In October last year, as the World Road Cycling Championships were being hosted in Geelong, a doping scandal broke in professional cycling. Not just any doping story – the doping story: three-time Tour de France winner, Alberto Contador had tested positive for the banned substance, clenbuterol. The news hurt; as Australia watched the best procyclists in the world go around, arguably the best cyclist of his generation, who had not only won Le Tour, but taken out the three grand tours – the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta e Espana – had added his name to a list of drug cheats so long that the sport was beyond a joke to many people, and another cut to the ranks of those who see it as an unmatchable combination of athletic ability, teamwork, tactics and individual belief. As I wrote here, I desperately wanted the news about ‘Bertie’ not to be true. As it stands, hewas cleared byhis home cycling association of any wrongdoing, but the World Anti-Doping Agency & Union Cycliste Internationale (International Cycling Union) appealed the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The case was supposed to be heard before the start of this year’s Tour; so Contador rode – and won - a tough Giro d’Italia. The case was postponed: for whatever reason, WADA & the UCI agreed to Contador’s lawyers’ request for an adjournment. That sparked a predictable, ‘should he or shouldn’t he race the Tour’. For what it’s worth, I am firmly in the yes, he should ride camp. Legally, he is entitled to compete. If he was barred, without WADA / UCI appeal being heard, let alone won, the vanquer of this year’s Tour would always have the, ‘could he have beaten Contador?’ tag around his neck. This week saw the undignified bundling into a car by Team Katusha of their promising young rider, Alexandr Kolobnev, who returned a positive A sample for a diuretic masking agent. He was pulled out of the race after a bizarre statement from the UCI that virtually forced the team to do ‘the right thing’ and after the rest of the world learned of the result via the French sporting newspaper, L’Equipe (owned by the same French consortium which organises the Tour) before Kolobnev was himself informed. But this post isn’t about doping. It’s an open letter of love and respect to the men and women who ride bicycles professionally.
Firstly, the prayer of a stranger from the church for the fallen. Among the cyclists seriously injured or killed this year, the death of Team LeopardTrek rider, Wouter Weylandt, in this year’s Giro was perhaps the most horrific because it happened in front of those watching. His helmet was no match for the fall, and he died from the terrible wound the road inflicted on his brain. It was a shocking thing to witness, the death of an athlete young, to paraphrase Housman. His bib number, 108, has been retired from the race. Yet in the midst of their anguish, his teammates and best friend, Garmin-Cervelo sprinter, Tyler Farrar, rode the next stage of the race. As the peloton grouped behind them, they locked hands and crossed the line to end a stage of a grand tour not in a furious assault, but bowed, finally, in sorrow. It is a moment in sport – any sport – that I will never forget. If you missed it, or have no interest in professional cycling, and have never heard Wouter Weylandt’s name, this is all you need to know:
Then, two weeks later, came the news – unbelievable – that Spanish cyclist, Xavier Tondo had been killed in a freak accident, crushed beneath a garage door. The Movistar team rider another missing from the peloton. Last week, glued to the Tour and watchng advertisements for the Amy Gillett Foundation (established in the name of the Australian cyclist killed by a car while on a training ride in Germany), Australia lost another cyclist in the same way. Carly Hibberd was struck by a car while training in Italy. Cadel Evans tweeted, stunned, from the Tour:
I’m very, very sorry. I ride that road too.
So it is with great sorrow when I read comments, supposedly made in jest, that it is somehow fun to watch cyclists crash. ESPN sports commentator Michael Smith was forced to apologise for this barrage of inanity (captured in its entirety on the excellent Tour de France Lanterne Rouge blog) about an appalling accident on Stage 9 of the Tour, where Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland and Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha could also have lost their lives when a car from the French broadcaster France 2/3 tried to barge its way ahead of the breakaway group they were riding in. Watching the accident with a friend, we could not believe what we were seeing. Flecha was lucky not to go under the car, while Hoogerland was flung on to a barbed wire fence. This on the same stage that saw another serious accident end this year’s tour for Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, Omega Pharma Lotto’s Jurgen van den Broeck and Frederik Willems, as well as Garmin-Cervelo’s David Zabriskie. Sky’s main GC hope, Bradley Wiggins was also forced to abandon after a crash, while Contador has been involved in a number of falls.
