The death of professional bike racing, or the rebirth?

The 2007 Tour de France is over, and what a strange and exciting one it’s been. There are those out there who want to stress the negative – both the overwhelming pre-race favourite Vinokourov and the guy who probably would have won it kicked out of the race. But to me there is much to be positive about.
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The worst and the best of cycle racing

I finally got around to watching the TiVo’ed coverage of last weekend’s “Amstel Gold”, one of the “Spring Classics” pro bike races. Unusually for them, the weather was beatiful – probably too hot for the tastes of the riders, but it made for good coverage and I’m sure the fans appreciated it. In previous years it’s been wet or snowy or so foggy that the tv coverage was almost non-existant.

As usual on these sorts of races, there wasn’t much happening until the last 30 minutes or so. There was a break-away group up the road and a big peleton, but a couple of the race favourites manged to bridge up to the leaders. That’s what I mean about “the worst”. 2 hours of watching a bunch of guys cycling without any changes in leadership, without teams organizing chases, without anything really interesting happening. Yawn.

With only a few minutes to go, the lead group consisted mostly of guys who had a reasonable expectation or hope of winning, because of previous wins on this or similar races. The only wild factor was that one of these favourites, Davide Rebellin, also had a team mate with him. I expected this would mean that his team mate, Stefan Schumacher, would attempt to launch him on a break-away on the second last or last climb of the day. But instead, their team played a very clever card.

Schumacher attacked alone. The other guys in the bunch wouldn’t counter attack to bring him back because none of them wanted to tire himself out and give the upper hand to one of his rivals. You could see Paulo Bettinni and Michael Boogerd trying to get the others to lead the counter attack. They just couldn’t get it together to cooperate, knowing that Rebellin would sit on any counter attack but wouldn’t contribute to it. So Schumacher sailed on ahead and won by a good margin. Even better, Rebillin used his tactical advantage to grab enough rest that he could outsprint the rest of the group to take second. And that’s the best of bike racing, the team tactics that say it’s better for some second banana in your team to get a clear win than for your team leader to fight it out in a bunch sprint. Every team has its star, but when it comes right down to it, it’s the team that matters.

Athletes and drugs

I didn’t write a summary of the last couple of days of the Tour de France as I usually do because I didn’t actually get to watch them on TV until I got back from Oshkosh, and by that time the news was all about Landis’ failed drug test. I want to reserve judgement about Landis until we hear the full results of the investigation. But one thing I read in several discussions of this whole thing is “we should just allow the athletes to use whatever drugs they want”. This is a damn stupid idea for a couple of reasons, and I’d like to expand on this.

The first reason it’s a stupid idea is that athletes will do anything to get an edge on their competition. If everybody else is using drug X, then you have to use X or you’re going to be at a disadvantage, even if you’re a better athlete than them. The drugs would become just another arms-race situation. The various sports governing bodies have done what they can to reduce technological arms races – they want technology to evolve, but they don’t want it to decide competitions. Back in the days when fibreglas skis were new, the FIS had to step in and say that cross country skis had to be a minimum of 44 mm wide at the widest point, because people were trying narrower and narrow skis to get a speed advantage, to the point where a large number of competitors were breaking their skis in a race – if you didn’t break, you’d gain a few seconds over everybody else. The UCI does the same thing in bike racing with their weight limits on bikes. The limit is arbitrary, but you have to draw the line somewhere. If drugs got to be the next arms race, people would be doing major damage to themselves.

And that’s the second reason why it’s a stupid idea: athletes don’t care about the future. If you told an athlete that if they take this drug they’d win the Tour de France but they’d drop dead two weeks later, but their win would still stand, there would be a line-up around the block for the drug. How do I know this? Personal experience.

Most of my competitive life was in pain. I was pretty sure that continuing to compete would make the pain problems worse in the future, but I cheerfully accepted that trade-off. I’m not as cheerful about it now, but I stand by the decision. And I wasn’t competing for prize money, million dollar endorsements and world wide fame. The sports I was competing in were obscure to the point where most of my friends had never even heard of them. And I wasn’t even winning most of them – I never won a Canadian Championship in anything. In cross country skiing, I wasn’t even in the top 4 on our university team. But I loved the competition against myself, and the feeling of doing my best, and the knowledge that I’d tested my limits and come through them. I basically ruined my knees and condemmed myself to lifetime pain for nothing more than a feeling. Can you imagine what an athlete would do to himself if there was more at stake?