Monday, 30 July 2007

The Tour de France is an event that has always fascinated me. Some of my friends are incredulous as to how I can be interesting in a sport that has arguably been rendered null and void by doping. It's an event for the continentals after all, and no one in the UK gives a monkey's about who's wearing the yellow jersey by the end of July... After all, apart from a couple of Scots called Millar - Robert, a King of the Mountains winner in the 1980s, and David, who was banned for two years and stripped of his 2003 World Championship time trial rainbow jersey, but has since been prominent in the fight against doping - British riders have hardly set the Tour de France alight. And then there is the tragedy of Tom Simpson who died 40 years ago on Mont Ventoux.

However, the crowds that turned up to watch the Tour prologue and first stage in London and Kent are proof that it's not just me, one man and his dog who are still interested in the event.

I say "event" and not "cycling" for a good reason. Like many others, I'm not overly bothered about who'll win the next ProTour road race, but thanks to Channel Four's coverage in the early Nineties, I was hooked on the Tour de France from an early age. Presented by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, the half-hour daily programme had the coolest of Kraftwerk-inspired theme tunes. Not only that, but you had freaks of nature like Miguel Indurain crushing the oppposition on both the mountain slopes and time trial routes, as well as mad sprinters such as Djamolidine Abdoujaparov involved in crashes like this. It was a spectacle.

It takes a lot to cycle up Alpe d'Huez - some say it takes more than just energy bars and good legs. Indeed, some of the past winners of what is the Blue Riband stage of Le Tour were later caught doping or suspected to have doped. Marco Pantani was one those cyclists. He would career up a mountain as if his life depended on it. Another rider, Jan Ullrich, the German winner in 1997, is suspected to have used EPO owing to his alleged involvement in the Puerto doping case. Of all the riders I've seen on television, Ullrich was something else - the Roger Black of cycling. There was something about his style - treading an improbably high gear, so unlike the typical waif-like specialist climbers, yet leaving everyone for dead bar Lance Armstrong - that made me warm to him. The eternal runner-up to Armstrong, you get the feeling that he never did fulfil his potential.

Now that it seems that Ullrich's exploits were allegedly the result of red blood cell transfusions for most of his career. Ullrich continues to deny any wrong-doing, but after the meltdown at year's event, you would think he'd be man enough to own up now.

As for cycling in general, things may have to get even worse for it to get better. In the meantime, I suggest you read some of these articles. They're compelling.

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