Tour Suffers Sans Lance
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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
I distinctly remember watching the final day of last year's Tour de France, the day Lance Armstrong took his farewell laps up and down the Champs Elysees for the seventh and last time. Some say his accomplishment, with the added element of surviving near-fatal cancer, is the greatest feat in the history of all of sport. What I remember so clearly of the television coverage of that last day was that it was a monumental tribute to Lance... his climbing ability, his time-trial mastery, his uncompromising dedication to training, the complete drama of his cancer battle, the details of his then-relationship with Sheryl Crowe. And if you or I had been the producers of that coverage, no doubt we would have made the same decision. But I do remember questioning just where that decision would leave this year's Tour coverage. Were we enthralled with the event itself in recent years? Did we really have a grasp on what it takes to climb those steep grades in the Pyrenees and the Alps? Were we able to conceive riding flats at over 35 miles-per-hour in tight packs of dozens of cyclists literally elbow to elbow? Did we learn anything about the team concept, domestiques busting ahead of the pack (or peleton) to tire out rivals, saving fresh legs for the team star to shine in time trials and killer climbs? Or, except for you die-hard cycling afficionadoes out there, were we all just waiting for a glimpse of Lance, waiting to see where Lance stood on the overall leader board, waiting to see who was in Lance's entourage car? Would we hear Robin Williams shouting, "Allez, allez!" as Lance pumped up the famous and forbidding L'Alp D'Huez?
All you have to do is listen to race analysis this year to answer most of the above questions. They are confounded as to why none of the T-Mobile horses worked to reel in the breakaway group up the first climbing stage in the Pyrenees yesterday. They are taken aback by Floyd Landis, the American leader of the Phonak team, who held a press conference on the first rest day, Monday, to reveal the extent of his degenerative hip problem, saying he will have hip replacement surgery right after the Tour finishes. It's a race legendary for keeping any physical injuries or weaknesses mum. Perhaps Landis and the Phonak publicity arm knew interest in the race was flagging and desperately needed a man-against-pain story to generate some heat.
If you're a true cycling fan, you could probably care less that Lance is no longer in the mix. These guys are still cruising at 35 miles-per-hour. They're still jockeying for position up those incredible ascents. For the rest of us, we simply miss Lance.
One thing I can't understand is that, among the 50 or so pro cyclists currently implicated in doping, by virtue of a raid in Spain that uncovered a huge stash of steroids, human growth hormone, and transfusion gear, two of those 50 were favorites to win this year's Tour--Germany's Jan Ullrich who was Tour Champion in 1997 and then finished second to Lance five times, as well as Italy's Ivan Basso who was second last year. We've learned their names. We've expected to follow them as the ones to vie for the maillot jaune in the post-Lance era. There are evidently doping prescriptions in both Ullrich's and Basso's names but no concrete DNA proof of cheating. Yet these two were barred from this year's race two days before the start on mere suspicion. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? For me, Ullrich and Basso were the hooks to sweep me into the Tour de France 2006. I still thrill to those helicopter shots of the peleton seeming to skate by 18-century farm houses and blooming fields of wild flowers along the French countryside. But this isn't the Nature channel and the beauty shots aren't enough. Without Ullrich and Basso... and Lance... I'm struggling to gather enthusiasm for Phonak and T-Mobile breakaways.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
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