Tour de France 2014: Parallels

I for one am pleased that Vincenzo Nibali won the 2014 Tour de France. He’s a worthy winner who got himself to the Tour start line in good form, and was able to handle the rain, the cobblestones, the nervous first week, the climbs and mountaintop finishes, and the Individual Time Trial without a significant weakness. Others fell off their bikes—multiple times—or had a single bad day in the mountains or flubbed the time trial. Nibali answered every bell. A climbing specialist, he put at least two minutes into every serious contender on the Stage 5 cobbles, finishing only 19 seconds back himself. Defending champion and favorite Chris Froome dropped out on that stage; Andy “The Wuss” Schleck was already long gone. On the climbs, he won three stages, all decisively, with an especially grand flourish on Stage 18, Hautacam, where all his rivals were at least 1:10 behind at the finish. As for the time trial, Stage 20, he finished fourth, again putting time into every other top GC rider, all of whom by that point were scrambling for the second or third podium spot because Nibali was already over 7 minutes ahead. He bested all but that top trio of time trial specialists at their own discipline. And as Phil Liggett, long-time Tour de France broadcaster asserted, “when you win the time trials and you win the climbs, there’s nothing much to do but win the Tour de France.”

Liggett said that in his broadcast during the 1999 Tour, when another first-time winner was emerging, astounding everybody with his dominance in all aspects of the race. That rider, of course, was Lance Armstrong. You know, the rider who crossed the finish line first in seven straight Tours through 2005, but is now a ghostly absence in the record books, albeit a vivid memory among those who followed the sport then and remember how dominant he was for all those years.

In 1999 Armstrong devastated a field weakened by the absence of, among others, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani. Nibali, it’s suggested, dominated in the absence of his two top rivals, the aforementioned Froome and Alberto Contador. Then and now, one might well argue you can only race against the others who are there, but the result for each rider may have been an artificially inflated impression of dominance. Armstrong came into Paris with a 7:37 minute margin over second-place finisher Alex Zülle, and Nibali finished with the exact same margin over Jean-Christophe Peraud today. Armstrong’s average speed that year over 3687 km was 40.276 kmh; Greg LeMond insisted then and now that the speeds on the road in the Tour had increased dramatically from the early ‘90s. Indeed LeMond’s speed in 1990, his last victory as the “only American” ever to win the Tour (who was that yellow-clad man all those years??), was 38.621. Interestingly, Nibali’s average speed this year over 3664 km was about 42.29 kmh, a greater increase over Armstrong’s first Tour speed than Armstrong’s was over LeMond’s. In 1999 Armstrong wore the leader’s yellow jersey for a dominant 15 days of 21, while Nibali was an even more in-control 19 of 21.

What are we to make of this? Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, Armstrong’s results look like a result, in part, of his successfully concealed doping regimen. Dominant in all phases, wide victory margin, high speed, in the race lead most of the time. Armstrong passed all the doping controls, but was caught retrospectively years later when tests emerged that detected his methodology of deception. I have no basis for accusing Nibali of anything, nor do I wish to. But when all the “clues” that might have been seen as evidence of doping are present in 2014, just as they were 15 years ago, who’s to say that exactly the same gap could not exist between the current “biological passport” and some unimaginable, undetectable, new doping scheme? Everyone who says “it’s now impossible to cheat” would have said the same thing in 1999.

Come back in 2029 and we’ll see how these results look then.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

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