You know it’s not good when this is the lead sentence in Friday’s New York Times cycling section: “With its systemic corruption, fractious leadership, an entrenched code of silence and some of its members recently embroiled in a high-profile drug trial, professional cycling these days often seems to resemble organized crime more than sport.” The article was referring to the Giro d’Italia, one of the three Grand Tours (Italy, Spain, France), but since many of the same teams and riders are, or have been, involved with the upcoming Tour of California, I think we can say professional cycling is not yet redeemed.
Redemption is not entered in this year’s eight-day, 750-mile Amgen Tour of California, kicking off on Sunday. Funny how the Tour de CA never seems to find downtown San Diego, which, as I recall, is the second largest city in California. Happily, I can report progress in that regard. This year, the tour’s first stage starts and ends in Escondido. The 102-mile route departs from “The Heart of San Diego North” on Highway 78, makes a Lake Henshaw fly-by, up Palomar Mountain, past Valley Center, and home again. I should note that the race passes through Ramona along the way. According to Google Maps, it’s 36.4 miles from Ramona to Imperial Carpet Care Upholstery Cleaning, Eighth Avenue and Broadway, in downtown San Diego. This year Ramona, next year Poway.
If you hang out in Bike World, the Tour of CA is for you. Sixteen world-class teams and a covey of world-class riders. Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing Team is the reigning world champion. Peter Sagan of Cannondale Pro Cycling won five stages in last year’s Tour de CA, four stages in the Tour de Suisse, and three stages in the Tour de France. Tejay van Garderen, also of BMC Racing Team, finished fourth in last year’s Tour de CA, fifth in the Tour de France, and second in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. World-class cycling is fun to watch, but they don’t make it easy on you.
Pro cycling comes with a hundred-year load of baggage. Four years ago I wrote, “Cheating buffs still consider the 2006 [Tour de France] race as the definitive doping year for cycling’s premier event. By the time the 2006 Tour began, the number two, three, four, and five finishers from the previous year had been removed from the field. Number one had retired. And, the 2006 Tour finished strong, the race champion was disqualified for doping on stage 17.
“During the 2007 Tour de France three riders tested positive for doping, one was suspended for missing a doping test, and one was busted for using dope while training for the tour. Since the cream of the opening field had been caught the year before, one would think a certain amount of steroid caution would be deployed by all riders. One would be wrong. The 2008 Tour de France added to its tradition with one rider busted for cocaine, one rider busted for erythropoietin, a stage winner busted for doping, another busted for EPO, the entire Saunier Duval-Scott team withdrew after stage 4, the winner of stage 10 withdrew, and another rider was disqualified after stage 18. Finally, at least three more riders were disqualified two months later when their blood was analyzed using a new kind of blood test.”
For 2009, the Tour de France winner and third- and fifth-place finishers have admitted to doping or been sanctioned for doping. Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title for doping. In 2011, four of the top nine finishers have admitted to doping or have been sanctioned for doping. In the 2012 Tour de France, Remy Di Gregorio of the Cofidis Team was arrested, for doping, in his hotel room after the ninth stage. The charges were later dropped. Frank Schleck received a one-year suspension for doping during the race.
Last January the NYT ran a doping piece that said, in part, “Since 1998, more than a third of the top finishers of the Tour de France have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in their careers or have been officially linked to doping.” From 1996 through 2012 — 17 Tour de France races — every winner, save three, has been penalized for doping.
The pro cycling/doping story has been playing so long it’s become background Muzak, uninteresting to mainstream America, yet it shadows every race. I follow the Tour of California and drive somewhere every year to watch the lads fly by. I’d like to see the race grow into a Grand Tour on par with the other three. And while they’re at it, institute the strictest dope-testing regimen on the planet.