An interlude: The Tour de France and the miraculous

Some 100 editions ago, when the Tour de France was first conceived, it was the original epic. L’Auto, as Christopher Thompson recounts, hailed the first edition in 1903 as “the most grandiose competition there has ever been.” The race might have been about selling newspapers, of advancing modernity, but it was also about the exceptional qualities of its participants: “…admirable men, truly exceptional beings, carrying in them extraordinary qualities…” Later, when they became the ‘giants of the road’, the riders were described as requiring “unfailing endurance, muscles of steel, and an iron temperament” as well as “unshakable willpower”.

So, the Tour was monstrous, colossal and gigantic – it was always about excess, not a normal event. And its participants were not normal men, they had extraordinary qualities. (As Thompson points out, by attaching exclusively male virtues to the sport, it set back women’s racing for years – the effects we’re still seeing). The message from the organizers to the participants was this: we will create this monstrous race and you will respond with unfailing endurance. No wonder, then, in this culture of excess, that the riders responded by employing any means necessary. As Rudi Altig said, they were not athletes (in the amateur tradition), they were professional cyclists.

For the 100th edition we are in an era that mixes the new with the old. We still have the excess of the race itself – still gigantic. But not only do we want the racers to be of an iron temperament, we also want their extraordinary qualities to include the moral virtues of fair play. The race is not just a spectacle, it has broader meaning – “the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” Against this history of excess, it is perhaps no surprise that the new report on doping from Antoine Vayer and his team describes some performances as ‘miraculous’ and ‘mutant’, terms that would not have been out of place in L’Auto’s descriptions of the riders last century.

Vayer’s report, as reported, tells us two things we already knew: EPO works remarkably well and the Tour performances of the 90s, and at other grand tours, were likely – in perhaps all cases – achieved through doping; but there is an unclear line between what is possible with and without doping and we are not going to be able to define that line by crunching the numbers, despite Vayer’s efforts. The report attempts to define all performances on a spectrum from normal to not normal. But the Tour was always anything but normal. Was that not the idea? Everything about it was supposed to be miraculous.

This might be seen as part of a general push towards some sort of closure, a drawing of a line under the last 100 editions so that we can all move on to the new era. Bill Strickland as an admirable proposal for doing just this. But where will it end? Will all riders have to account for everything they took and when – a bit of cortisone here, some testosterone there, a dash of EPO, a transfusion, a soupçon of steroids. Perhaps that is what we need for closure.

But then what? We want the monstrous and the grandiose. We want the excess, the mythic and epic battles against the mountains and the elements. Like all sports, we want a spectacle. But that spectacle should not be outside our (always changing) perceptions of what is normal. And we also crave broader meaning. We want the riders to be our virtuous heroes, we want to believe in their qualities, not just their muscles of steel but also their essential goodness. We want them to represent the idealized qualities of our day. We want them to be better versions of ourselves.

Is this even possible? As Ken Dryden wrote, talking of his hockey career, “We are not heroes. We are hockey players. We do exciting, sometimes courageous, sometimes enabling things like heroes do, but no more than anyone else.” There is a tension in our expectations and in reality. We can strive toward an ideal Tour, but we may not get there, and we should ask whether it really matters. What is this ‘pure’ ideal that we are seeking – what does it even mean? Is it possible to create an oasis of values that represent the best of humanity when it is us – irrevocably flawed – that are doing the creating? Perhaps. But we should not be disappointed if we do not achieve it. Georges Speicher, winner of the 1933 Tour said of the racers: “There are the powerful and the weak, the fortunate and the unlucky. Their names change as the years go by; but the characters are fundamentally the same.”

We get the Tour we deserve. Each edition is a mirror of the values of its time, throughout its history. By trying to label each performance as ‘clean’ or ‘tainted’ we are chasing a certainty that does not exist, for our own gratification because that certainty gives us something to hold on to, some kind of anchor point in the swirling currents that exist in cycling. If we just swim a little further we will supposedly find that perfect eddy of calm where true meaning is to be found. We are expecting too much. That eddy of calm does not exist. After perhaps the ‘cleanest’ Tour in history, in 2012, the questions are still being asked. They will never go away. Create a monstrous event like the Tour and the miraculous will happen – one way or another. Spectacle will beget spectacle. Is that not what we want?

Hailed as a hero, Pantani was reportedly described by Italian anti-doping authorities as one of the worst offenders.
Hailed as a hero, Pantani was reportedly described by Italian anti-doping authorities as one of the worst offenders in the peloton. In Vayer’s terms, a mutant.

2 thoughts on “An interlude: The Tour de France and the miraculous

  1. I think that what ‘we’ want lies on a spectrum – from the purists who would hope that each man compete to the best of his abilities – perhaps even exceeding them – and that all should be satisfied. The even itself is so demanding, so excessive that it is enough that it happens at all. The need for excess or spectacle is not necessary.

    For others, however, it is. it is the show, the excess that exploits moral as well as physical limits. Certainly, this is at the heart of the general appetite for ‘reality’ TV where contrivances and theater dredge up the most base and petty motivations.

    Personally, I am in the first camp. I truly wish that athletes could earn a living and have the kind of job security that would allow them to perform to their limit without the incentive to go beyond. Indeed, I would hope this reality would be embraced by fans and sponsors alike… an understanding that to compete well is enough.

  2. Changing tactical structure of cycling is an additional variable in this issue. Technical and calculated appearance of the new type of cycling -the pioneer of which is Team Sky, of course- takes away some the the excitement spectators used to experience. But the moment we see an unexpected push on a hill, we get suspicious. It’s really frustrating. For my part, I still prefer to live the moment and try not to frown beforehand..

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