For those of you waiting for my Post Tour Recap, who have been waiting a week, I apologize. First, having returned from vacation and having not seen much of the Tour's final week, it took awhile to get up to speed in the real world. Second, I followed up nine days of vacation by taking this Friday off to go to my niece's wedding. Third, I had committed to go climb a mountain with our older scouts on Saturday. So, when you have been out of the office for more than a week and you are going to be out of the office for a couple of more days immediately thereafter, you have to focus on first things first. Plus, I jokingly told someone who ask this week that this year I would not do a Post Tour Recap until all the drug tests had been processed. So here are my random thoughts on various things that transpired at the Tour.Why Dope
The whole issue of drugs has been beaten to death by the cycling media, the regular media and average joes. However, in evaluating cycling, it is important to take a step back and evaluate what really causes the use of drugs in sport. It is easy to claim that cyclists are not very smart, but I think that is an argument which can be applied to all professional sports. First, have you ever noticed that with the exception of former US Senator/Rhodes Scholar and and New York Knick Bill Bradley, that there are very few athletes who had strong academic credentials?
But it is easy and elitist to claim that cyclists are just stupid. That ignores the fact that they like most people are rationally calculating hedonists who seek to maximize their economic return for their skill set. Cycling is no different that motorsports, soccer, baseball, basketball and other professional sports. Cyclists seek to maximize their economic return which is determined by their in sport success. In general, most cyclists are making very modest salaries. There are a few big named riders who make significant salaries. Most of the rest make very modest salaries with the riders on small teams making almost nothing. Very few of them have adequate health insurance. None of them have retirement plans. So, if you want to make money, you have to win. By winning, you get to keep the prize money you win, and you can turn wins into a move up to a bigger team and a better salary. Adding to that is if you win you can build your own brand through personal sponsorship arrangements.
Another factor cannot be ignored, and that is the fact that relationships in cycling are very short term. Cyclists are typically on very short contracts. The average guy in the peleton is on a one or two year contract. Only the top riders, i.e. dominating sprinters and strong GC contenders, ever get a three year deal. Deals longer than that are almost unheard of in cycling. If a rider has a bad year, it has very real economic impact on them. So there is a short term bias towards generating results now.
Moreover, with sponsors and team management demanding results, there is added pressure on cyclists. Teams want winners, and they claim they want riders to win clean, however, short of locking all your riders in their rooms when they are not training and racing, you cannot ensure that riders will not succumb to the pressure to get instant results and improvement. It is beyond dispute that many teams either engaged in active doping programs over the years or willfully ignored the evidence that their riders were engaged in systematic doping.
Cycling is a blue collar sport which, I posit, has much more in common with stock car racing than Americans would ever concede. If Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt, Sr., had been born in Belgium, I bet you that their names would have been Eddy Merckx or Freddy Maertens. However, there are a lot of other guys out there who want to be the Intimidator, the King or the Cannibal who will never accomplish that who spend their weekends racing at lower levels in hopes of moving up. Most never will. Of those who do, most will have modest success.
So why do riders keep doping when they know it is bad for their health, they know that they may get caught, they know that it is expensive? It is because the think they have to in order to remain competitive. While the long term ramifications of doping are serious and severe, when a guy is concerned about making a living next year, you will never get riders to think about the long term. So mediocre riders cheat to compete. Star riders cheat to win. They all cheat because doing so is what they think they sport demands for them to be honored and appreciate and most importantly to get paid.
Finally, I find the press attention that cycling got from the American press during this last edition of the Tour focusing on the impact that drugs has had upon the validity of the sport incredibly hypocritical when Barry Bonds pursues Hank Aaron's career home run mark in the midst of an ongoing drug investigation by federal officials. Everyone knows Bonds did steroids and he even conceded to the federal grand jury that he utilized drugs provided by BALCO although he thought it was "flaxseed oil." Yeah, Barry, Richard Virenque claimed the same thing.On Contador
Alberto Contador won the Tour in a manner that he himself conceded was not the way to win it. The young Spaniard is, however, a legitimate GC leader as evidenced by his win at Paris-Nice earlier this year. He was not able to match Rassmussen on all of the climbs, and I think that all the main teams made a major tactical mistake when they let Rassmussen go on the first big climbing stage. I think they all believed that Rassmussen would follow the approach he had done in prior years to win the KOM polka dot jersey, which was to attack on the first climbs, get a big lead and then defend that jersey. I don't think anyone thought he would improve as he did on the time trial. Contador will continue to be hounded by his link to Operacion Puerto which resulted in his exclusion from last year's Tour before being cleared of wrong doing. Contador did provide a DNA sample and has not been linked to any of the blood seized in the Puerto investigation. He may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time riding for a team that it has become apparent now was engaged in a systematic doping program.On Leipheimer
