Giving up on the Tour de France

The worst moment is the discovery that what was seen as heroic is in fact a lie. Not every rider of course is or was a cheat, so many are good, clean, strong men, but for me the event is tainted, it cannot stand with sports’ great events any more, writes Rohit Brijnath.

So much of what we like is decided by geography. What sports we follow are mostly determined by which lands we are born in. Badminton seemed to have some fundamental connection with the supple Indian. Hockey may limp now, but India’s affection for it is not easily extinguished. And every lane, in every town, appeared built for cricket.

My sporting rites of passage, as a boy in Calcutta, were special, yet not unique. Teenagers of my generation knew the taste of Eden Gardens’ ardour and its dust. We’d seen close-up the dewy texture of South Club’s courts when taken there on eager mornings for Davis Cup ties by our fathers.

In a small city, my neighbour was Gurbux Singh and my doctor Vece Paes, each one a hockey Olympian. And if you hadn’t had the nerve to go watch East Bengal joust with Mohun Bagan, in the raucous ‘bada maidan’, where mounted police seemed to itch to charge someone, anyone, then your adolescence was incomplete.

Of course, appetites change. Some sports, which fit the Indian gifts of hand-eye dexterity but were not easy to pursue, now beckon, like golf. Others, not necessarily natural to Indians, have been embraced, like motor racing. But some disciplines fail to resonate, as if we are missing some environmental or cultural connection.

Baseball, and its rituals, was not our thing. We’d call it complicated, slow, dull, precisely the words they unforgivably used for our cricket.

Basketball drew the eye, but all these men, six-foot-eight-inch gravity-testing giants, dazzling in their athletic strength, were hard to relate to. American football? Three-hundred-pound men pounding? None of this fit into our experience.

But occasionally, when you grow up, often when you temporarily travel to another land, something unforseen, and vaguely magical, occurs. You discover a new sport far removed from your geography. For me it wasn’t even a sport, it was a race. The Tour de France.

In my late 30s, I began a flirtation with the Tour, not so much an annual race as a voyage, an expedition over three thousand kilometres on a tiny seat, mountains challenging, opponents jostling, lungs bursting, car-riding bosses shouting, sun baking, cold freezing, where finishing was a badge of painful honour. Grown men wept on the Champs Elysees in Paris when it ended.

An Australian rider educated me on the Tour. On the idea of good pain and bad pain. On using a brush to scrub gravel out of wounds in the shower until he passed out. On slaloming down rain-slicked slopes on a tyre barely thicker than a butcher’s finger, at speeds where the world is a noisy blur.

Slowly, as if attending some school of sport, you learnt, how to appreciate the mountain men, standing on their pedals; the sprinters who bent low and whose legs never stopped churning; how men wore the wind to protect their leaders; how riders, abruptly, broke away from the pack and then were hunted down.

And then there was Armstrong.

And if you had even a sliver of a romantic bone in your body then you could not be immune to his story. Here was life at its hardest and sport at its toughest and he’d survived both. Always we say there are more important things in life than sport, and there are. But for Armstrong, getting back on the bike was the completion of his triumph over cancer.

All night I’d watch the Tour, still only a novice spectator.

All night now I keep my television off. I will not look.

The lure of the Tour de France for me was its hardness, the grim pushing of a mind past where it had previously gone, forcing the body to go deeper into pain that it had before. Because pain is mostly invisible, and resolve concealed, appreciating the race involved some imagination, for you had to make that leap and wonder at the physical commitment these men were making every hour. There was nothing else to say except that these were extraordinary men.

But the eventual truth that some of the extraordinariness of these men was not natural, that it came from a syringe, did not merely dilute the pleasure, it erased it.

No sport is untouched by drugs, but some sports are more touched by them than others. In pursuits where manipulating a stick/ball is the primary skill, like football, hockey, tennis, golf, drugs appear to play a slighter role. In track and field, athletes have continually fallen in our estimation but there have been enough unsoiled champions to hold our passion. Perhaps because the Tour is such a physical challenge, such a non-stop grind, that it lends itself to drug use. Either way it became like a disease.

For years we’d hear the sly rustle of rumours about Armstrong, which the mind refused to accept. Marco Pantani died, reportedly depressed, of a cocaine overdose. Tyler Hamilton got a blood doping suspension. Still, it’s easy to convince yourself, so what? The rationalising fan is a familiar figure.

But then Floyd Landis, after a stunning ride to win the Tour last year, tested positive, a charge he’s strenuously fighting. And Bjarne Riis, the 1996 champion, admitted this year to using EPO and growth hormones. And Jan Ullrich, winner in 1997, who has denied doping, was suspended by his team prior to the 2006 Tour because of suspicion he had. And Ivan Basso, second in the 2005 Tour, received a two-year doping ban. And Erik Zabel, six-times winner of the green jersey, admitted to using EPO.

The worst moment is the discovery that what was seen as heroic is in fact a lie. Not every rider of course is or was a cheat, so many are good, clean, strong men, but for me the event is tainted, it cannot stand with sports’ great events any more. You cannot enjoy greatness if you are suspicious of it.

When we come to watch sport, honesty is not supposed to a factor. We work on the assumption that cricketers use bats with the right width and tennis players will not call “in” balls out. To suspect an athlete, or an event’s integrity, is to steal all pleasure from the viewing of it. The Tour remains a great race for many, not for me.

So as a watcher the best thing to do was ironically the worst thing a rider could do in the Tour de France. Give up. Riding the Tour hurts. But so does walking away from it.