Baguette and grit not enough

Last updated 05:00 28/07/2011
Cadel Evans
AP
RAISE A GLASS: Australian Cadel Evans struggled to quell his emotion after winning the Tour de France.

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OPINION: Do you believe, asks Mark Reason this week.

When Usain Bolt set fire to the sprinting world in Beijing three years ago we were down on our hands and knees, praying it was true.

Now a second article of faith. The sight of Aussie Cadel Evans emerging from the mountains to win one of the great Tours de France is another test of our religion.

We want to believe in these gods of cycling, but there have been so many false idols over the previous 25 years. Of course without the existence of doubt, there cannot be faith, cannot be something worth believing in, cannot be professional cycling.

Fifteen years or so ago I visited Robert Miller, the last Brit to win one of the tour's major titles until Mark Cavendish conquered the sprinters this year. At the time the world was just beginning to hear about EPO, a naturally occurring hormone that could also be injected into the body in order to stimulate the production of red blood cells.

Miller wouldn't talk directly about drugs, although behind him I seem to remember was a huge poster of the hallucinogenic film Trainspotting. But Miller did ask me if I drank coffee, pointing out that caffeine was an artificial stimulant used to stimulate the brain.

The peloton has always pedalled to a different set of rules. Western lawmakers will not tolerate pharmaceutical abuse, and for good reason, but the pedalheads have been dosing up on stuff for more than 100 years.

Over the course of a century they took alcohol and ether, nitroglycerine, strychnine and cocaine, morphine, chloroform, cortisone and amphetamines. Like Sherlock Holmes, anything to dull the monotonous pain.

When Tommy Simpson died of exhaustion on Mont Ventoux in 1967, during the 13th stage and on the 13th day of July, they found two empty vials and one full of amphetamines in his jersey. He was also said to have had a few shots of brandy.

The authorities knew what was going on, but they largely shrugged and looked the other way. In 1930, the tour's rule book even reminded competitors that drugs were not among the items with which they would be provided.

A French pragmatism was at play – the men running the tour shrugged their shoulders as if to say: "Is it fair to ask these men to pedal a 20kg bike up an Alpine gravel road on a cheese baguette and willpower?"

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Looking at this year's Tour de France I am not sure so much has changed. There were said to be half a million people on the Alpe d'Huez for the mythical 19th stage of the tour. The day before, Andy Schleck had attacked on the Col du Galibier through "the desert of stones".

Before these men had even reached the Alps there were bodies all over the road.

Bradley Wiggins broke his collarbone, Chris Horner broke his nose, Alexandre Vinokourov finished in a ditch with a broken leg, Jurgen van den Broeck suffered three broken ribs, a shattered shoulder blade and a punctured lung.

And yet we judge these men by our everyday moral code. Maybe that is fair and maybe it isn't. Along with many others I have sniggered over the years at all the fantastic excuses for positive drug tests in cycling – "I ate a pie containing strychnine-laced racing pigeons", "the drugs were for my anaemic dog", "it woz my twin brother's DNA".

But like the half a million on the mountain, I come back every year. The courage of Frenchman Thomas Voeckler to hang on to his yellow jersey day after day despite the pain ripping through his body; the will of Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha who finished the stage after being tossed into the fence by a TV car; and Cadel Evans, forever coming back in the mountains despite broken machinery and the long loneliness of his resistance.

These men are heroes. I may look at Evans' face now and compare it to when he was a kid winning the mountainbike World Cup. I may wonder how he came by that lantern jaw. And if it were any other sport I would no longer be able to believe.

Last year's winner, Alberto Contador, is still being investigated for drug use.

But this is the Tour de France. Marco Pantani, the piratical climber and winner of the 1998 tour, said: "We are all imprisoned by rules. There's chaos in life and I tune into that chaos."

Pantani died of a cocaine overdose in a little hotel room in Italy. It was no sort of end for a god.

And yet, of course, it wasn't the end. How can it be when you are an immortal?

» Mark Reason is a senior sports journalist formerly with the Times of London and Daily Telegraph in the UK. He now lives in Wairarapa and is a weekly sports columnist for Fairfax Media.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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