Around this time last week, I was set to post about the Tour de France, praising the fact that not one rider in the field tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. One week later, thanks to the unavailability of Wi-Fi in Disney World, my post will be much less celebratory.
It was hyped as the most epic Tour ever, with the winners of the last 10 runnings in the field. And while it wasn’t as “epic” as its billing, the 22 days of racing through France unfolded without the doping monster that has so plagued the sport in recent years rearing its ugly head.
That is until last week, when it was revealed that Mikel Astarloza, winner of Stage 16 and 11th overall, tested positive for recombinant erythropoietin (EPO) in an out-of-competition test in June.
It sounds like another punch in the stomach for cycling fans, especially those all set to hang their hat on this Tour as a sign of changing fortunes for the beleaguered sport. But put it into the context of cycling’s recent history and it looks a little different.
In each of the last three years, the Tour has had a wearer of the Yellow Jersey stricken from the records due to doping (Floyd Landis in 2006, Michael Rasmussen in 2007, and Stefan Schumaker in 2008). Each of those years, stage wins were vacated by dopers, including a galling five under review from last year. And the last two years, entire teams have withdrawn because of indiscretions by their riders (Team Astana and Cofidis in 2007, Saunier-Duval in 2008).
While it’s hard to say that one stage lost to doping isn’t a big deal, it is progress (keep in mind that Astarloza does have an appeal to his B-sample available to confirm the result). The number of incidents has gone down (knock on, wood…again), and the magnitude of those incidents has also declined. Behind Astarloza’s positive test, the second biggest doping storyline from the Tour is the Italian Anti-Doping Agency’s dubious suspension of Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde, that hasn’t been backed by any other cycling governing body.
It shows that, by and large, the bans handed down—two years for a first offense, up to life for a second offense—are working. They not only get offenders off the roads, but provide the incentive for others to stay clean.
Astarloza’s test may be a downer for some cycling fans. But there is plenty of good to take from this Tour. Alberto Contador is the dominant poster child the sport has been looking for the last five years. The man he replaced, Lance Armstrong, has plenty more to offer on the roads. Guys like Mark Cavendish and Fabian Cancellara are genuine superstars in their disciplines. And they’re all clean.
It’s taking time for cycling to rectify itself. But the healing process is well underway, and that is something to celebrate.
–Matthew De George ’10