Again, from the ‘Tour de Carnage’ as Australia’s Stuart O’Grady (Team LeopardTrek) named it, came great courage. The battered, bleeding Hoogerland and Flecha both finished the stage, and in another triumph of the will, collected his polka dot King of the Mountains jersey. Overcome with emotion, he wept silently on the podium, earning the admiration of everyone who loves the sport. As Hoogerland said, ”… I’m still alive. Wouter Weylandt wasn’t that lucky.” They both continue to ride, heavily bandaged and stitched up. They ride in pain, in the company of men who suffer their own agonies, whether it’s hanging on to the peloton as it forms an echelon in the whipping wind off the Bretagne coast, or climbing hills (soon to become mountains), or give every ounce of effort to throw themselves at the line in a bunch sprint.
Cycling is often seen as an individual sport, particularly as we start ‘the real Tour’ tonight with the first mountain stage. When a peloton of 170 riders are defeated one after another by relentless climbs until a handful of the strongest riders, fighting for the golden fleece on the podium of the Champs Elysee, attack and counter-attack until one proves himself as a class above the best. It’s easy to understand that perception of individualism; each rider with their idiosynchracies; the cat-and-mouse games played out by an elite, taunting each other with a burst of acceleration in the hope they won’t be caught. The truth is far from it. Cadel Evans chances of winning the Tour de France were often talked down by the inability of his then-team, Silence Lotto, to provide him adequate cover and support. This year, after a calamitous result where he was lucky to finish the tour, having ridden his one day in yellow with a broken bone in his arm, he has had a purpose-built racing programme with one goal in sight: to win the Tour de France. His team, BMC ProRacing, is there to fulfil his ambition. “What can be achieved when 19 people (riders, management and staff) are pulling in one direction,” his teammate, Marcus Burghardt, said after their stunning (and unexpected) 2nd to Garmin-Cervelo in the Team Time Trial. Evans has ben guided, protected, nurtured at the front by his Praetorian Guard, led by 16-Tour veteran, George Hincapie. He has the confidence of winning a stage, and sitting in third place overall. BMC has also demonstrated its strength by frequently driving the peloton, doing the pacemaking despite their leader not wearing the yelloy jersey. To some, it seems a peculiar waste of effort; to me, it is a test of mental toughness, a clear message to the “big” teams that BMC is ready to take the tour by the neck and wring every drop of lactic acid from themselves and their rivals in order to complete their mission: the top spot on the podium for their leader, and the maillot jaune in Paris.
This is my love letter to these men of the peloton; those we have lost, and those who honour the sport with their refusal to give in to bodies screaming for the stage to just stop, those who fall and right themselves, race on back to their brothers in the pack. Those like Thomas Voeckler, who snatched the overall lead in that momentous stage 9 by daring to breakaway from the group, and stay away, only to see the stage go to another man, Luis Leon Sanchez. It is for the unsung heroes, the domestiques, who work their guts out to deliver their team’s star a victory. It is for the ‘lesser’ teams, those with no real hope of getting a place in the top 20, let alone a jersey of any description, but who ride with as much heart and hardness as the big names. It is for the superstars of the sprints, such as HTC’s Mark Cavendish, and the men of the Basque country, Euskatel-Euskadi, whose famed mountain prowess should come to the fore in the Pyrenees. It is for the most consistent rider wearing the maillot vert, and the innovative rule changes to the intermediate sprint points. It is for the startling individual ability of a man against the clock in the Individual Time Trial, the penultimate stage and ‘race of truth’. Most of all, this is a love letter to the sport, the vainquers and the vanquished; the pundits, ‘roadside randoms’ and fans.
With love and admiration,