My last article that looked back on the tour had the following paragraph inserted into it:
And it was again a Tour that looked normal…something we’re forced to analyse in this post-EPO-crazy era. The champion was simply better than the remaining contenders but far from unworldly, and the return of the French to the podium for the first time post-Festina affair ’98 was a welcome sight. If you still cannot give the benefit of the doubt to the bulk of what you seen in this Tour, especially after what has been a handful of promising years now, then I’m not sure what it will take, outside of your own participation.
Well, against my own urges, I thought I’d expand a little and do the very thing that I said we’re now forced to do and analyse this tour from the perspective of the dark (yet receding, I like to think) shadow that lurks near the bright lights of the Tour. ‘The Darkness on the Edge of Town’ as Bruce Springsteen might call the subject of drugs in cycling…always out there and occasionally in need of addressing.
Thankfully, in recent years, it looks as though analysing a Tour from the perspective of drug use is giving us a healthy outcome if done objectively and the hope is that if it continues this way then we’ll eventually reach a point where it won’t require much scrutiny at all. We all know that some people will always try to cheat, regardless of the environment around them, but seeing the pendulum swing from the majority in a broken culture to a minority in a working system culture suggests that at last the sports appears to be getting on top of the battle against drugs and the riders are not feeling that it is a requirement to success.
These men will continue to defy our own limited potential…to rise up to a level of endurance that is hard to comprehend suffering; it’s why we watch…because we know we could never do it ourselves, and yet there’s something beautiful in the suffering; the countryside of France rolling by our screens as a back drop and the glory in what these men go through in order to finish Paris, let alone win the thing.
There was a time when the Tour appeared all too alien, but while it will always remain on an elevated pedestal of natural human performance…that pedestal is at least back on earth and among many examples, the final climb to Hautacam highlighted this perfectly.
Vincenzo Nibali won there. He attacked early, near the foot of the climb and rode solo to glory, hammering home the final nail into the coffin that was everyone elses dreams of winning this Tour. It was as much an act of defiance against anyone who still thought he wouldn’t have won had Contador and Froome finished as it was an attempt to secure further time over any rival.
You could almost hear the calculators clicking when Nibali sprang his attack…the ghost of, and the time of, Bjarne Riis’s ride up this mountain in 1996 looming large. And yet, 18 years down the road from that infamous day, an uber talented climbing specialist, on modern equipment, under modern training and nutritional techniques, lost 2 minutes and 45 seconds to the time put down by a 32 year old Riis who had gone from career domestique to superstar in the matter of a couple of years.
Of course — and in the interests of balance — analysing times on a climb on separate days, never mind separate years, when wind direction and strength, temperature, humidity, relevance of the stage, difficulty of preceding stages, length of the stage before the climb, speed of the racing on the lower slopes, and many other factors can vary dramatically reduce it to an inexact science, especially when there is no certainty that the times themselves are accurate.
But when you look back at Riis’s ride and then at Nibali’s on video, the differences are striking. Riis rode that climb steady on the lower slopes dropping back through the group to analyse his rivals before launching a short attack. He then dropped back to the group and once more went to the back, looking at each of his opponents before a second attack. They were well into the climb before he settled into a punishing rhythm that took him to the stage victory. Nibali on the other hand attacked early and rode the climb as though it were a time-trial. No start-stop attacking; no playing with his rivals.
The Tour came up this climb two years before Riis’s big win and that time it was Indurain eating up his rivals; only Luc Leblanc could hang onto his wheel and out sprinted him to the line. Their time was still more than 2 minutes faster than Nibali. Four years after Riis in 2000 the Tour again came back to Hautacam, and this time it was Lance Armstrong who won with a time more than 1 minute faster than the Italian. On each occasion, times aside, the performances were spectacularly different from that of Nibali’s in 2014.
Naturally, as in any walk of life in which fame and fortune lie as a reward for glory, there will be those that will try take shortcuts to the top, but once upon a time the shortcut was a requirement…the other road simply didn’t go to the summit. Times have changed however, they test for more now…they simply test more now. They have the biological passport starting to reap its rewards and it’s hard to find any champion from the days of yore who remains untainted by a positive test, a link to a scandal, or an admission (forced or otherwise) of guilt. And every rider now understands that their urine and blood samples will be stored away, good to be re-tested should any new breakthrough in testing for any as-of-yet unknown substance become available.
Which brings me to another point: There’s no sign that any unknown substance has hit the peloton. Back in the early 90’s when EPO first made its appearance, the speeds soared. Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon both spoke about the sudden rise in speeds. LeMond and Fignon were all but 31 and 32 years of age respectively by the 1992 Tour and yet both looked like old beaten up men, no longer able to hack it with the young lads as Fignon finished 23rd and LeMond abandoned. Challenging one another to win the Tour just three years before, they were suddenly left behind. To put it in perspective, Alberto Contdor is 31 now, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour aged 32, Cadel Evans won it at 34, and Jean-Christophe Péraud has just finished second this year aged 37. The idea that LeMond or Fignon should have been finished in their early 30s to these sudden accelerations seemed bizarre, but it is now obvious why in hindsight.
The speeds of races today however have not suddenly shot up skewing who should and shouldn’t be fast. The average speed of this tour as a whole was 40.69 km/h, the 4th fastest on record, though it must be remembered that a large majority of the ride down the east side of France that incorporated about nine stages was with a tail-wind.
That aside however, the three Tours faster than this one came 8, 9 and 11 years before and it was barely quicker this year than it was twenty some years before, which bodes the question, not whether that is a bad sign that they’re still as fast as dirty Tours, but if drugs were still rampant today then, coupled with improved technology, nutrition and training, why aren’t they going even faster still? History would suggest that if drugs were still rampant 14 years into the 21st century, and especially if some new product had hit the peloton, then speeds would be 1 or 2 km/h faster than ever before.
But they’re not.
You may still be unsure, forever scarred by the past, or you may have had questions, but this Tour has answered them about as well as it could be expected and while we’ll never know for sure, or at least not for many years, certainly not enough to put our mortgages on it, at the very least this Tour and its champion have earned the right to the benefit of the doubt and such a step in recent years is a big positive for the direction in which cycling is heading.