It was the penultimate day of the 2007 Tour de France. The time trial between Cognac and Angoulême had been decided, its winner, Levi Leipheimer, had spoken to the press, and it was obvious no one could take the overall victory away from Alberto Contador. Just at that moment, two journalists from two different countries, both of whom have reported from the Tour de France for more than 30 years, were standing together in the press room.
"That was a terrible Tour de France, wasn't it?" one of them asked, looking down at the floor and shaking his head. "Yes, it was terrible," the other one said. Then he put a consoling hand on the first journalist's shoulder and added: "Hopefully we'll never have to experience that again."
I don't know what event the two attended. Considering what a disaster the sport has pedaled itself into during the last 10, 20 and perhaps even 50 or 60 years, the 2007 race was the best thing that could have happened to the Tour de France and to cycling.
For once, nothing was swept under the carpet -- or at least much less than usual. For once, two top competitors were pulled out of the race before the finish, including none less than the holder of the yellow jersey -- something that used to be unthinkable. Two teams had to pull out of the race and go home, including Astana, probably the strongest team in the competition.
Around 400 blood tests were carried out during the tour. The total number matters less than the fact that the tests were effective and met an acceptable medical standard, even if one can safely assume that especially clever doping offenders and their medical advisors continue to be one step ahead of the drug testers.
But it's not just the facts that are decisive; it's also the way they came to light. It was precisely the undignified back-and-forth surrounding Michael Rasmussen that beautifully demonstrated the entire misery of professional cycling: the complete inability of the International Cycling Union (UCI) to deal effectively with doping, the anxious procrastination of Tour organizer Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), and the well-rehearsed defensive tactics of Rabobank team leader Theo de Rooy. And the realization that there still needs to be at least one coincidence, and a sponsor has to put its foot down, before action is taken.
If the organizers of the Tour de France really implement the measures they announced Saturday, if the UCI is really thrown out, if independent control measures are really implemented and the conditions for participation in the race are made significantly stricter, then the farce surrounding Rasmussen will have been worth it, to the point that one can even forget for a moment who was honored Sunday as the wearer of the yellow jersey under the Arc de Triomphe, or which of the usual suspects have made it into the top 10 or 20 places in the overall ranking. Those results are completely irrelevant.
The key question this year was less who crossed the finish line first than who waited longest at the start. The protest by riders from German and French teams before the last stage in the Pyrenees may not have been very coordinated, but it showed very clearly that something has changed in the mind-set of the cyclists. Tour director Christian Prudhomme -- certainly no stranger to controversy -- seemed almost amazed when he summed up the progress that has been made. "Ten years ago, the riders were protesting against the doping tests," he said. "Today, they protest against doping." Unfortunately, the riders did not seem to have quite enough courage to make a public statement during the final stage of the race.
But at least a partial change of mind-set has begun among the riders, as it has among most of those involved in the Tour -- including the media. Even the decision by the German public television channels ARD and ZDF to stop their coverage of the race was helpful. Admittedly it was completely absurd and hypocritical for the TV stations -- after years of embarrassingly close cooperation with the Tour -- to turn off their cameras at the very moment when doping cases were finally being exposed instead of covered up. But the message got through. The issue was debated for days in the French press. In their statement Saturday, ASO president Patrice Clerc and Prudhomme explained that the decision by ARD and ZDF was a clear signal that something had to change. Clearly the thought of a dark TV screen helps to concentrate the mind.
Just like the cyclists, the army of journalists is divided into several -- usually national -- camps. When Rasmussen was suspected of doping, Danish reporters investigated the case until the star was shown to be guilty of another, irrefutable lie. After the French daily Le Monde published further accusations against Alberto Contador on Sunday, Spanish reporters at the press conference seemed to be competing to see who could best avoid the subject of doping.
Which of the camps will emerge as the dominant one among the cycling associations, the cyclists themselves and the media remains uncertain. Perhaps there will soon be two parallel cycling worlds that exist next to each other without ever coming into contact. It would not be the worst thing that could happen. It would be, if things continue as before, just the same as with every cycling scandal up until 2006: There would be no consequences -- apart from an improvement in the methods of organized doping.
Still, as the riders were finishing their victory procession on Sunday, it did not look that way. One could close one's eyes for a moment, forget all the concerns about the sport's future, and believe that the Tour de France isn't finished, but is only just beginning.
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