The Tour de France took to the roads for the 100th time yesterday but given the controversy of the Lance Armstrong scandal and events since then, should you bother watching the famous race this year?
These days it’s as easy to make fun of cycling as it is to laugh at Linda Martin. Since the Usada report forced the hand of the UCI to issue a lifetime ban to Lance Armstrong and strip him of his seven Tour victories not a week has gone by without one controversy or another: more dopers have been caught with further admissions from high profile former professionals; the result of the Fuentes doping case in Spain was a major disappointment for anti-doping campaigners with the judge ordering the destruction of hundreds of blood bags; and the ongoing mess of the UCI presidential election has enough intrigue for a Tom Clancy thriller.
In fact, one look at the ongoings of the UCI would be enough to turn you off the sport altogether. Incumbent UCI president Pat McQuaid failed to secure a nomination for his re-election from his own country’s cycling federation, not even bothering to attend Cycling Ireland’s EGM on the subject. McQuaid has spent his time attempting to secure and nomination from the Swiss federation and attacking his sole rival for the presidency, Brian Cookson. In an remarkable open letter sent to national cycling federations, McQuaid identifies a group of activists who are trying “by whatever means, to hijack and derail [his] candidature”. He goes on to claim Wojciech Walkiewicz (a supporter of Cookson) is “notorious for manipulating elections” and questions the legitimacy of a €1 million donation from a company owned by another Cookson supporter to the European Cycling Union.
No one but political junkies and the candidates themselves could be interested in the UCI election in and of itself – but its result could have a huge impact on the future of cycling. Under McQuaid it seems the UCI is never responsible for anything that goes wrong. Armstrong caught for doping by Usada? Not UCI’s fault. Rasmussen confesses to doping throughout career? Not UCI’s fault. Stages of 2013 Giro d’Italia shortened, cancelled and rerouted due to an overly ambitious route considering the weather and the time of year? Not UCI’s fault.
Even if we look beyond the boardroom and the doping controls there are problems. How about the farcical opening stage of this year’s Tour de France? As the cyclists charged inside the 15 km to go mark, a team bus crashed into the overhead gantry marking the finish line. Organisers waited until the cyclists were 7km from the finish to inform all riders that the finish line would be brought forward to the 3km to go mark. However once the bus from the road (when the riders were at the original 5km to go mark), organisers decided to reinstate the original finish line causing even more bewilderment and frantic instruction from team cars to their rider’s ear piece radio. In the midst of the confusion two riders lost concentration and clipped wheels causing a massive crash bringing down a dozen riders at 56km/hr. Guess what? It’s not the UCI’s fault.
In spite of the inability of cycling’s governing body to successfully stage the two biggest races of the year, the magnetic attraction of cycling’s grandest of tours remains. While is impossible to gauge the attendance the Tour de France, although it was estimated over 500,000 watch an individual stage of the 2005 race (the Alpe d’Huez time trial). The sheer scale of the race make it the most awesome spectacle in sport: a struggle of 180 Davids versus the Goliath that is the road; this year covers 3,404 kilometres of French tarmac from the mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees to the flats of Corsica and Paris. The history of the race from Cinderella story victories to financially backed success creates the opportunity for a glorious breakaway win and an equally memorable team triumph. Riders are continually reminded of the race’s epic past with supporters chalking the names of champions and stage winners onto the road. Ever mindful of this history – and it being the 100 edition of the race – Tour organisers have invited all surviving finishers of the race to the final stage in Paris. The pageantry, the colour, the buzz: there is nothing like the Tour.
This year there is particular interest in the Tour from an Irish perspective. Two Irish cyclists, Nicolas Roche and Daniel Martin, will each hope to push for a top ten finish in the race. In support of them, a group of Irish cycling junkies will attempt to take over one corner of Alpe d’Huez and cheer them to the top of the fabled climb. Two Irish journalists, who have shot to world prominence in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, David Walsh and Paul Kimmage will cover the race, with Walsh having full access to race favourite Chris Froome’s Team Sky, and Kimmage filming a major documentary of the race entitled Rough Rider.
So should you watch the Tour? Well I’ll be watching it but then I’m overly sentimental, a sucker for the glorious French countryside, and intrigued by the nip and tuck tactics of a breakaway and the chasing pack. I know that I shouldn’t watch the race because of the scandals, the cheats and the many yet unanswered questions, but I can’t help myself. In ways cycling is a bit like the Catholic Church: many of its leaders have cheated and fooled their followers for decades yet there’s something about it that means you still wants to believe.
There’s a good quotation from an Italian police officer come doping investigator Sandro Donati in David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins which sums things up nicely:
“I watch the Olympic Games but I don’t bother to remember the names of the athletes any more. It’s like theatre but I prefer the theatre because the relationship between actor and spectator is clear. In sport’s theatre both are still pretending it’s real.”
The Tour de France runs from 29 June to 21 July. You can watch live free streaming for the race on TG4 in the company of Páidí Ó Lionáird and Pádraic Ó Cuinn. Also available live on Eurosport.