Sunday, July 29, 2007

Racing -- The Tour de France

In the past 104 years of true sporting legend I am but a toddler, a very young, perhaps 4 or 5-year-old fan of the Tour de France. As with all young children I jumped in the Tour de France or TdF as true fans refer to it in writing, with both feet. I reluctantly admit that I became a fan during the waning days of the Armstrong dynasty, as many did. I am reluctant to admit this fact because I consider myself an independent thinker, not one to follow the masses. Yet still, cycle racing remains a low priority for most American’s even in the wake of Armstrong, so I don’t feel too bad about my “independent” decision.

Prior to becoming a rabid fan of the TdF I typically would spend long summer months wishing for the chance to watch the FIFA World Cup on ESPN. Every year, during the month of June, I count the seasons until the next World Cup. The chance comes only once every four years and I therefore I must wait patiently. Then I found the TdF on the Outdoor Living Network (OLN), just one click down on my cable line-up. Suddenly life during the summer had meaning – at least until the end of July. I was not brand new to cycling – I still have a nice bike I purchased with paper route money in 1978 – it still has the old style toe clips and only 12 speeds but it was state of the art 30 years ago. And I am familiar with the names of Greg LeMond, Miguel Indurain, and even Eddy Merckx. But when I was a kid in the 80’s I was not passionate either about the TdF or cycling in general. Every kid in the United States has a bicycle after all but the ubiquitous passion is lacking. For the last 4 years however, the TdF has lifted my spirits – both anticipating its start, early in the summer, and thinking about it’s conclusion, as the summer passed into the fall.

And now, just as quickly as I became a fan, the TdF has lost luster and is on the verge of becoming a hollow event. Something has occurred that disrupts my security and has sent me away scratching my head. The TdF has been violated. I feel like a victim – there clearly are many victims though as the TdF concludes in Paris on this very day. The TdF spin-doctors would have you believe the fans have their sport back and all is right with the world. But there are victims and there will be more -- the sponsors, the so called clean riders, the cities and towns along the route, and of course the riders who have been found cheating. Anyone can claim to be a victim – so I will also put in my claim to be a victim. I don’t put money into this sport. My impact on this sport is so small, so inconsequential; I stand nothing to gain from it. I have no favorites. I have no investment – but I feel like I am losing all the value that once appeared before me. The sport, the event, the contest, is being destroyed before my eyes and it is painful to watch. Only those of us who are clean – and I don’t mean in the doping sense – those who in this sport stand to profit nothing are the ones I am describing as clean. But does that make us victims or just innocent of any crime? Everyone else who has an agenda must be the real perpetrators. Whether they have a favorite team or favorite rider, whether they are in it for the money or the prestige, I question who in this sport has not stood by for decades knowing that there was cheating going on? If the event started 104 years ago, the cheating started 103 years ago. If doping is a problem then I blame the guilty - but that doesn't necessarily mean they are the criminals. I’ve only been a fan for a few years but I know many riders are cheating – the most grueling sport on the planet waged over 20+ straight days. At the expense of insulting more than a few riders, yeah right. And even if direct cheating isn't going on, who hasn’t been under suspicion or at a minimum been accused of some violation if they performed well? And furthermore, who hasn't at a minimum suspected someone else of competitive malfeasance.

Every champion for decades has been accused. But it’s not just cycling, right? It’s every professional sport. So do we just cancel professional sports out right? Or do we wake up to the reality that sports are much more a spectacle of entertainment and far less one of human achievement. A race is about the race. It is the excitement of charging full speed for some line in the sand, to get there first. It is, or has to be, the very oldest of human competitions. It requires nothing more that the very primordial desire to get some place first – probably, and most likely, to be first to the dinner table. We all race, it’s in our blood. The question is at what level do be begin to cheat? Because after that very first primordial race, after there was declared a victorious winner and a sorry loser, there was a second race. Two things happened. First the loser started looking for a way to gain an advantage. Second the winner started looking for a way to keep the advantage. If the race is close, it’s exciting. If it’s a rout it’s not a race. A race must be close and someone must be able to gain the advantage in order to win or it wouldn’t be exciting. Is that wrong? Or is that just racing?Let’s stop kidding ourselves and this is important. Everyone is dirty because everyone is always looking for an advantage. The question is where is the line between what is an accepted advantage, money to purchase a lighter bike for instance, and what is not an accepted advantage, such as taking a banned substance? Drafting, the technique of placing yourself in the slip stream of the rider in front of you, is, at its very basic nature, cheating. But what would racing be without the technique of drafting? Again, if the race is close, the race is exciting. I’ve been an amateur motorcycle racer – I could not afford an expensive machine. My bike was 10 years old. I could have taken all the EPO in the world but I was never going to win on my old machine. But performance-enhancing drugs don’t help too much in a motor sport – at least they don’t at my level. No it would be easier for me to modify my machine with some banned apparatus to get more horsepower. But my bike is required to go through a technical inspection. I could never win based on my talents alone – what was required was that I purchase a new motorcycle – that would give me an advantage over many riders and that would be acceptable. Didn't I just buy myself to the front of the race? And those who stand to profit most from my purchase just happen to be in the business of making racing motorcycles and putting on motorcycle races.

