Should you watch the Tour de France this year?

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.

pot-kettle-black

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.

Advertisements

Full Transcript: Lance Armstrong on Oprah

Here is the complete transcript of both parts of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah (with some live tweets thrown in here or there to satisfy any lingering OCD).


Continue reading

Lance Armstrong Interview Part One: Initial Reaction

Amazing television. It’s 3.30am as I type this and I’ve restarted the tape and want to watch it all over again. The first 5 minutes were absolutely riveting. His one word Yes or No answers which contradict everything he’s said for 15 years was simply amazing television.

But all the time there was the feeling that he’s not revealing the whole truth. His assertion that he took no performance enhancing drugs during his comeback in 2009-2011 is simply not believable. I suppose it’s simply an inconvenient coincidence his admission to drug taking from the early 90s until 2005 fall outside the statue of limitations, whereas admitting more recent drug taking would leave him open further federal probes and investigations.

Oprah did an OK job, she obviously had to get up to speed fairly quickly – but she seemed to overlook a lot of the detail (e.g. about Ferrari, his thoughts on Landis and the UCI) in favour of getting broad stroke generalities.

If anything Armstrong came across better from a PR point of view when he was being cautious rather than when he let his guard down and spoke openly. His answers to questions on Betsy Andreu and Emma O’Reilly will haunt him long after this interview. His lack of empathy and understanding really point towards what many on live blogging on Twitter characterised as “psychopathic”. For example, it was reported that Lance called Betsy “a fat, crazy bitch”. Lance’s reaction was that he never called her fat. As for Emma O’Reilly whom he called a whore while under oath…? Well he couldn’t remember if he sued her or not. As was pointed out on David Epstein’s twitter (which you should check out by the way) Armstrong employed the passive tense every now and again, example: Emma O’Reilly was one of those people who “got run over”. Not “I ran her over and called her an alcoholic prostitute”. He also said O’Reilly was one of the people he had to apologise to. The truth is not your friend Lance.

Looking back at some of his comments one of the ones that stands out now is that he referred to himself as “an arrogant prick”. The closest he came to tears was after he was showed a clip of himself on the winning podium of the Tour de France in 2005 as he attacked the “sceptics and the cynics” for not believing in him. His reaction was embarrassment but he felt that it was a “lame” way to leave the Tour and he felt he had to come back.

Armstrong said he did not feel bad or that he was cheating while he took drugs. For him it was the same as having air in the tyres and water in the bottles. The discussion literally came down to semantics when he described looking up the word cheat in the dictionary and confirmed to himself at the time that he wasn’t cheating. Oprah really should have pushed harder at moments like that. Lots of references to him “not being a fan of the UCI” but Oprah didn’t push forward on that either as she might have…

All in all, sitting up here at a silly hour in the morning, I know I’ll remember where I was when reputation of the most successful pro cyclist of his generation and a once bone fide American hero was completely shattered. To put it simply, he’s a scary scary man, who perhaps somewhat less deluded that he was but who still thinks of himself as special and unbeholden to anyone. His control of his emotions even at a time like this though is impressive and yet there were many moments where he rattled off pre-rehearsed statements (the whole “scary” “scarier” “scariest” routine comes to mind). To me it seems he’s only caught out badly at times he lets his guard down, e.g. the Betsy A (“she wouldn’t mind me saying this…”) and Emma O’R exchanges.

That’s me done, off to bed, part two tomorrow should be good too. Disappointed Oprah didn’t nail him down on certain issues, but all in all I can’t see how Armstrong will come out of this with any kind of sympathy or understanding with the public at large.

Five Things to Remember before Lance Armstrong’s Interview

1 The “just laying around” picture

After the release of USADA’s damning report in October of 2012 and the media maelstrom that followed, Armstrong maintained radio silence. One month later, having stepped down as chairman of his Livestrong charity, Armstrong tweeted this photo of him “back in Austin just laying around” his living room with his seven winning Tour de France jerseys framed on the wall. No sweat there.

2 The bullying

Many examples of this. Armstrong made scurrilous insinuations against team soigneur Emma O’Reilly as an excuse for her hurried and uncomfortable departure from the team; vilified Paul Kimmage using cancer sufferers as a shield to evade probing questions, and as leader of the Tour de France effectively excommunicated Christophe Bassons from professional cycling.

Dozens of people were directly affected by Armstrong’s alpha male machoness, and millions more must feel disgusted by his manipulative use of a remarkable cancer survivor story as a smokescreen to bully many into silence.

3 The 1998 Tour de France

Referred to as the Tour du Dopage, the 1998 edition of the Tour de France might as well never have begun after police raids of team cars found enough drugs, blood bags and syringes to fill a pharmacy. Riders were tossed out, whole teams banned, stages abandoned, and results made void. The subsequent 1999 Tour de France was billed as the Tour of Renewal, a chance for cycling to demonstrate it was clean and intent on regaining a decent public image. It also happened to be the first Tour for Armstrong after his recovery from cancer. Needless to say, the 1999 Tour did not herald the clean era of racing Tour organisers promised the media.

4 The dodgy business deals

As we go further into the rabbit hole of the Armstrong scandal, information is emerging about the lucrative benefits Armstrong enjoyed as a result of his charity Livestrong, with shadowy deals and alleged conflicts of interests being reported in recent newspaper articles. Following money trails is the life blood of investigative reporting, and now that the floodgates are opening on Armstrong expect more to follow. Hell hath no fury like a long time silenced journalist. See the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for facts and figures.

5 To date Armstrong has admitted to nothing

Last year the New York Times produced a startling graph highlighting the proven drug cheats who finished in the top ten of the Tour de France from 1998 to 2012. It makes for fairly sickening viewing. Armstrong, as leader of the peloton through most of this time, had remarkable influence on an entire generation of riders and in many ways the maillot jaune must bear the weight responsibility. Until today he has admitted to nothing. Now, having been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, his Olympic medal, his sponsorship deals, and all but his most deluded fans, he has decided he is ready to “admit” to doping. For whose benefit was this decision made, Armstrong or cycling?

It’s human to pity those who suddenly lose everything. It’s human to forgive those who admit their transgressions. It’s not to conclude that Armstrong will remain a man not so much sorry he cheated but sorry he was caught.

Today is not a day for pity and forgiveness.