The Tour -- no doping, no drama
You may not have noticed that this is the lamest Tour de France ever, probably because you already find guys racing bicycles to be the lamest thing ever. But because of my desire to be even snottier and more boring than I am, I’ve been following cycling since 1994 and have learned to appreciate the subtleties of team strategy, drafting, counterattacks and a 20-cyclist crash down a mountainside.
The reason this year’s Tour is miserably boring is that the race’s organizers have severely cracked down on doping. So before you argue that your favorite sport -- baseball, football, horse racing, anything at the Olympics -- has to get tough about performance-enhancing drugs, know that if it does, you’re about to endure years of slow, amateurish, uninspired athleticism. Your sport will be as exciting as guys racing bicycles.
Sure, there was some drug use on the Tour this year. But not nearly enough. Yes, Ricardo Ricco, a guy who won two of the Tour’s 18 stages, was tossed out for testing positive for EPO. His team immediately withdrew -- the equivalent of Major League Baseball just calling it quits in July.
But that’s nothing. Cycling was once the greatest sport in the world for doping. Guys used to ride 100 miles up the Alps, immediately run over to a reporter, smile through an interview, and then tear their bikes apart and eat them like they were on “That’s Incredible!” The only sport to rival cycling for doping was the National Doping League.
The cleaned-up Tour is unwatchable. Apparently, if an entire sport has been using performance-enhancing drugs for decades, when you toss out the dopers, you’re not left with anyone who wants to win badly enough. The best racers in the world -- in terms of natural ability and attitude -- aren’t even racing this year. Some were caught doping. Others were just unlucky: Their teammates doped, so their team got disqualified.
Still, as the Tour began July 5, I hoped that all the riders would be equally subpar, so that I wouldn’t be able to tell that the overall race wasn’t as good. But I can. They’re not Little Leaguers who forget to run after a hit, it’s just that no one does anything spectacular. No one has attacked the other riders by sprinting off dramatically during a steep climb. In fact, the peloton is riding so slowly and carefully, there has only been one really awesome crash. The rider likely to win with the best overall time on Sunday, Cadel Evans, has so far failed to win a single stage of the race. Or even get cancer.
I’ve gotten so used to superhuman feats that I can’t watch guys relying on only their natural talents. I feel as if I’m watching Spider-Man try to scale a building without his bug-bite-induced spidey skills -- that is to say, it’s like watching that creepy French guy who gets arrested for scaling buildings. Again, you wind up just hoping for a crash.
That’s why your favorite professional sports league isn’t doing what cycling is, which is just sending all the dopers immediately home. Major League Baseball may be trying to eliminate steroids, but there are good reasons why George Mitchell didn’t recommend expelling Jason Giambi or Gary Sheffield in his finger-pointing report on steroids in baseball. The main one was because those guys were so raged up from juice that they’d run over to his house and rip his tiny, intellectual, New England limbs off. But also because they are intense competitors who, with or without steroids, make baseball great. Although, without steroids, significantly less great.
The obvious course of action in our Botoxed, Cialised, Xanaxed, micro-dermabrased society is to let people do what they want to their bodies and push human performance as far as science will allow. But if that’s considered too medically dangerous -- or, more likely, an affront to our ethos of self-betterment through struggle -- then we need to wean ourselves off performance-enhanced sports slowly.
I suggest the equivalent of a tax on performance enhancement. Cyclists take a few minutes off their overall time for EPO. Maybe a 15-homer handicap for steroids that is applied throughout the baseball season, so that every fourth home run is called foul. NFL linemen who are doping have to wear 25-pound weights on each ankle. Women with significant plastic surgery will have to get a tasteful tattoo reflecting their actual birth dates.
Another year of this enforced mediocrity and I’m going to stop being a cycling fan. Which means the other cycling fan in America will have no one to blog for.