I read with some interest Neil’s blog yesterday, not only because he always writes a good blog, but because up till now he has been reticent to comment on the darker side of our sport.
Doping is one of the reasons I love the classics, the one day races, and the smaller tours. Not because I am naive enough to believe there is no doping amongst the one day riders, but lets face it, the biggest doping issues concern the Grand Tour riders. Those guys that spend three weeks, dragging their bodies over mountains with apparent ease.
Of the grand tours, it gets harder and harder to take the Tour De France seriously. Its the biggest race in the world from a media perspective, and the rewards for winning or even making the podium at the Tour are greater than ever, and if ever there is a race that incentivises (if thats a word) the riders to dope its the Tour. A look at the winners over the last twenty years tells its own story. Barely a rider to finish on the podium has escaped the rumours of doping over the years. Possibly the only exception is Carlos Sastre, believed by many to be one of the cleaner riders in the peloton, and he only won in a year when the other big contenders/dopers were missing. Another rider, Cadel Evans, believed by many to be clean (although for me the jury is still out) has struggled to make an impact beyond second place. The Tour also has glaringly repetitive performances, Armstrong, Contador, Schleck all put in consistent performances year after year after year. Nobody has that many good years. Even if Contadors recent dabble with Clenbuterol proves to be not worthy of a ban, the rumours continue to go around of a failed plasticiser test for not only him, but also Andy Schleck. A test that has yet to be validated as admissible.
There are riders that break the mould, Wiggins in 2009, Hesjedal in 2010, Vandevelde in 2008, but all these riders have one thing in common. They had that one good year. Co-incidentally, they are all riders believed by many to be clean.
It is of course a sad reflection that because of the numerous problems, when a rider does do well, he immediately comes under suspicion. We almost find ourselves as fans hoping our favourite rider doesnt finish on the podium in Paris because with that podium comes an automatic suspicion that perhaps they arent all we hope they are.
Of the other Grand Tours, the Vuelta, well, to be fair, its hard to take anything at the Vuelta seriously, a long history of suspicious stories regarding non Spanish riders being treated less than fairly, and other reasons that are probably a blog on their own.
The Giro, arguably the cleanest of all the grand tours. After Basso won in 2010 he published his blood values on the internet and on the surface they appeared to show a rider who if not riding clean, was riding close to it. Added to that, we havn’t in recent years seen riders in the Giro showing perfect consistency day after day, in the Giro it seems everyone has a bad day, and some are lucky enough to have a good day. Is the Giro clean? Doubtful. Is it the cleanest of the grand tours? highly likely.
I agree with Neil on one thing. That doping is less prevalent and their are a group of young riders who seem to say the right things and hopefully are doing the right things. Do I think a large proportion of the riders who rode in Ghent today were riding clean? Yes. Do I think a large proportion of the riders who will ride the Tour de France in July are riding clean? Not a cats chance.
There are people falling out of love with the sport, all the stories, Contador, Ricco do the sport no favours, but more noticeably there are those who are falling out of love with the Tour de France and looking elsewhere. The classics, the late season Italian races, and others. Races that on the surface seem to be won by riders with grit, determination and guts, rather than the best doctor.
In the end it all comes down to faith. I would rather put my faith in a rider who is willing to slug it out, in the cold of February, in rain, mud, taking whatever is thrown at him for little reward, than the guy who rides to the top of Alpe d’Huez, arms aloft, taking the plaudits of the press and fans.
Cycling is cleaner and cleaner, and hopefully it will continue to improve. But if you are looking for that clean rider, dont look at the top step of the podium in Paris. He wont be there.