Tour de Farce*

* with thanks to NPR's All Things Considered for the title

I got sucked in to cycling when I moved to Tucson when I finished grad school to wait for then-only-boyfriend IronMan to finish his graduate adventures. He was doing a lot of road riding at the time, and if ever any place was made for cycling, it’s Tucson, so after a half-hearted attempt to go my own way, I succumbed. I joined a team, I did a bit of racing, and then got in to triathlon, but still kept road riding. One of the highlights of every summer was following the Tour de France as it unfolded. This was in the heart of the Lance Armstrong years, and besides being a fantastic story about overcoming cancer, watching him basically win at will was almost incomprehensible, even though we were watching as it happened.

And now I don’t think I want to follow pro cycling ever again. It started off this spring when several of the major contenders for the overall classification were linked with a doping scandal, and were not allowed to race. A former Tour winner admitted to doping to win the race. One of the sports best sprinters tested positive in the Giro d'Italia (but was later cleared). Then the race started, and riders started dropping like flies. A member of the T-Mobile team was found to have had an elevated testosterone level in a previous test and was not allowed to start. A rider who many expected to be on the podium was kicked off his national team for failing to keep the national doping agency informed of his whereabouts last month. A well known, well respected rider won a time trial one day, lost major time the next day, and then won a mountain stage on the third day, only to be found to have blood doped – he and his team left the race. Then yesterday, another rider and team withdrew after a high testosterone test. Even worse then that, late yesterday the current overall leader Michael Rasmussen (rider previously kicked off his national team), after winning the toughest stage of the race and virtually locking up victory for his team, was suddenly fired and kicked out of the race. I am just amazed.

I’m torn between being glad that the authorities in pro cycling are (maybe) finally getting tough on doping, and being concerned that this is a witch hunt that is tarnishing the names and reputations of innocent people. All of these expulsions have come before confirmation of the test results using B samples – if those samples come back negative, then the original conclusion of doping has to be thrown out since it can’t be replicated. And there are always questions about chain of custody and what lab is doing the tests and who they’re linked to that might influence events. As a scientist, I’d like to believe that there isn’t any issue with the actual tests being run or the way experiments are done, but that hasn’t always been the case in the past. I'd also like to believe that the riders are smart enough to know that these tests are out there, the authorities are out to hunt down the dopers, and it makes no sense to blood dope (for example) when you will get caught. Particularly if you win a stage! Maybe I’m just being stupid to think that all these protestations of innocence from the riders aren’t lies, and maybe they are all doped to the gills, and the ones that don’t get caught just have better doctors. It’s a sad state of affairs that the strategies for doping in cycling (and triathlon for that matter) are far ahead of most of the available tests to detect doping.

I don’t know what the answer to this problem is, but I do know that I’m very, very, very disappointed. And not very interested in participating as a spectator any more.

ETA: Oh, this just keeps getting better!