Proof of the Tour de France's vanishing value as an athletic event came this week with the feeding frenzy surrounding the news that its latest champion, Alberto Contador, failed a drug test during this summer's race.
Contador may not have helped matters with what sounds like a cyclist's version of "my dog ate the homework," arguing that a contaminated steak was the cause of the miniscule amount of Clenbuterol found in his blood during the Tour de France.
The three time Tour de France champ was greeted with a flurry of jugular attacks by fellow cyclists, anonymous doping officials, and journalists that would have put a school of barracudas to shame. Within hours the steak defense was torn apart in Germany, home to Jan Ullrich, the first German to win the Tour de France, and one of many riders caught up in a 2006 Spanish investigation of banned performance enhancement drugs called Operacion Puerto.
Next, came the French: "The big champions are falling. It's like that," Tour de France stage winner Sylvain Chavanel told French media, famous for attacking foreign riders. Fellow French rider Yoann Offredo did not mince words. "We're not unduly surprised."
Right. Roughly a decade ago the French Festina team was exposed during a major police investigation as arguably most drugged cycling squad in Tour de France history. They, of course, were following in the footsteps of riders from Italy, Holland and Belgium who lived and died by endurance boosting pharmaceuticals in the late 1980's through the mid-1990's.
We are not immune. There was Floyd Landis' testosterone fueled 2006 un-victory and today the multi-million dollar taxpayer funded investigation of the U.S. Postal Pro Cycling Team asserts that Lance Armstrong and countless other American riders followed in the French footsteps 5 to 10 years ago.
Drugs and the Tour de France go right back to the race's founding more than a century ago. Some think that the latest scandal proves that all the criminal investigations and new tests will finally clean up cycling. But Spain's general director of sports, Albert Soler, has just announced that two other Spanish cyclists may be penalized and five others are under suspicion of doping after showing irregular blood values. That's no small point when you consider that Spanish riders won the last five Tours.
Doping officials have been leaking test results to the media that suggest that Contador may have a bigger problem than Clenbuterol. A surprise new test may have detected "plasticizer" in his urine, a chemical commonly found in blood-storage bags. The running rumor reported in newspapers around the world has been that Contador gave himself a blood transfusion to increase endurance, a common but long banned practice at the Tour de France.
The far bigger and underlying problem is that the European sport of professional cycling -- and its marquee event, the Tour de France -- have been destroyed, not only by drugs but by mismanagement. Cycling has been spinning out of control for years.
It's not only that those who administer and profit from the sport have been proven incapable of creating an even playing field. Somewhere along the way, the old idea that a game is a game and a race is a race has been lost.
Why the delay? Why was Contador's July 21 positive test (during the race) only made public by the International Cycling Union at the end of September? What does that say about the efficiency and transparency of the sport? And why were Contador's results announced without an immediate determination on whether he would lose his title? This week cycling's professional association is expected to make up it's mind but really why couldn't they do it all at once?
Imagine if two months after the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, the NFL announced that several Saints had failed drug tests but the league wasn't sure what to do about it, and maybe the Saints could keep their trophy and maybe they couldn't?
Whether or not Contador is clean the International Cycling Union's incompetence, and the illegal leaks of tests, and rumors fed by officials and jealous riders from other nations prove that this sport is a mess. Cycling is not going to be fixed by new secret tests, or historical criminal excursions in whether the American team of a decade ago was like the Spanish, French or Italian teams.
Some in the media have suggested that cycling's latest breakdown is a sign that "anti-doping" forces are winning. Cycling is a sport. It needs rules. It needs an association that enforces rules fairly for all riders -- and not based on the whims of anti-doping czars. It needs to make decisions and declare winners during a race. It's never going to be perfect. There will always be some new way for athletes to gain an edge.
Cycling today seems driven by greed, national agendas and vendettas, the settling of old scores. Until this European sport gets its own house in order, criminal probes, leaked test results and rumor and innuendo will be the reality of a sport headed for an anti-doping overdose. "Everything I have sacrificed for this sport has been unjustly swept away in two days," said Contador. "It's damaging for me and for the credibility of the Tour de France."
Is he telling the truth? I don't know. I do know that Contador is wrong about one thing. The Tour de France has no credibility, and hasn't had any in decades.
Until the guys in charge figure out how to run a fair, reasonable contest, the true sport of this summer ride through the French countryside will be in speculating when the latest champion will be crowned a fraud.