Sunday, July 23, 2006

Too Good To Be True?

Every year, the Tour de France allows amateur enthusiasts the chance to ride one of the toughest stages of le Tour under race conditions - that is, with roads closed and support stations for refuelling. In a fit of sadism, sports editors from publications across the world seem to be sending their journalists on this gargantuan task. With some relish, no doubt, given that this year's chosen stage involved the climb up L'Alpe d'Huez, considered the holy grail (ie hardest) of mountain climbs.

And without exception, the journalists attempting it have found it a hellish task. One was a former pro cyclist himself.

This year's Tour has seen the victory of Floyd Landis in one of the most remarkable comeback stories known in sports. Having seized the lead on l'Alpe d'Huez on Tuesday, Landis then struggled to cope with the pressure, and seemed to fly out of contention the day after, losing eight minutes in a single day. His team was by no means the well-oiled machine of Lance Armstrong's (a team, incidentally, previously augmented by the skills of Landis himself), which meant that his struggles could not be bought off with effort from his team-mates. His Tour looked over and done.

On the following day, however, with 130km in the stage to go, Landis made a solo dart for glory. A successful one at that; he pulled back 7 and a half minutes of his deficit, and made the remaining time up in a time trial on Saturday. Today's final stage ended up as little more than a victory procession for him, crowned as winner in Paris.

The story is all the more remarkable because Landis has a degenerative hip condition that means his hip is slowly dying. That makes it impossible for him to walk without a limp, cross his legs, or mount his bike with his left leg first. Apparently after three or four hours of cycling he is in tremendous pain. Yet he could still summon up the reserves of energy to mount an unbelievable, monumental, solo comeback.

Is that a story that sounds too good to be true? Can a man in that condition really win such a gruelling event in such breathtaking fashion without artificial aids to performance?

The question I really want to ask, though, is - does it make any difference?

There is no doubt that merely to complete the Tour de France is an act of no little sporting ability, and huge powers of self-denial. Those are facts that are not changed by doping. If you pumped my bloodstream with EPO, I wouldn't suddenly be able to climb L'Alpe d'Huez at speeds that could see me challenge for a yellow jersey. And to be honest, those who can - even without taking drugs - are probably doing some serious harm to their bodies in the process.

Certainly, there is a moral minefield to be navigated in legalising doping in sports. In particular, young athletes must remain banned from taking drugs until their bodies are developed enough to cope with the events. But the drugs scandals that seem to envelop cycling every year suggest to me that doping is rife in the sport. And pretending it isn't means that only the unlucky or the scrupulously honest are published.

Regardless of whether Landis was doped or not, the triumph of his victory was remarkable. He is unfortunate to live in an era where the smell of drugs will forever linger over any successful cyclist, as there will always be cynics such as myself who suspect chemical enhancement. But I try to keep in mind the greatness of the achievement regardless of whether drugs are used or not. Because to beat a field on such a tough course, over such a prolonged period of time, takes a huge amount of effort. If we can't stop people using drugs - and increasingly, I think we can't - we might as well allow ourselves another chance to marvel at their achievements.