The problem is that there should be rules of fair play in athletic competitions – there should be in sports – gracious humble winners and good losers. We need more of folks with that attitude. Now take pro wrestling as another example. Hell, we know that Pro wrestling is rigged and it’s still exciting. But a rigged race wouldn’t be exciting at all. So in the same vane, does having the money to buy better equipment constitute cheating as well, just because it’s allowed by the rules? I happen to think it does. And this is why -- it’s all about the money, it’s not about the race. The sport of cycle racing is comprised of those who have money and those who want more of it – it’s a business. This sport, all sports, any sport where there is money involved, expect it to be dirty.

So should we police the sport – should we strive to keep it clean? The answer no – because it is dirty by its very nature. Gaining the advantage is by it’s very nature the art of racing. Ask NASCAR. But trying to gain the advantage is present in any professional sport, although it’s the very essence of racing. Yes we should have some rules – to keep sports from descending into anarchy and of course to generally protect the safety of the participants. But with racing, it is the excitement of using your advantage to overcome the adversity just in the final closing yards.Unfortunately it is not the drive to gain the advantage that is destroying the TdF and other sports; it’s the hypocritical cheaters that are destroying the TdF as well as other events. It is these self-righteous cheaters who are destroying every good venue by going on witch hunts. These witch hunters are hypocrites because they are trying to gain their own advantage. They are trying to over turn their perception of an unfair advantage with their own style of advantage – that of accusing the winners of cheating. They are trying to take the advantage off the track to establish the winners and the losers of the race on the track. If your team loses don’t accept the loss. Accuse the winners of cheating. This is the very pinnacle of being a sore loser. But it’s not necessarily the athletes who are the sore losers, it’s the teams and sponsors and organizers the countryman and the media whose money, pride, or lack of a good story that is in jeopardy. This is the height of irony. It’s so pervasive that in some countries they reward the treacherous for being sly enough to gain a tactical advantage, either on or off the battleground. Competition, and perhaps the more serious revelation that the primordial rush to the dinner table meant the difference between life and death, at it’s root, is life or death, means that treachery means survival. And if you remember the Great Coach of the Liverpool Football Club, Bill Shankly once said, 'Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.' It is the primordial rush to the dinner table that constitutes a race and that is what makes it exciting to witness, over and over again, in every athletic competition, save the Olympics which does reserve a special place for human achievement. But rarely, if ever, are professional sports about anything but who gets to eat. Your job is to put food on the table, a lot of food. When you put food on the table, you are eliminating food from the other guy’s table. Professional wrestling learned that if they control the entertainment medium and make the entire event a shame they could make even more money.

But to control a racing event, where no one has the advantage, would be like riding go-carts at the beach. It simply wouldn’t be a race if no one could find an advantage – because no one would win. It’s like bob sled racing – where the winner and the loser is separated by 100th of a second. That’s a ridiculous race – you might as well drop two marbles to the floor and time their arrival and declare a winner or a loser. There really are no winners or losers in this type of event; although we have to name one. So back to the TdF, who are the victims? Yes there should be rules. Establish the rules and stick to the rules. But don’t make the rules so restrictive that the race is won off the track – or rules that give those other than the athlete’s control of the outcome of the race. Yes there will be cheating and those caught breaking the rules can sit out the next race. The very essence of racing is gaining the advantage – the only difference is where the creativity to win comes from that can move the sport forward. If we ban everyone trying to find an advantage, trying to race, there will be no one left on the road. Further, if we don’t let the winners win and the losers lose on the track then we will let the hypocrites settle the race off the track. Those are the true bad guys and the reason you see push back from many racing teams on the issue of doping. The teams are trying to race, trying to win. But the team itself doesn't stand as much to lose as the rider. It is the rider's blood and sweat that gets left on the roads through France. It is the rider who is pushed to the brink both physically and mentally day in and day out. It is the rider who is under so much pressure to find an advantage who rolls the dice and pushes hard against the rules. And when they have ridden hard through hell, experienced pain for hours on end, reached to top of an arduous climb, and finally crossed through the finish line throwing their hands skyward, we relish their victory. Then the cowardly hypocrites emerge looking to strip them of their victory on the road. Sometimes they succeed. If they win the punishment for trying to gain the advantage becomes absolute. A rider's career is over. After dedicating most of their life with countless hours in the saddle training for such a small moment in time as a stage victory in the Tour de France. Those who have not won, have not yet found the advantages that will take them over the top first -- and there are many advantages necessary. I therefore give you the true victim's of what we have been witnessing in France this month. Those who are pushed to the brink and look just a bit too far for the winning advantage. Does their punishment fit the crime? Are the real criminals prosecuted? The answer to both questions has to be no.

So where do we go from here? A tradition that spans 104 years cannot be given up lightly, nor should it be. Something will change. It has too. The TdF will lose fans, coverage, and sponsorship. Those who love the sport will keep it alive no matter how low it sinks on the horizon. Riders will keep coming - thriving on the ultimate race and test off their skills - and fortunately, they will continue to look for an advantage be it tactical, physical, or mechanical. And I'm glad they will because that's what racing is all about. So let's not give up on the TdF, yes let’s keep it safe. But let’s also keep the essence of racing alive for those of us who simply enjoy a great race.

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