"When L'Équipe says so, you know drugs are killing cycling," said the Financial Times of London on Friday.[1]  --  Yet "[f]or decades this was legal, accepted, even embraced.  The key role occupied in other sports by coaches is played in cycling by doctors, or soigneurs."  --  "Not by chance, the legendary riders Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil both ran off with doctors' wives," wrote Simon Kuper.  --  "To fight doping in cycling would have seemed absurd, like a rock groupie giving the musicians drugs tests.  As in rock and roll, drugs in cycling were always rather amateurish anyway, brewed according to traditional recipes and administered by masseurs and horse doctors."  --  As a result, "[w]hen the first great drugs scandal burst, in 1998, most fans shared the riders' outrage at their 'persecution' by police."  --  "But later something changed.  A consensus against drugs developed across sport (seen also in baseball). . . . [D]oping . . . was now unambiguously forbidden.  That made drugs a form of cheating, like getting a lift from a car up a mountain."  --  Now, audiences are turning away from the Tour de France.  --  "Americans and Germans, in particular, are now switching off. . . . IFM, a German market research company, has calculated that the Tour's total commercial value for sponsors, based on viewing figures and hours of TV coverage, fell 52 per cent after last year's race."  --  "People now often compare cycling to professional wrestling." ...


1.

Arts & weekend

Sport

THE WHEELS HAVE COME OFF THE TOUR DE FRANCE
By Simon Kuper

Financial Times (UK)
June 29, 2007

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2a88eaae-2669-11dc-8e18-000b5df10621.html

The whole point of living in Paris is going to the café every morning for a croissant and a café crème and a read of L'Équipe, the daily French sports newspaper.  All these things are part of France's patrimony, like the Tour de France, and so it's shocking to hear L'Équipe "diss" the Tour, particularly since the paper invented the race in 1903.  It's as if the barmaid were to tell you that croissants were nothing but "butter bombs."

Yet every morning, on the inside pages, where L'Équipe's articles about cycling are hidden nowadays, you find sentences like this one:  "Since 1998 the Tours have been fraudulent, the results cooked up with the use of EPO [NOTE: EPO is erythropoietin, the most commonly used performance enhancer in cycling.  M.J.], and nobody does anything."  When L'Équipe says so, you know drugs are killing cycling.  The organizers are now desperately trying to save the Tour through measures like having it start in London next Saturday, but it's too late.  The world's most mythical race has lost much of its public, possibly forever.

Cycling in Europe was once bigger than soccer.  Before the war vast crowds would gather indoors just to watch riders whiz in grim circles around a hall. In 1934, the Giro d'Italia race overshadowed the football world cup being held simultaneously in Italy.  As for the Tour de France, with its incantatory French phrases and landscapes, and its "holy monsters" who ate mountains while fortified only by cognac and pills, it was the modern Odyssey.  Cyclists were demigods:  Gino Bartali's victory in the Tour of 1948 was said to have prevented civil war in Italy, his country.

Tours were ridden on doping. For decades this was legal, accepted, even embraced.  The key role occupied in other sports by coaches is played in cycling by doctors, or soigneurs.  Not by chance, the legendary riders Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil both ran off with doctors' wives.

To fight doping in cycling would have seemed absurd, like a rock groupie giving the musicians drugs tests.  As in rock and roll, drugs in cycling were always rather amateurish anyway, brewed according to traditional recipes and administered by masseurs and horse doctors.

Doping was part of the lore of the Tour.  When the first great drugs scandal burst, in 1998, most fans shared the riders' outrage at their "persecution" by police.  In 2001, when a multinational was considering sponsoring the Tour, it conducted a survey to see if the many recent scandals had hurt cycling's image.  It discovered virtually no effect, says the cycling writer Benjo Maso.

But later something changed.  A consensus against drugs developed across sport (seen also in baseball).  It wasn't so much that cycling fans now thought drugs were morally wrong.  It was that in the age of ephedrine, doping was obviously crucial and, moreover, was now unambiguously forbidden.  That made drugs a form of cheating, like getting a lift from a car up a mountain.

Cyclists kept getting caught after swearing blind that they didn't do drugs.  In 2005, L'Équipe summed up the cycling year with the phrase:  "We have touched bottom." In 2006, when Floyd Landis tested positive for an excess of testosterone after winning the Tour, the paper altered that judgment:  "There was a double bottom."  In L'Équipe's latest survey of the 30 most popular French athletes, only one cyclist made the list:  Jeannie Longo, a 48-year-old woman.  Most fans divide male riders into two categories: cheats, and those who haven't been caught yet.  With so many riders now banned or dead from drugs, the survivors are generally nobodies anyway.

Television and sponsors are fleeing the sport at an almost drugs-enhanced pace.  Nearly 65 per cent of the Tour's viewers were concentrated in France, the U.S. and Germany, says Kevin Alavy, head of analytics at Initiative Sports Futures, which assembles international viewing data.  But Americans and Germans, in particular, are now switching off.  Only 892,781 Americans watched Landis "win" the Tour -- half the number that saw the 2005 event. For this year's race, expect about 37 American viewers.

In Germany, where viewing also crumbled, the two main terrestrial channels only narrowly decided to screen this year's Tour.  Ominously, their contract expires next year.

Even in traditional cycling countries, viewers are turning off.  IFM, a German market research company, has calculated that the Tour's total commercial value for sponsors, based on viewing figures and hours of TV coverage, fell 52 per cent after last year's race . It could have been worse. The Tour of Flanders, the "Flemish high mass", lost 77 per cent of its viewers worldwide this spring.  "The profession is in danger," admits the CPA, the international riders' association.

The profession is seeking salvation in new lands.  In Britain, cycling fandom is actually growing, albeit from a low base. Although fewer than 100,000 Britons watched last year's race on weekends, that represented progress. Hence next week's London start.  Christian Prudhomme, the Tour's director, has a modest wish for the finish in Paris:  "I hope the person who reaches the Champs-Elysées in the yellow jersey is the Tour's winner."

He should be so lucky. People now often compare cycling to professional wrestling, a cheerfully rigged sport. But the closer parallel is with boxing:  once beloved, now forever marginal.