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They're Back

The Box will step aside while the hive swarms toward Super Bowl 43, not wishing to excite the gaggle while it’s feeding. Instead, for your sports-minded consideration, I’ll offer up a column about two merry pranksters, Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis.

I gave up on professional cycling after the 2006 Tour de France. Cheating buffs still consider the 2006 race as the definitive doping year for cycling’s premiere 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 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.

Sponsors quit, teams folded, and European TV networks walked away. I was long gone by then, after the first dozen scandals, cheating becomes boring. I vowed not to write about pro cycling until they cleaned up their act or the government started handing out free money.

Well, the government is handing out free money. Happily, this coincides with the Amgen Tour of California.

This is the fourth Tour of California, and the race is bigger, goes farther, lasts longer, and reaches San Diego County for the first time. The tour starts in Sacramento on February 14 and ends nine days later in Escondido.

I like the race. It’s pleasant to find an easy spot in the country, make a nest, settle in, and watch the best bike riders in the world drive by. But, that in itself is not enough for me to double back and write a column about it. Here’s the hook: Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis will be racing. It was Landis who got me to write-off professional cycling as hopelessly corrupt, so it’s fitting he leads me back.

You remember the 2006 Tour de France. Landis’s urine samples showed that his ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone was 11 to 1, far above the usual ratio of 1 to 1, and way over the allowed ratio of 4 to 1. His sample showed traces of synthetic testosterone.

Landis had a good race through the Pyrenees, good enough to take the yellow jersey (by ten seconds) after the 15th stage. And then, the collapse. He finished the 16th stage 8:08 behind the leader. Nobody makes up that much time. And he looked like dead-man-pedaling. He was baked. And then, the next day Landis flew over five hard climbs, cranked out the last 80 miles alone, and made up all but 38 seconds of what he’d lost. It was, in every sense of the phrase, too good to be true.

I assume Floyd is back racing (this time for the newly formed racing team OUCH, sponsored by his hip-repair doctor, Brent Kay) because cycling is the best thing he does and he needs money. Fair enough. He’s served his time on suspension.

Lance is back, this time racing for newly formed Astana Team, sponsored by the usual bike businesses and Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (develops, operates, and maintains railways in Kazakhstan), KazMunayGas (exploration, mining, refining, and transport of oil in Kazakhstan), Kazakhmys (natural resources company in Kazakhstan), Kazzinc (zinc producer), and the Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company. Hands across the border.

I assume Lance has returned to the stage for the venial but ordinary human reason: he misses the spotlight. For Lance, the question is can a 37-year-old man who’s been out of racing and training and racing and training and racing and training for three and a half years come back and win the most prestigious cycling race in the world?

Who knows? Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs at the age of 37. Mark McGwire hit his 70th home run four days shy of his 35th birthday. Roger Clemens was pitching for the Yankees at the age of 44. Maybe Armstrong can pull it off.

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The Box will step aside while the hive swarms toward Super Bowl 43, not wishing to excite the gaggle while it’s feeding. Instead, for your sports-minded consideration, I’ll offer up a column about two merry pranksters, Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis.

I gave up on professional cycling after the 2006 Tour de France. Cheating buffs still consider the 2006 race as the definitive doping year for cycling’s premiere 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 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.

Sponsors quit, teams folded, and European TV networks walked away. I was long gone by then, after the first dozen scandals, cheating becomes boring. I vowed not to write about pro cycling until they cleaned up their act or the government started handing out free money.

Well, the government is handing out free money. Happily, this coincides with the Amgen Tour of California.

This is the fourth Tour of California, and the race is bigger, goes farther, lasts longer, and reaches San Diego County for the first time. The tour starts in Sacramento on February 14 and ends nine days later in Escondido.

I like the race. It’s pleasant to find an easy spot in the country, make a nest, settle in, and watch the best bike riders in the world drive by. But, that in itself is not enough for me to double back and write a column about it. Here’s the hook: Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis will be racing. It was Landis who got me to write-off professional cycling as hopelessly corrupt, so it’s fitting he leads me back.

You remember the 2006 Tour de France. Landis’s urine samples showed that his ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone was 11 to 1, far above the usual ratio of 1 to 1, and way over the allowed ratio of 4 to 1. His sample showed traces of synthetic testosterone.

Landis had a good race through the Pyrenees, good enough to take the yellow jersey (by ten seconds) after the 15th stage. And then, the collapse. He finished the 16th stage 8:08 behind the leader. Nobody makes up that much time. And he looked like dead-man-pedaling. He was baked. And then, the next day Landis flew over five hard climbs, cranked out the last 80 miles alone, and made up all but 38 seconds of what he’d lost. It was, in every sense of the phrase, too good to be true.

I assume Floyd is back racing (this time for the newly formed racing team OUCH, sponsored by his hip-repair doctor, Brent Kay) because cycling is the best thing he does and he needs money. Fair enough. He’s served his time on suspension.

Lance is back, this time racing for newly formed Astana Team, sponsored by the usual bike businesses and Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (develops, operates, and maintains railways in Kazakhstan), KazMunayGas (exploration, mining, refining, and transport of oil in Kazakhstan), Kazakhmys (natural resources company in Kazakhstan), Kazzinc (zinc producer), and the Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company. Hands across the border.

I assume Lance has returned to the stage for the venial but ordinary human reason: he misses the spotlight. For Lance, the question is can a 37-year-old man who’s been out of racing and training and racing and training and racing and training for three and a half years come back and win the most prestigious cycling race in the world?

Who knows? Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs at the age of 37. Mark McGwire hit his 70th home run four days shy of his 35th birthday. Roger Clemens was pitching for the Yankees at the age of 44. Maybe Armstrong can pull it off.

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