I’m enjoying the Tour de France. There, I’ve admitted it. The euphoria of a first British success twelve months ago could only partially mask the fact that it really was a rather dull procession. Not this time; we have another home rider out in front but a little more precariously so, despite what might seem and should prove to be an unassailable advantage going into the crucial last few days. Of course you don’t want it to be easy, you want to see Chris Froome suffer all the way to Paris. But not predominantly for the spectacle itself. You want to see human frailty, weakness and fluctuating levels of performance as that’s how you feel it should be. On Mont Ventoux the ghosts were all around, and not just because Tommy Simpson breathed his last on its slopes. He killed something that Armstrong bloke, and what he killed was innocence.
The irony is that Simpson had traces of amphetamine in his system. Way back then. Fancy that. Not the most sophisticated doping racket in all of sport, that had to wait till later, but still, you know, cheating. I first started to watch the Tour in the early eighties, and for a long while it was all I knew of cycling. It always spoke a foreign language which made it exotic, even the curious Robert Millar barely uttered a word in English. I marvelled at these insane feats of endurance, especially the metronomic Indurain. When a certain Texan picked up the baton it seemed perfectly natural that physical boundaries could be pushed further and further, despite more than piffling evidence to the contrary. Oh, how we sleepwalked into that one. It was so hard to let go of all those memories once it dawned that it was all a fraud. Yes all of it. Well maybe. How can we ever know?
That’s the reality. We can demonise the seven times non-winner all we like, but what he stands for is a vast empty space far greater than any one lying, manipulating, borderline psychopath can ever comfortably fill. He takes everyone and everything down with him, and we know that much of it with justification. He admitted to his crimes, finally and calculatedly, but in doing so he twisted the knife. And that is why in every media obligation he has to fulfil, Froome is trampled by a whole herd of elephants headed for the door. It is also why we greet his every acceleration, his every show of strength, with a stomach churning pang of, I don’t quite have the words because I don’t know what it is. Suspicion? Incredulity? Anger? How he must hate it, the constant insinuations and innuendo. And few will dare go out on a limb to say in all sincerity that they know it’s legitimate. The fingers are still smouldering from the last time we allowed ourselves that luxury. No, he has to put up with it if this is what he wants to do.
The head says he’s clean. If Team Sky were to be exposed as just another link in the chain it would blow to high heaven the strides made in British cycling in the past decade, and amongst the rubble would be the reputation of Sir Dave Brailsford, its guiding light. While their performances will inevitably generate scurrilous talk, there has been nothing beyond that to suggest any wrongdoing, in the way that a pall of obfuscation long hung uneasily over Armstrong’s US Postal cohorts. Froome’s form leading into the race suggested he was peaking nicely for the task and his progression has been a steady one. Still, the sight of him taking oxygen after completing his lung-bursting climb to the summit of one of the iconic landmarks on Sunday at least painted a realistic picture of the consequences of such effort. After busting a gut in his service on the first day in the Pyrenees, his support riders, notably Richie Porte, who briefly flirted with podium potential, found the intensity impossible to sustain twenty four hours later and floundered. Just as you would expect.
Brailsford is searching for ways to broadcast the transparency of his operation without conceding significant competitive advantage. It seems a little odd that it should be that way round. Why has the UCI still not instigated practical measures for this to be a routine requirement for the holding of a WorldTour licence? Does it have any such intention as it concentrates on offloading all responsibility for the virulent cancer which has taken hold on its watch? Mercifully we have been spared the dripping tap of failed tests so far in this race but maybe that’s just a matter of time. Earlier this week the Tour of Turkey became the latest event to have its champion appended with an asterisk, Mustafa Sayar returning a positive sample for EPO. Froome might be showing signs of exasperation at the line of questioning he faces daily after the jersey presentation, but it’s still happening. So many fellow contenders are too reticent about the issue. The journalists are running with an agenda because they see something which is quacking like a duck.
Speak to any cycling fan and the estimate of what percentage of the peleton is crooked varies. Except it’s never zero. It won’t go away. We’ve been treated to some fine entertainment previously this season but now we’re back here he’s here again. Armstrong. So yes, I’m enjoying it, and I’m sure there’s more thrills and spills to come as the Champs Elysées beckons. But I’ll never get carried away. Not anymore. I’ll never drop my guard. I’ll retain the right to those ever so queasy feelings. I so much want to believe and I’ll continue watching it and writing about it because I don’t want all the years of emotional investment to have been completely wasted. So I’m keeping those fingers crossed for Chris Froome. In more ways than one.