2011 TdF reflections
Being introduced to bike racing and watching the Tour since the pre-EPO fueled late 80s, I have seen many exciting editions over the last 25 years. I have a few favorites over the decades. 1995 was the first year that I started racing, and my favorite riders Jalabert, Indurian, the ONCE team, Chris Boardman were prominent in that Tour. 1998 was Pantani the climber vs. Ullrich the time trialer. In that year, the climber prevailed in dramatic fashion on the rain soaked roads toward Les Duex Alpes and gained an incredible 9 minutes on the yellow jersey of Ullrich. In 1999, I fell for the “American’s Comeback” hook, line, and sinker. In 2003, my wife and I went to FrancQhe for a few weeks and saw the Tour in person. I rooted for Jan Ullrich who was making his own comeback after a suspension for “social” rather than “performance enhancing” drugs. In 2005, another trip to Paris was taken, and I heard the famous “Believe in me” speech on the Champs Elysees. In 2006, I blogged about and cheered for Floyd Landis. 2007 found a doped up Chicken getting tossed out and a steak eating Spainard winning. 2008 found a patient team player in Carlos Sastre finally prevailing. 2009 was full of Astana team infighting. The strongest rider won after being attacked not by his rivals but internally by his team. The 2010 edition may well be the most interesting for its importance to the 2011 edition. 2010 was marked by uncharacteristic falls and perhaps the penultimate fall from cycling grace of the seven time Tour winner Armstrong. His final fall may still come but not on the roads of France but in an American courtroom. The 2010 edition may well have paved the way for the cleanest Tour seen in many years.
The 2011 Tour de France was suspenseful, action-packed, and mildly disappointing. Being disappointed by this year’s Tour tells me several things.
I am a hypocrite. I want clean racing, and I want to root for honest riders, but I want action and dramatic racing. My favorite tours were all ones where doping was rampant. What we saw back then was not what we thought we saw. A climber making an attack and riding away from the field like the field was a group of tourists not professional men was not real racing. Pantani in 1998 was pumped up on performance enhancing drugs. His attacks were brought to you by a pharmaceutical company. ONCE was not a clean team. The 1999 comeback was sponsored by EPO. All those favorite races were won by riders who most likely would not pass the 2011 dope tests at this year’s Tour.
Clean racing will not look like not doped racing. It will look different. This year’s race showed riders racing like mortals not cycling gods. They attacked, they fatigued, and they were not slaying their rivals effortlessly. (An exception may be The God of Thunder +2.) The racing may not have been as aggressive as years prior, but it still had its drama. Gerard Vroomen the founder of Cervelo said this about Cadel, “he may not have been the attacker, but he was active”. That’s an accurate description of this year’s winner. When Cadel needed aggression, he found it. On several occasions, he had only himself to rely on, and he tirelessly worked alone to save his chances for a Tour win. He pulled back minutes from Andy Schleck on the Galibier. On the road to Alpe d’Huez and after a mechanical dropped him from the lead group, he dragged himself back up to the leaders at the bottom of the final climb. In this Tour, Cadel did not make a mistake and avoided crashes which had plagued him in other Tours. And finally, to win the yellow jersey, he rode the perfect time trial. As Edward Pickering of Cycle Sport wrote: “First the peloton needed to learn to race clean. Once it did, it needed to learn to race.” Whether this was as a clean a Tour as it seemed based on mountain climb times and fewer superhuman efforts, only time and the results of the drug tests will tell.
Finally, I learned what I already knew about my love of sport. It is an extension of myself. My disappointment was a result of identification. Sometimes, we identify with people who are not like us and who have traits that we admire but do not quite possess. Other times, we identify with people who have traits that we have or feel like we have. These may not be traits that we are proud of, but we know we have them. When we identify with the latter, there is passion for the outcome. We might feel really happy or extremely sad depending on the outcome.
For me the 2011 Tour rewarded passionate patience and almost a status quo attitude toward winning. I don’t believe that I really possess either of these traits. What I value is spontaneity and journeying into unknown. These were not the victor of this year’s race. Cadel said a few times how he had a plan, stuck to the plan, and didn’t deviate much from the plan. For most of his race as observed by his reactions to the events, Cadel calculated the risk and the outcome. His was a race of reaction rather than active action. Andy Schleck who lost the yellow jersey was the antithesis to Cadel. I’d like to think Andy Schleck is a clean rider. For many years, Andy and Frank both worked for Bjarne Riis, Mr. 60%. Frank Schleck wired money to the noted doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes of Operacion Puerto fame for a “training program” and to think that Andy did not know about this would be a bit naïve. If Andy was racing clean which I will presume, he raced with traits that I admire: youthful passion and spontaneity. He did not overly sit in and follow wheels. He was not afraid to lose by making an uncalculated move. He was not a bean counter. I’m sure he had a plan, and he pretty much stuck to it, but he also tried and risked losing to win. The risk and willingness to try something were not rewarded with a win in this Tour. Maybe in a previous year, Andy’s efforts would have had a different outcome based on circumstances unknown to people outside his inner circle. Because Andy made huge efforts and perhaps mis-calculated his energy levels due to clean racing, the risks did not pay off. Andy did not lose without trying to win, and he was not afraid to risk winning.
An extrapolation of what Pickering said, now that the riders are clean, perhaps they just need to learn to win clean. I believe Cadel has been clean and won clean. Perhaps, the 2011 Tour was a clean one for Andy and the others. If this is the case for Andy, then next year I hope he will still have his passion to attack and his willingness to try to win with a little bit of risk.