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Tour de France 2013: Is The Race Forever Tainted By Doping?

Monday, 22 July 2013

So another Tour de France has come and gone and I find myself already going through withdrawals. This year's race was a special one for a lot of reasons and now that it has come and gone, I'm already missing it. The 100th edition of Le Tour had plenty of excitement both on and off the road and it also introduced us to some rising stars who are likely to be names that we'll be hearing for many years to come. In fact, the podium featured 28-year old Chris Froome in the Yellow Jersey and runner up Nairo Quintana, who is just 23 and went home with both the Polka Dot Jersey for the King of the Mountains competition and the White Jersey awarded to the race's best young rider under the age of 25. Green Jersey winner Peter Sagan is just 23 years old as well and already showing the savvy of a veteran rider in the Tour.

This year's race featured a great deal of pomp and circumstance, with celebrations for the 100th edition of the Tour taking part nearly every day. That was even more evident yesterday with the start of the race taking place at the Palace of Versailles and rolling up the Champs Élysées at dusk in front of a cheering crowd. Afterwards there was a lavish display for this year's top riders as well as a tip of the hat to previous winners such as Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault and the incomparable Eddy Merckx.

Not so conspicuously absent from that line-up was Lance Armstrong, who you know would have been on that stage if it weren't for the events that have transpired over the past year. Even though he wasn't in Paris, Armstrong's shadow still loomed over the event. The former pro-rider who had his seven wins stripped from him earlier this year was quoted in an interview before the race began as saying that it would have been impossible to win back in his day without doping. The implication was that doping was so prevalent in the sport and that everyone was using some form of performance enhancing substance, that if you didn't dope, you weren't even going to be able to hang with the peloton. In a sense, it was the culture of the sport at the time and if you couldn't beat the cheaters out on the road, you might as well join them in the lab.

While I think what Lance said is absolutely true, the timing of the statements didn't sit well with some in the press. Regardless, I don't think it was Armstrong's quotes that put the use of performance enhancing substances back on their collective radars, but doping was once again a popular topic throughout the race. Considering how well Chris Froome performed in the mountains, usually blowing just about everyone else away, it was almost inevitable that questions about whether or not he was doing it clean were going to arise. Froome had to field those questions often after his performance in the Pyrenees, prompting team management to share data showing his performance over the past three years with little difference in his output. They were trying to show that he has consistently performed at a top level for years and that his performance in the Tour was nothing new. He also hasn't failed a drug test, although that was Armstrong's defense for years as well.

As these inquiries continued to come up I couldn't help but wonder if this is what pro cycling had come to. The sport is trying desperately to clean up its image and with some excellent young riders on the rise, they have a new crop of stars to help with that project. But cycling's sordid past continues to haunt it, and those young riders will now have to face increased scrutiny thanks to the sins of those that have come before them. Froome fielded the questions on an almost daily basis and he answered them with patience and conviction. That was in contrast to last year's champ Bradley Wiggens, who bristled at the mere suggestion of the possibility that he was doping.

I fear that this will be the norm moving forward. Cycling must now deal with it's long history of doping issues and considering how often we as fans have been burned, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is to be expected. It took the sport a long time to dig this hole it now finds itself in and it's going to take a long time to dig itself out. It is just a shame that the current crop of riders will now be met with suspicion, even though they may not have done anything wrong, while riders in the past got a free pass at the time.

The Tour is one of my favorite annual sporting events and I have a great deal of respect for the riders. Hopefully there will eventually come a day where I no longer need to defend the race to my friends who just want to dismiss it as being full of cheaters. I'm sure the riders would like to put that part of the race's history behind them as well and move forward with a clean slate. They're going to have to earn that trust and respect however and that is going to take some time.

Fortunately, they are off to a good start so far and the future looks bright. Here's to another 100 years of racing. Vive Le Tour!

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