This is the first July in more than a decade that I haven’t watched nearly every stage of the Tour de France. It was a perk of living in Germany and working in various newsrooms crammed with televisions. But this year I haven’t even glimpsed at the website. I’m not even sure who’s racing. It wasn’t a conscious decision – it's just that the event's addiction to steroids, hormones and blood packing made me lose interest.
German class first got me to this country 20 years ago but I stayed as an exchange student to race bikes. I came back during summers in college to speed through Holland, Germany and France on two wheels – never winning much. After I’d hung up my cycling shorts and returned here to work, watching the Tour while on the clock became a guilty and sentimental pleasure – some ex-teammates had even made it as pros.
When the first professional riders started showing up positive in the late 90's, I wasn’t surprised. During my racing days I once came back to discover a wiry teammate had ballooned into Arnold Schwarzenegger. His dad worked for the German national cycling team, a detail I hadn’t thought much about until German riders in pink Telekom jerseys started peeing hot too.
But I figured the pros that were getting popped were underpaid guys trying to eke out an extra buck or has-beens trying to extend their career. Maybe a spur-of-the-moment decision out of desperation. When then-hero Tyler Hamilton got nailed in 2004, I started to think twice. When Tour winner Floyd Landis came up positive, I figured there was something wrong.
But I still thought the Tour de France could be salvaged – the riders needed to knock it off, sponsors needed to stop tolerating it and the Tour de France itself needed to take a harder stance. The organizers could have also cut the distances and number of climbs to reduce the strain on riders’ bodies – and make the race more TV-friendly. But the only thing anyone did was feign denial, sputter excuses and propose incredulous explanations – blaming things like too much whisky or the pre-natal absorption of a twin that died before birth for the positives.
Then came a slew of high-profile confessions from German riders on Team Telekom who had been outed by a former masseuse. Of course, they also swore they hadn't inhaled. The stories and tears were too perfect for the mea culpas to be anything but lies. My three-year-old is just as well-versed in this particular linguistic sleight of hand – confess to a lesser crime in hopes that your larger ones will go unnoticed.
The only one among them who came clean was Patrick Sinkewitz – and he probably did it just to stay out of the clink. His Der Spiegel tell-all, coupled with the incomplete confessions of his teammates, made me realize just how widespread doping was – and why they did it. To win. They weren’t looking for a crutch during an injury or hoping to prolong a waning career. And it was more than just an odd doctor handing out too many prescriptions – it was a complex and profitable business. Doping wasn’t just a spur-of-the-minute decision – it was part of their training plans.
Even when the spotlight had been on them and this particular issue for years, they still did it. They – and the Tour de France – were addicts. Cycling wasn’t what I thought it was at all – it had been a rolling version of professional wrestling. Rather than stories of amazing comebacks and a passionate determination to win, I’d been watching the effects of steroids, the hormone EPO and blood purified in a laboratory. I didn’t believe any of them anymore.
The last hero – and my last shred of interest – fell with the never-ending embarrassment of Team Telekom captain Jan Ullrich. For years, he had been the only rider that had a chance of standing up to the too-slick Lance Armstrong. He had made cycling interesting. But when it started looking like he’d been paying a certain Spanish doctor to improve his performances, what did Jan do? He circled the wagons and denied it until he could deny it no longer – and then he retired. Rather than play the leader he was purported to be, he chickened out and lost face by trying to save his pride.
If this July feels a bit different for me, it’s because I’m actually working for the first time in a decade. My employers thank you, Team Telekom.
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