It is no surprise that a race which has always been a passionate affair should sometimes start in disarray.
This year, such is the success of the UCI and racing organisers in defending the sport against cheats who use “dopage” to enhance their performance, means that no rider will begin the race wearing the number one on his back.
Floyd Landis, who finished with the best time last year tested positive for testosterone, still argues his innocence, and will not start.
Maybe he is as clean as the driven snow, but it was either with supreme unintended irony or with insight knowledge that Eurosport commentator David Harmon said “you can almost see the testosterone oozing out of him.” when Landis crossed the winning line after his remarkable solo run last year.
It is clear that both broadcasters and advertisers are being pushed to the limit by the continuing dopage saga which has always haunted cycling.
However, the prophets of doom for cycling racing are wrong both in a historical and realistic perception.
The Tour de France has always tottered between scandal and jubilation. It is this very juxtaposition between human triumph and frailty that makes the race so engaging. If you devise a sport that will push its competitors (and even followers) to the limit, you will have Teams, Racers, Sponsors and Fans who will ignore the rules.
The problem is that there will be always those who want to cheat the system.
In 1904, the second edition of the race, Pierre Chevallier seemed to get dropped from the peloton on several occasions yet managed to get back to the leading group, probably by a ride in a car. It was even suspected that some riders were being towed from a car with a wire fitted to a piece of cork which they held between their teeth.
1904 was also a bad year for fan behaviour.
On the Col du Grand Bois, near St Etienne, an ugly mob blocked the path of the race. Fauré (who it must be said was innocent of any incitement) slipped through. Garin and the Italian Giovanni Gerbi were less lucky. The mob set upon both. Garin escaped relatively unscathed; Gerbi was less lucky, ending up with broken fingers which eventually caused his retirement. The riot was only broken up when Géo. Lefèvre arrived in the organiser's car and started firing his pistol over the heads of the crowd! (Tom James- Veloarchive)
History does not change it just alters to the times.
In November 1904, the Tour Founder, Henri Desgrange declared the the “Tour was finished”, for reasons probably lost in the mists of time, the first four overall - Maurice Garin, Lucien Pothier, Cesar Garin and Hippolyte Aucouturier - were excluded from the results. 9 other riders were excluded from the result .Maurice Garin was banned for two years, Chaput, Chevallier and Lucien Pothier for life, Payan and Prévost for a year . Overall winner (after the exclusions) Henri Cornet was "warned", as was Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq. Aucouturier was "warned" and had a "reprimand inflicted" on him.
Christian Prudhomme, the director of the 2007 Tour de France faces the same challenges as Henri Desgrange, in 1904.
In 1904 the threat was of local mobs endeavouring to aid their champion, in 2007 it is the same scenario of disaster but the danger is from International terrorism and drunken fans dressed in fancy dress aiming for their five minutes of fame.
As for dopage clearly the UCI and the Tour de France are winning.
The flood mark was probably reached last year when both Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso found themselves excluded from the race.
Since then a succession of confessions, all prompted by very personal reasons, and better police work and testing have named and in some cases shamed both former and present professional bicycle racers.
The flood is on the ebb but both the UCI and race organisers are building strong and sensible defences for the future.
Christian Prudhomme believes, quite rightly, that
"The world of cycling is really going through a revolution. There is wrestling between those who dream of a different sport and those who cannot quit their old habits."(Reuters)
Old habits die hard, and the sport still faces a long period of reflection.
Fortunately, with an open field and, by Tour standards, a fairly dramatic parcours, cycling could emerge from this Tour with a far better image than it will start with.
The race is wide open, Vinokourov, Klöden, Sastre, Evans, Leipheimer, Menchov, Schleck, Contador , Moreau and Kashechkin all have backers for the final podium.
It will have a dramatic and theatrical start in London and and equal climax in Paris.
And one thing is certain.
The riders who complete the prologue in London Town, will have an audience and world wide press which would have been unbelievable to those riders who started the 1904 edition.
Ultimately it is up to the riders, fans and press to respect their sport.
Realistically the lessons of 1904 can never be learnt, cycling will always be in the twilight zone as a sport because of its basic simplicity.
Which is its attraction.
As Tom Simpson said, “Football is a game” (as a matter of interest one of his brothers played professional football for Blackpool, team of Stanley Matthews) “but cycling is a sport”.
When passion is involved, the results are hard to predict
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