past? (Interestingly, Froome had been doing that, but stopped about 18 months ago.) Publish the results of their anti-doping tests? Keep screaming to high heaven, “I’m clean!”?
Many’s the fan who takes the attitude “once bitten, twice shy.” Fool me once and all. Two very good takes on the Froome saga come from writers well versed in the pro scene. Jason Gay at the Wall Street Journal, writing from Mellow Johnny’s in Austin, Texas (you read that right, Armstrong’s bike show) points out:
The Tour de France is full of ghosts now, many of its former icons vaporized among the doping accused and doping confessed, and complicated emotions linger. The sport is stuck between optimism (it’s getting cleaner) and dread (something will happen) and it is hard to watch without a wave of anxiety about the whole experience, as no final result ever truly feels final.
Indeed. With the possibility that samples can be tested as much as eight years later, it’s hard to say exactly when the results of the Tour, or any other bike race, will truly be final. I’m personally of the point of view that sports should be watched as entertainment. Are the performances “real”? Maybe, but I can’t prove it. There’s a part of me that also wonders why I should care whether the athletes are doped to the gills or not. (Ironic, given that I’ve written a book on the history of doping, no?)
The riders who perform at the pro level are way beyond my ability, even back when I was in top condition. Doped or not, they’re performing incredible feats. I’d prefer it if they did so clean, but that’s just my opinion. They’re being paid to produce results. Best as I can tell, the sponsors don’t really give a rat’s ass what a pro athlete does to get those results, so long as it doesn’t reflect negatively on their brand. These days, that means at least paying lip service to racing clean, if not actually doing so. But if society’s attitude towards doping changes, so will the sponsors.
Neal Browne, over at RoadCycling.com, offers this:
Don’t let the doping ghosts of past generations ruin it for you. But don’t put on those rose-tinted glasses either. That’s the delicate dance we must do when we see amazing performances. I don’t expect (or want) you to be investigative journalists and scream DOPER at every stage winner.
Just remember why you loved cycling in the first place and let your gut lead you from there. Does this result bear further scrutiny or is it a legitimate result?
Some of this year’s stages will require a bit of soul-searching by the die-hard fan. Is Froome as clean as he claims? Again, I don’t know, but personally I’m not at that point where I’m willing to lump him with the dopers of the past. However, I will continue to question results (as should you) as I have and we have all been burned before.
One final observation from Paul Kimmage, writing on the Independent.ie web site:
What if Froome has started winning because the sport is clean? What if he has just delivered one of the truly great performances? What will it take for us to make that leap of faith again? When will it be safe to embrace some wonder again? And who would we rather see win? A polite, mild-mannered Kenyan trying to sell us a dream? Or a Spanish cheat (take your pick) managed by a Danish cheat (Bjarne Riis) who has screwed us royally before?
What’s happening to this sport? What are we looking at here?
It’s certainly possible that this year’s Tour is no less dope-infested than previous editions, and it’s certainly possible that it may be years before we know the final official standings. In the meantime, if you’re a fan of professional cycling, sit back and enjoy the entertainment. Is it “real”? As Jason Gay sums up his story:
Toward the back of the store, Armstrong’s yellow jerseys hang on the wall, seven in total, reminders of history that doesn’t exist. It’s awkward. But awkward is where the Tour de France now lives.
Every Tour, I have this morbid sense of wonder, “When is the doping scandal going to hit?” Almost without fail, some sort of big doping story happens during the three weeks in July when cyclists take to the roads of France to contest the grandest of the Grand Tours. So far, cycling seems to be escaping unscathed. But we still have a week to go, more or less.
In the meantime, the world of track and field seems only too happy to oblige. Over the past couple of days, stories have surfaced about several Jamaican runners testing positive for banned substances. And American Tyson Gay admitted that he, too, has tested positive. In the latest twist, the agent for two Jamaican runners claims it’s the trainer’s fault. Let the buck passing and finger pointing begin.
Update: And, of course, the trainer denies being the source of the banned substances.