So far 2010 is shaping up as the most dope-free professional racing season since the 1980s. (We use the term “so far” advisedly since of course the jury remains out and will continue to do so while testing technology inevitably lags behind masking stratagems.) And a lot of the reason has to do with the athletes, many of whom seem sincere in wanting to put the unpleasantness of the doping era behind them.
A dope-free Giro would have been a laughable prospect just a couple of years ago. Italian racing legacy is full of substance abusers, most notoriously the sad case of Marco Pantani.
Yet a clean Giro is apparently (so far) what happened this May. And it was two former banned riders — eventual winner (and Italian) Ivan Basso and leading contender Alexander Vinokourov — who led the way (additional contender Cadel Evans has maintained a clean record and anti-doping stance all along) in saying they wanted a clean slate.
But the post-doping era is about to get its toughest test with the upcoming Tour de France. The Tour is where the biggest dollars get invested, and where the stakes are far and away so much higher that the temptations are irrevocably greater.
Still, there is reason to suspect that this will be the cleanest Tour in years as well.
Not only is the pressure on from within the ranks of the athletes themselves, the French anti-doping authorities are upping their administrative role. The French long have clashed with the official cycling governance body (and doping regulator), the UCI, whom they accuse of being intentionally lax and sloppy in testing and oversight. In this Tour the French have promised to conduct their own testing above and beyond the UCI’s.
Then there’s the issue of the doping cloud hanging over several Team Radio Shack competitors, notably Lance Armstrong, as well as team manager Johan Bruyneel. As charming as Bruyneel can be, he’s been a bit thin-skinned lately in responding not only to the doping allegations but in mishandling Team Radio Shack’s rejection by Tour of Spain officialdom. He and TRS will be even more in the glare during the Tour and need a bit more aplomb if they want to deflect scrutiny and curry fandom.
For his part, Armstrong already has embarked on his tried-and-true “I’m not worthy” strategy after finishing a surprising and impressive second in the Tour of Switzerland.
For Lance, who answers doping allegations by patiently pointing out he’s never tested positive, the Tour is a damned-if-you-do-and-don’t scenario.
The guy is closing in on 39. The oldest Tour winner in history was 36, and that was nearly a century ago. If Lance somehow were to win or even fiercely contend, he will face more brutal scrutiny and suspicion than ever in his storied career.
If he fails to contend, however, cynics will suggest it merely goes to show that in a post-doping environment, Lance cannot win.
We doubt Lance will be in the thick of this year’s race, but it may have nothing to do with doping. He has not done enough riding this spring to be competition-hardened. Other contenders, notably Contador and Andy Schleck, have the same problem. But the Giro headliners of Basso, Vinokourov, Evans and Vincenzo Nibali, this year’s surprise star, do not have that excuse, and there are enough other toned riders to challenge that Lance may find himself a victim of training and youth.
We also wonder if this isn’t Lance’s final Tour. The doping investigation is bound to take a toll eventually, and Team Radio Shack’s disinvites from the Giro and the Vuelta have sent a pretty clear message that something is awry with TRS’s reputation.
Even if Lance emerges from the drug scandals unscathed (or at least unindicted), he doesn’t strike us as a middle-of–the-pack guy.
We’re going to enjoy watching The King and that hunkered out-of-the-saddle style of his and his black socks and steely eyes on this Tour, figuring it may well be our last chance to do so in the world’s primo cycling event.