Levi Leipheimer gives hope to hard working normal guys. He has never been flashy, never been dominating in a Grand Tour, has had more bad luck over the years than good luck. I felt that when he returned to Discovery that he would go from being a perennial top ten GC rider to a top five and maybe a podium rider. He becomes only the second American to finish on the podium in two different Grand Tours with his prior third place finish in the Vuelta to join Greg LeMond who finished on the podium both in the Tour and the Giro. No one has ever questioned Leipheimer's skill and he has never been linked to doping. He has always just gone about getting the job done in a consistent manner.On Rassmussen
Dane Michael Rassmussen has always been something of an enigma. He has always been strong in the mountains, but he never seemed to engender confidence of his teams or teammates. He was always at best a KOM rider not a GC threat. His downfall this year comes from the fact that he not only may have lied about where and how he was training but also that he attempted to engender confidence in his "cleanness" by telling everyone that he could be trusted. As one contributor to VeloNews
noted, challenging the media a la Gary Hart, just guarantees someone is going to take you up on the challenge and catch you in inconsistencies. Most importantly, no one is going to get the benefit of the doubt for accidentally forgetting to tell doping authorities where you are in this day and age. There is no excuse for a professional athlete to not know that failure to comply fully with all doping regulations will bring you under suspicion regardless of whether you are clean or not.On Vinokourov
The man let down a whole country that was supporting his effort to be the first Eastern rider to win the Tour. As much as I have enjoyed watching his aggressive riding over the years, Vinokourov's career is over. It is sad to see him become an even bigger Kazakh joke than Borat.On Hypocrisy
I was dismayed by the protest by the French and German teams at the start of Stage 16 who to protest doping held things up. While it is good for riders to take responsibility and address the issue of doping and their objections to those who do, Cofidis participated in the protest only to withdraw from the Tour later after its rider Christian Moreni failed a drug test and was arrested and T-Mobile participated after Patrik Sinkewitz had dropped out but was found to have failed a pre Tour drug test.On Testing
Testing is working. More people are getting caught and more importantly more people getting caught are conceding that they cheated.
Reforming the Grand Tours
If Tour organizers really want to recapture the moral high ground, then it has become apparent to me that they have to change the way they organize the race. All three mountain stages in the Pyrenees were nearly 200km long. The tradition of six high mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees probably needs to change. Especially where riders are forced to ride over 5 or more categorized climbs. The time trials are also too long. If you don't want riders to dope, then you cannot have courses that are so demanding that they all but encourage riders to cheat. So here is what I propose for reform of the course to improve the likelihood that riders won't be forced to dope:
1. Mountain stages shall be no longer than 15o km and have no more than four categorized climbs. Mountain top finishes shall only be permitted to cities/resorts which are capable of housing all the teams at the end of the stage. Are you really committed to clean racing when you put 13 categorized climbs and 600km of racing in the final mountain stages of a grand tour and riders have to face a long transfer back down the mountain after a stage?
2. Rolling stages like Stage 5 which mimic some of the one day classics with multiple small categorized climbs shall not 175 km and shall not have more than eight categorized climbs. If you are going to have a "dangerous" stage, make it important, but not decisive.
3. Flat stages shall be no more than 200 km long. Isn't this a stage race lasting three weeks as opposed to three classics or semi-classics strung out over a week?
4. There shall be no more than three time trials, including the prologue, all individual time trials, and any team time trials. No time trial shall exceed 45km and the total of all time trial mileage shall be no more than 100km. Who really wants to watch the 95th rider on GC slog through a 55km time trial to lose another 6 minutes on the leaders?
5. Let teams have ten man rosters with seven riders allowed to start every day. Four riders must ride every stage to be considered for the GC competition and any other competition, i.e. points, KOM, young rider. Of the other six riders, teams can use them as they like. Even soccer allows large rosters and substitutes.
6. Make the Team GC competition more meaningful by increasing the prize money and increasing the number of spots that are paid. At any given Tour, there will only be ten teams with legitimate contenders for the GC, Points and KOM prizes. To encourage better team performance, make the team award more meaningful and eliminate any team from the running for any doping violation or significant sanction. Individual pressure to keep up and perform caused this mess, so rewarding positive teamwork and team performance will hopefully improve the situation.
7. If you are going to change race history to remove past transgressors, then remove them all. If Riis cheated to win in 1996, then you cannot remove him, without also removing the whole podium which consists of Ullrich his teammate and Richard Virenque of Festina, all of whom have been touched by doping. You cannot claim the moral high ground only when convenient.
8. Move the prologue to Friday night and have rest days every Monday. That gives you a prologue and two sprint stages before a rest day and then two more rest days later on. By moving the prologue to Friday night, you keep the same number of stages in the race. Give the riders a legitimate opportunity to recuperate on a reasonable schedule.
9. As a corollary to number 1 above, no city hosting a stage finish nor stage start shall be selected that has inadequate hotel facilities to accommodate all riders. Before starting or after finishing the need for immediate rest and recovery for all riders is imperative. Long transfers are bad and must be eliminated.
10. Implement a "fair play" team and individual award that is significant. Recognize those teams and riders who embody what is good and reward them appropriately. Poor sportsmanship, rules violations and doping all detract/eliminate riders and teams from contention and are to be discouraged. Provide meaningful rewards will encourage good behavior.