Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tour de France Hangover

Every year about this time, I find myself caught up in my Tour de France hangover. Part of it comes from getting up early and turning on the television to watch the live broadcast of the day's stage. I don't usually turn on the television in the morning, so it's a very different routine for me. But somehow, after the Tour ends, I find myself walking by the television with my finger twitching, anxious to power the TV up. So, if you're like me, consider this a post-Tour recovery step.

Positive Take-aways
It was a nice race for the Brits. It's always nice to see one of those 'first time for a fill-in-the-blank to win this' events. It makes for a nice meta-story. And yet, as the world has grown flat, I think it's harder for us to think of national boundaries as a barrier. National identity is not the same kind of barrier as the first Jamaican bobsled team where the entire team grew up with no experience of snow. And now we're headed into the Olympics, where national identity defines teams and we can expect to hear a lot of 'heartwarming' stories of background struggles against the odds. And yet, while there are differences between countries in terms of sports funding and support, do we really believe that national identity might prevent someone from winning?

It was also interesting to see Strava buy commercial time. Several of the clips featured roads or trails that seemed familiar -- very much like they were grabbing a scene from some place that I've ridden. That aspect often drew me in. At the same time, the payoff fell flat for me. If I didn't already know what Strava was, I don't think I would have gotten anything more out of the commercials. When I've talked to several of my cycling friends about it, they don't anything about Strava. It makes me think that their commercials need a bit more substance tucked in under that glossy visual imagery.

By the end of the Tour, it's easy to forget about the drama from the early weeks of the event, but it was rather frustrating to see the USADA / WADA folks using the season to get press for their endless rehash of the classic "let's take down Lance Armstrong for doping" tune. Seriously? Don't get me wrong, I understand that three things that will get average Americans to follow bicycling racing on television are:
  1. An American in the story
  2. Crashes
  3. Doping scandals
When he was riding, Lance Armstrong helped sell cycling. In that same way, with the absence of a big American star to draw viewers, the media loves to look for any Lance story to draw eyes. So in the early part of the tour, we get coverage of the "who has testified against Lance" rumors flying around. Anything to help build eyeballs.

Now, I'm not going to revisit all of the back and forth on Lance Armstrong. And while there are some great jokes about how far down the results they would have to go in order to find "an untainted winner",  if we extrapolate to assume that a broad part of the field is "tainted" in some way, what does it mean to compete and outperform those "tainted" peers?

And what's really at stake here? In many ways, professional cycling is a show. The pro Peloton is a rolling extravaganza, a gypsy circus promoting cycling and sponsored products. In the same way that the peleton used to let local riders pedal ahead to be the first to arrive in their home town or the way that all racing among the leaders was stopped after the recent nail event,  the community operates and competes under a set of established codes and traditions. It has it's own definition of sanctioned and unsanctioned behavior.

WADA and the USADA insert themselves into this environment as some arbiter of equality as though they ensure a fair race that enables racer to have an equal chance of winning. Of course, this flies in the face of the Stars and Watercarriers tradition. Who can forget that statement to Greg Lemond when he thought he had the opportunity to win in 1985, "you ride for Hinault."

In that way, when you see some new rider in the pro peloton suddenly appear out of nowhere to become a surprise strong contender, it's usually one of those things that makes you wonder. Improved testing has helped proved some level of filter against that type of behavior. And when you see a 'surprise contender' that appears arrogant or behaves contrary to the traditions of cycling, you almost find yourself rooting for the doping controls.

All that being said, the USADA / WADA pursuit of Lance Armstrong has just gone too far. Instead of being some sort of pursuit of truth and honesty in sport, it's become a vindictive witch hunt for that guy who you think might have stolen the cookie from your lunch in second grade. Regardless of the specifics of any legal code, as a society we have a statute of limitations. In that way, this thing should have been over a long time ago. Lance Armstrong's racing career is not active. We don't have the opportunity to shape behavior, save lives, or right some great injustice. In the grand scheme of things, a win here is not a win.

Today, Lance Armstrong's career represents a foundational cornerstone in the battle against cancer. For many people, the guy is a hero. And a hero not because of the destination, but because of the journey. USADA pursuing a win in this case is kind of like trying to win a court judgement to tell small children that there is no Santa Claus. Win or lose, it's kind of a dick move.

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