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Cyclists come out battered, bruised, just like Tour de France itself

The pack climbs towards Vizzavona pass during the second stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 156 kilometers (97.5 miles) with start in Bastia and finish in Ajaccio, Corsica island, France, Sunday June 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

The famed Tour de France kicked off over the weekend after enduring the worst year of publicity in its 100-year-long history. But fans of the Tour have not abandoned this year’s race.

First off, no fan of cycling can deny what a disgrace the Tour de France has been over the last decade and-a-half, at least.

To have the biggest name in the history of the sport, Lance Armstrong, the guy who won a record-shattering seven Tours in a row, finally admit he’d been doping the entire time is a huge black mark on the race. Even more damning is that the Tour couldn’t even award Lance’s titles to the runner-up because they were all caught up in their own doping scandals. (If you couple Lance’s seven bogus titles with the vacating of the crown of two other Tour winners for doping after Lance’s “victories,” you have a Tour that is trying to celebrate its centenary while having to admit nine of its winners in a 12-year span were cheaters!)

Some of the Tour’s defenders try to deflect criticism by casting aspersions on other sports. Certainly, baseball has seen some of its biggest stars caught up in the same kind of drug scandals – Roger Clemons, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, to just scratch the surface.

And Seahawks fans are certainly aware of the prevalence of illegal performance enhancing drugs in the NFL. Steroids have wreaked havoc on many athletes’ lives.

Track and field, of course, has also been rife with accusations and confessions of illegal drug use for decades.

I realize misery loves company but cycling fans who justify what’s happened in their sport by pointing to others are hardly making a strong case for themselves.

What the sport of cycling can point to with some pride is that they are the leaders in dope-testing. Cycling has the strictest testing in the world of sports, by a long shot. Cyclists, for instance, are not only tested in competition – they can be tested whenever and wherever 365 days a year. (One of this year’s American riders, Taylor Phinney, reportedly tweeted during the NBA Finals that NBA players get tested a maximum of four times a year whereas he’d been tested three times in the last two weeks!)

The sport was also the first to introduce the concept of a “biological passport,” which charts a rider’s lifetime of drug test results. That makes it easier to detect the use of an illegal substance.

All this patting-on-the back by those in charge of the sport strikes me as “too little, too late” but I suppose cycling deserves some credit for acknowledging it has a problem and addressing it so aggressively.

A lot of this year’s riders, when questioned about the doping scandals, talk about them like they’re ancient history. “That was then, this is now” is their attitude. The culture has changed, they say.

This year’s Tour does have the largest number of first-time entrants ever and many of the emerging young stars of the sport – in their early 20’s now – were barely in their teens when Armstrong and his doping generation ruled the sport. I’m not sure if we can trust any of them but at least they talk a good game. That being said, so did Lance.

But none of this would really matter if it wasn’t for the brilliance of the sport itself. It’s ultimately the thrill of the Tour de France that keeps me coming back for more. From a fan’s perspective, cycling offers the same exercise of extreme emotions that all great sports offer.

Like most Americans, I suspect, it took a couple Americans winning the Tour to initially pique my interest. Greg LeMond was the first non-European, let alone the first American, to win the Tour. He not only won it three times, he won the closest race in the history of the Tour. After 25 days of grueling competition, he had a thrilling come-from-behind victory, beating the favorite (a Frenchman, no less,) by a mere 7 seconds.

The other American who got my attention was, of course, Lance Armstrong. He may be a figure of disgrace now but he turned me and millions of others into fans of this rather oddball sport.

If it weren’t for my keen national pride in the likes of Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, I don’t think I would have invested the time and energy into learning how long-distance cycling actually works. I never would have realized that this kind of cycling is a team sport and that every member of the team serves a very specific function: some are sprinters, some are time-trial specialists, some are climbers, some are designated to break away from the pack to put pressure on other team’s riders, and some are designated to chase down breakaways from other teams. Ultimately though, every rider on the team but one is there to put their leader in the best position to win the overall race. They are all “domestiques” to the queen bee leader of their team.

The strategy of the racing is as intricate as any sport. And it’s incredibly varied as well, depending on the particular terrain. By traversing huge swaths of France, the road and weather conditions are constantly changing. Different courses and conditions call for different strategies. There’s an overall winner who wins the 25-day race, of course, but each day’s race also crowns a winner. And it’s absolutely stunning just how exciting a sometimes five-hour race can get in the final 60 seconds or so. So close are these individual races that it’s common for as many as 10 or 12 riders record the exact same time at the finish. On other days, it’s phenomenal to watch the endurance of these riders as they race or sometimes chug uphill in the high Alps and the Pyrenees mountains. It’s some of the most impressive athletic performances you’re ever likely to see.

As a sidenote, the crashes are also spectacular, with riders getting thrown from their bikes at speeds of 50 miles an hour and careening onto hard pavement or into barbed-wire fences or down steep embankments. (Tough guys.)

The sport is fascinating. Tense and nerve-wracking, exhilarating and soul-crushing, inspiring and infuriating in equal measure. Like any good sport, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” predominates.

If the participants sometimes disappoint us, as they often do, it doesn’t take away from the game, the race, the competition itself. The Platonic ideal of the Tour de France still holds. The most prestigious, toughest, and longest-running cycling race in the world. A race for the ages.

Many riders who make it all the way through the 25-day Tour de France ordeal arrive on the Champs Elysees battered, bloody, and bruised, but they are thrilled to survive. The image of the Tour itself is battered and bruised, but it too will survive and even thrive because it’s a great sport, even if its participants aren’t always the greatest of sports.

And, oh yeah, the French landscape is gorgeous too.

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