As a spectacle, the Tour de France has spun its wheels for the past three days. As one of sport’s iconic events, it has been forced to backpedal under the cloud of a former doping scandal. And as a bike race, it’s time to move on.
Since the Tour entered France earlier this week, the racing has been processional, with some riders even saying that stage 5 to St. Quentin was their easiest-ever day of racing at the Tour. The boredom of stages 3, 4 and 5 was only broken by crashes when the pace picked up, and they all ended in predictable sprints after nasty pileups took out men who could have won the stage.
Emphasizing the lethargy was the fact that the Tour, literally, wasn’t going anywhere. Despite covering 608 kilometers in three days, the peloton ended up virtually where it began. It was as if the race lost itself in a veritable Bermuda triangle of stages that began in Orchies on Tuesday, headed west to the Channel coast at Boulogne-sur-Mer, tacked south on Wednesday to Rouen, and then headed back east on Thursday to St. Quentin. It was almost a complete circle because it’s less than 50 miles between St. Quentin and Orchies, from where the peloton had set out 72 hours earlier.
Had the Tour organizers placed those 608 kilometers in a straight line, the riders would already be climbing the first mountains, rather than spinning their wheels around northern France. The tedium did little to enhance the sport of cycling, with even the most enthusiastic fans and sportswriters complaining about the lack of action (average speeds were some 5 kph slower than the organizers predicted). So when a bombshell was dropped into this sea of tranquility on Thursday, the media reacted like frustrated piranhas. At last, a nice juicy story to feed on!
The bombshell, of course, was the latest chapter in the decades-old saga of trying to nail Lance Armstrong for doping. But by naming six of the alleged 10 witnesses in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s ongoing case to prove that Armstrong and cohorts ran a “doping conspiracy” within their various teams, the Dutch national newspaper De Telegraaf simply gave relevance to old claims of doping against those witnesses.
The newspaper claimed that the witnesses—whose identities were later confirmed by two unnamed sources to the New York Times—had been offered a sort of amnesty: a six-month suspension from competition in the off-season if they admitted to having doped while they were on Armstrong’s teams.
Surely, USADA knew that it was going to drag cycling through the mud by going public with its case only weeks before the sport’s biggest annual media gathering. As a result, in Rouen before stage 5, mobs of journalists gathered at the team buses of those named in the Telegraaf story. And what did they get? A bunch of quotes that ranged from “no comment” to “it’s time to move on.” But what else could they say?
The co-called amnesty would have no effect on BMC Racing’s George Hincapie, who is retiring from pro cycling in August after he (hopefully) completes what is a record 17th participation at the Tour. Hincapie, who raced with Armstrong for the U. S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams during the Texan’s seven-year Tour reign, said he was disappointed that these allegations were “being brought up again.” And his BMC co-team-owner Jim Ochowicz, who managed Hincapie and Armstrong at the Motorola team in the 1990s, said that BMC had “not received any notification about this issue. So we have no comment.”
“No comment” was the answer given multiple times by Levi Leipheimer, current leader of the Belgian squad Omega Pharma-Quick Step, who raced on Armstrong’s Astana and RadioShack teams at the Tour in 2009 and 2010, and who was once on U.S. Postal but never rode the Tour with Armstrong.
The media were hoping to get the riders and managers to say something different about their alleged involvement in the “doping conspiracy” that USADA says existed on teams where they once competed or managed. But none of them said anything new, including Garmin-Sharp’s Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie, who both raced at U.S. Postal. The only different response came from their current boss, Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of team owner Slipstream Sports, who tweeted: “Regarding the Dutch media report: No 6mos suspensions have been given to any member of Slipstream Sports. Today or at any future date.”
The Dutch newspaper also claimed that Vaughters had admitted to having doped when he raced for Armstrong at U.S. Postal in 1999, but that’s a puzzling claim given that the Coloradan cannot be suspended for something that may have happened 13 years ago—especially as he founded Slipstream, which is regarded as the cleanest team in the peloton.
The hope is that racing becomes more animated at the Tour on the rolling stage 6 to Metz on Friday, and that by the weekend, when the race finally enters the mountains, the waves caused by Telegraaf’s bombshell will already have dissipated.
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John will be previewing stage 6 later in the day.