Thursday, July 26, 2007

Whole World Is Watching as Wheels Come Off the Tour

Published: July 26, 2007

When does the revolution begin? When do the fans lining the highways in France take it personally that the magnificent men on their cycling machines have been systematically cheating for decades?

When do sports fans everywhere start waving their wooden pitchforks and picking up paving stones and blocking the roads to these fakes? When do we hear the rolling of the tumbrels and the clatter of the symbolic guillotine?

How much longer will the public put up with juiced cyclists dropping out of what used to be the world’s greatest cycling race, now quite clearly the Tour de Farce? For that matter, when does it hit critical mass in the United States, what with suggestions that we have a dog-torturing star quarterback and a gambling-addict referee and a steroid-bloated slugger in our midst?

The ashen looks on the faces of three of America’s sports commissioners indicate that they know they are in the same shaky state as the commissars who indulged doping in cycling over the past generations and are now paying the price in public shame.

There was modest jeering on the course yesterday as Michael Rasmussen won the 16th stage to retain his lead, but he was promptly dismissed by his team, Rabobank, because he had misled team officials. He had told his bosses that he was training in Mexico when he was actually training in Italy, which tends to be the epicenter of blood-doping and other cycling chicanery.

Lying is lying. When will the people by the side of the road have enough?

The people have paid all this money, one way or the other, to support these riders who keep getting themselves suspended. The United States can hardly point fingers, what with Tyler Hamilton, an Olympic champion, and Floyd Landis, last year’s Tour winner who is currently in official limbo for doping violations.

Lance Armstrong used to hear cries of “doper, doper” when he was winning seven consecutive Tours. Part of this was good old-fashioned Gallic suspicion that a man could not recover from cancer and win seven straight Tours. But Armstrong did exactly that, testing frequently in later years, with never an official positive test, beating all the mugs who were testing positive, and still are.

But there were also circumstantial reasons Armstrong was suspected, including the belated discovery that he had trained with the notorious Dr. Michele Ferrari, a k a Dottore Sangue (Dr. Blood) of Italy. Ferrari has been implicated in other doping cases.

Association with Dottore Sangue was part of the undoing of Alexander Vinokourov, the prominent rider from Kazakhstan, who was tossed out of the Tour on Tuesday. This is becoming a daily habit. Who will be left to ride up the Champs-Élysées on Sunday? Shouldn’t people start to care about being bamboozled?

American corporations help underwrite the Tour. Also, American fat cats spend tens of thousands of dollars on luxury cycling vacations, pedaling in off hours on the same roads as the cyclists? How do these lucky tigers like being associated with a peloton full of frauds? Or maybe there is some psychic connection that I am missing.

The Tour is in disarray. But what about America? This past week has seen almost an unprecedented trifecta of commissioners having to hop to confront the stench of scandal. One of the stars of the N.F.L., Michael Vick, has been accused of being involved in a dogfighting ring, and has been told not to report to camp. And a referee in the N.B.A., Tim Donaghy, is under suspicion of affecting games because of an apparent gambling problem.

But the closest parallel to the Tour de France is in baseball, where Barry Bonds is closing in on Hank Aaron’s career record of 755 home runs. Bonds had 753 going into last night, and Commissioner Bud Selig had roused himself from his obvious distaste to get out to San Francisco to lend the authority of his office to Bonds’s inevitable milestone. Farce is everywhere.

When Selig met members of the news media Tuesday night, he couldn’t help himself from bringing up the frequent accusations that Major League Baseball had stood by while steroids inflated the chests, arms, necks and jaws of its leading sluggers, to say nothing of the home run totals.

As Selig continued to chatter about steroids, I had the distinct feeling that the Giants’ owner, Peter Magowan, and the Giants’ marketing maven, Larry Baer, were contemplating slapping industrial-strength duct tape over Selig and saying: Dude, you’re in our house. What’s all this talk about steroids? What kind of guest are you, anyway?

Meanwhile, Donald Fehr and Gene Orza of the players union, who helped prolong the lack of testing for a decade, were not present. San Francisco, previously known as a sophisticated city, continues to cheer big Barry, but fans in the hinterlands follow him with jeers. It hasn’t gotten to that point on the highways of France. My question is, why not? Where is Madame Defarge when we really need her?