Dope and glory
The Tour de France has yet to repair its image after the drugs' scandals
My next-door neighbour is heartbroken. He has been riding his bike through carcinogenic traffic to contribute his fair share to London's 480,000 daily cycle-journeys, and had been looking forward to going down to the Mall on 8 July to watch the first-ever start in London of the cycle race of races, the Tour de France. But after the latest revelations of doping in the sport, my neighbour is just too disillusioned to applaud the world's best professional riders as they set off on the 203-km first stage to Canterbury. Poor sod did not realise that hardly anyone has won the Tour in the past 40 years or so without some sort of ingested or injected help.
The ultra-gruelling, super-human, three-week, speed and endurance test is just not winnable without doping. Performance-enhancing drugs are endemic in top level sport and, as I argued in this column in July last year, we should get out of denial and into legalising and controlling. Instead, professional cycling's governing body is proposing a paper bandage to cover over the sport's psoriasis of drugs' scandals.
Mayor Ken Livingstone - who wants participatory cycling in London to grow even more than the 83 per cent he says it has since 2000 - thought the Tour would bring some good publicity. Like my neighbour, did Ken think the sport was clean? Or was he betting that the doping would stay hidden? The arrangement to bring the Tour to London pre-dates the 9/11 of cycle racing, the day the sport rues - that terrible day last summer when the 2006 Tour victor Floyd Landis, who has fought hard since to overturn the finding, tested positive for synthetic testosterone.
Now things are even worse. The 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis, who currently manages one of the 20 key cycling teams, has admitted he doped to win a decade ago. Others have been found out and banned. About 100 riders are on the client list of a certain Madrid-based drugs laboratory, according to the Spanish police investigation Operación Puerto.
Not surprisingly, many sponsors got cold feet. TV coverage of cycling events is down. The 2007 US open cycling race nearly didn't happen. Two major events, the Tour of Utah and the Championship of Zurich, actually were scrapped.
Now there is a cunning plan to make things nice - or is it just a way to make it look nice? Riders must sign a new anti-doping charter by 7 July or face being banned by their teams from riding in the Tour de France. In signing up, riders allege that they are not using banned substances, promise to co-operate with drugs investigations and to forfeit a year's salary if they break the pledge - or rather, if they are found out.
"We'll have no more rampant doping," said Pat McQuaid, the International Cycle Union president, in what is the clearest official admission to date that doping is widespread in the sport.
But it is a beautiful sport, and there are two British cyclists that disappointed Wimbledon fans can keep an eye on. Mark Cavendish has won six races in his first full year of top professional riding.
The bigger star, though, is Nicole Cooke, who has just won the so-called women's Tour de France, the five-day Grande Boucle Feminin, for the second time in two years. I can't speak for my neighbour, but next summer I intend to be one of the thousands of spectators standing on a roadside in France rooting for her to make it a hat-trick.