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Mud sticks, but Le Tour shines as brightly as ever

Last Friday, the day before the 2008 Tour de France started, I have to admit I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about this year’s event.

Within 24 hours, however, my love affair with the sporting calendar’s biggest annual event had been completely reaffirmed.

Even if you don’t follow cycling at all, you will probably have a view on the sport. It’s difficult not to, with the high-profile doping scandals which have plagued the Tour in particular in recent years. From the ‘Festina affair’ of 1998; to the black cloud of suspicion which hung, unsubstantiated, over the Lance Armstrong era; to 2006 winner Floyd Landis’s positive test, subsequent disqualification and never-ending court battle; to last year, which saw us lose Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Patrik Sinkewitz before the race, and Michael Rasumssen (the race leader), Alexandre Vinokourov (winner of two stages) and Cristian Moreni during it.

Cycling has arguably never been at a lower ebb.

Even though there is now an admirable spirit and determination from a new generation of professional cyclists to prove beyond all doubt that they are racing ‘clean’, the scars remain. Here are some of the marquee names missing from this year’s Tour as a direct or indirect result of drug-related offences: Alberto Contador (the defending champion), Levi Leipheimer (third last year), Rasmussen (race leader before his removal), Tom Boonen (the green jersey winner) Vinokourov, Basso, Ullrich, Andreas Kloden. Imagine the English Premier League kicking off in August without, say, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Aston Villa. That’s the scale to which this year’s Tour field has been decimated.

And yet, somehow, it doesn’t matter.

My first sight of the peloton sweeping its way through the French countryside like a high-speed rainbow was enough to set my pulse racing. And a thrilling finish nearly 200 kilometres later in Plumelec at the end of an otherwise routine stage was merely the icing on the cake.

The Tour is back, and that’s enough.

Yet again I have that familiar feeling of near-obsession which returns for three weeks every July. I’m busy memorising every detail I can about the teams and riders – the Agritubel team is named after its sponsor, a specialist in the manufacture of cattle stalls, didn’t you know? – and mentally absorbing every mountain, hill and bump of each and every stage. I note with interest that Britain’s Mark Cavendish, twice a winner on the recent Giro d’Italia, has targeted stages two, three and five as his best chances of grabbing a stage win; that David Millar, EPO-user turned poster boy for the new anti-doping movement, is a co-owner of the new Garmin-Chipotle team; and that Chris Froome technically counts as a third British third entrant, despite having previously raced under the auspices of the Kenyan federation.

And I try to ignore the fact that the winner of stage 1, and one of the overall favourites for the yellow jersey, Alejandro Valverde, is himself suspected of being tied up in the same Operation Puerto investigation that brought down Basso and Ullrich.

Last year I praised Vinokourov and I praised Rasmussen for exceptional performances which were subsequently disgraced by, respectively, evidence of blood doping and lying about his whereabouts during pre-race training (an offence considered only one step short of actual, proven guilt). This year I hope the same fate will not befall Valverde or any of the other riders.

The Tour de France should be regarded for what it is: the ultimate challenge of man’s physical and mental endurance. 3,500 kilometres over three weeks, ranging from sea level to nearly 3,000 metres, in blazing sunshine and driving rain – 180 riders battling against each other and themselves at an average speed of over 40kph.

If you watch sport for the physical challenge it presents and the sheer spectacle, it’s impossible not to at least admire what these men do. If, like me, you are willing to put your optimist’s hat on and allow yourself to be carried along by the sheer joy and drama of the event, you cannot fail to love it. Even if it does break your heart from time to time.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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