The days of wildly entertaining rides like those by Marco Pantani are a thing of the past, but surely that’s actually a good thing?
“Someone is going to have to sustain 500 watts over 20 minutes of a climb to stay away which is not possible anymore unless you’ve got a couple of extra litres of blood. That’s the reality of it. It really is.”
— Bradley Wiggins
It was the early evening of Saturday July 19, 1997 and Marco Pantani had just crossed the finishing line at the top of Alp d’Huez having gone up the fabled mountain of 21 switchbacks faster than anyone before, or since. It was a phenomenal sight, at an average speed of 14.3 mph, and the Italian mountain goat who could defy, as the band Queen would sing, the laws of gravity, was the toast of the Tour. A year later he would become the first pure climber since Lucien van Impe in 1976 to win the Tour de France but by February 2004, he would be dead.
Lance Armstrong thrilled millions with his punchy style, his speed in the time-trial and his ability to destroy everyone in the mountains after overcoming Cancer. We’d watch in awe as the ever thinning group of race favorites — a collection of men who would almost all end up in some doping scandal or another — rode entirely on the rivet, putting out the kind of wattage that could light up a small town for a week, only to then see Armstrong look Jan Ullrich in the eye, and take off up the mountain and out of sight.
In 2006, Floyd Landis overcame a horrendus day in the mountains to blow what seemed to be any chance he had of winning the Tour, only to come back a day later and go on a long solo attack of historic proportions putting minutes into his rivals and putting himself right back into the battle for the Tour.
Then came Alberto Contador. A young Spaniard who appeared to be a cross between Armstrong himself and the, by now deceased, Marco Pantani. He could dance on the pedals and he looked set to dominate grand tours for a decade to come. No longer had Armstrong left us (and returned for a swan song) than we were talking of someone breaking his records. A group of contenders could do nothing when Contador dropped it a few gears and danced off up the hill, sitting for a brief moment before kicking again and doing so all the way to the top.
The praise for this, like the praise for Pantani’s climbing, Landis’ solo ride, and Armstrong’s dominance before it, was at it’s moment, almost universal. For the most part it was entertaining and dramatic, and it was the mountains of the Tour de France and the battle for the Yellow jersey at it’s very best. The commentators roared, you watched those that couldn’t hack the pace suffer off the back, the crowds yelled, and you found yourself very quickly on the edge of your seat.
Yet at the same time we all hated the drugging aspect that had become such a part of the sports culture. In hindsight we hated what Pantani had done to achieve such rides as that one up Alp d’Huez, and we cheered when the authorities started to go after Armstrong once his former team-mates began to speak out. We hated having to defend the potential of the sport to our non-cycling fan friends, convincing them that the positive doping tests only existed because they tested more than any other sport and they were prepared to bloody their noses in order to get clean. We believed the sport could get clean, would get clean, was on it’s way to being clean, yet we believed that the great battles of yesteryear would continue to enthrall us.
But there in lies the problem.
I heard a lot of people tell me they thought large parts of the 2012 edition of the Tour de France was boring; that Sky controlled the race too much and that nobody attacked. Nobody did a Pantani, an Armstrong, a Landis or a Contador and went for it, putting everything on the line. Why didn’t they?
They couldn’t. Sky kept the tempo so high that anytime anyone tried to attack them, they couldn’t maintain the speed required to get clear. It was a simple tactic, though simple only if you have the strongest rider in the race. In Sky’s case they had the two strongest and that was that. Had Chris Froome who was often seen waiting for Wiggins been on a different team then we might have seen a little more drama, but even then, it’s unlikely Froome could have rode away with the pace he generated for the first fifty meters or so.
“I think the Tour is a lot more human now,” said Wiggins himself this week when asked about people saying it was a dull race. “If people want to see incredible 220km lone breaks in the mountains, well maybe that’s not realistic anymore, as wonderful and as magical as they were to watch. I remember in the 90s watching people like Virenque, but maybe the sport’s changed now.”
Indeed it has. Last year’s trip up Alp d’Huez seen average times of the top GC contenders coming in four or more minutes behind those times set by Pantani 14 years before. How rare it is to see the barrier of sporting achievement dipping backwards so much when in so many sports the ‘modern day athlete’ with modern day equipment and modern day training, tend to push new boundaries. The explanation is simple.
We cannot have clean cycling and the old style of attacks at the same time. It’s one or the other. We either move forward in the understanding that the riders of today and tomorrow are a little more human and unable to rip a course to pieces as they once might have, or turn back the clock and bury our heads in the sand. The last time a major doping scandal hit the Tour, however, everyone was still up in arms proving to me, the majority still don’t want the cheaters involved.