I have followed the Tour de France since I was ten years old. I've seen some great sporting moments...the first five-time consecutive champion, and the first seven-time consecutive champion...who only came back from near the brink of death. I've also continued to follow this event through some of its worst moments...the withdrawal or expulsion of six teams in 1998, the constant cloud of suspicion over Lance Armstrong's accomplishments, the still-questioned win of Floyd Landis last year.
And now, in 2007, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has come to the forefront once again. Prior to this year's race, Team Discovery Channel leader Ivan Basso was caught doping, and banned for two years. There were a couple of small-time riders caught early in the Tour, but yesterday, one of the race favorites, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, was found to have doped blood and was expelled. His team, Astana, withdrew from the race, taking down another top contender, Andreas Klöden of Germany. And just a few hours ago, the news broke that the wearer of the maillot jaune (yellow jersey), race leader Michael Rasmussen, has been removed from the Tour and fired by his Rabobank team, after having won today's sixteenth stage and extended his margin at the top. Twice prior to the start of the Tour, Rasmussen missed random drug tests; riders are required to keep the doping authorities notified of their whereabouts, and Rasmussen failed to do so. He was kicked off the Danish national team last week, as questions swirled as to why he was allowed to take the start in London. And finally this evening, it was determined that he had lied to his team about his location; as such, Rabobank removed him from the Tour for a "violation of team rules."
As for the question I posed at the opening, the answer is unquestionably "non." This is the most popular annual sporting event in the world. Millions line the streets whether the Tour is in the flatlands or high mountains, and every finishing corridor is packed with people. Hundreds of thousands lined the streets of central London for this year's prologue, on the second anniversary of their city's being bombed by terrorists. The Tour's mountaintop finishes are among the great spectacles of sport; people come out in cars, trucks, motor homes (en masse) to will their favorites to the top along the narrow roads of, among many famous others, L'Alpe d'Huez, Mont Ventoux, and the Col d'Aubisque (the finish of today's stage). This event is indelibly woven into the national fabric of France, and there's no question it'll persevere; in fact, it will likely come out stronger having shown that there is no tolerance for whose who cheat, and that the drug testing is continually improving, making it more likely that drug users will be caught.
As disheartening as Rasmussen's expulsion may be, it makes the 2007 Tour infinitely more interesting. Spain's Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) is now in the lead, 1:53 up on Australia's Cadel Evans. We've got four stages left - two flat stages, an individual time trial, and the processional into Paris on Sunday. The only one of those stages likely to affect the overall standing is Saturday's time trial. There's been one other time trial thus far (excluding the prologue), and Evans bettered Contador by 1:04 in that stage. In the time trial, of course, it's each man against the clock, and Contador will have to defend his lead on his own. But if he can hold, he should be safe on the final day. Even if Evans and his Predictor - Lotto team try to take down Contador (by contesting time bonuses, or by launching a breakaway), the Discovery Channel team is well experienced in protecting a lead, having done so for Armstrong for so long and for Landis last year.
If I could recommend one book on the Tour, it would be Martin Dugard's Chasing Lance, a tale not only about Armstrong's seventh and final win, but about every aspect of the Tour and covering it.
And now I'll return to watching today's Tour stage, as I dope my own blood...with alcohol.