The Tour de France is different this year, and it's different because no one's mentioning the Great Unmentionable. You know the one. Cyclist's oldest taboo. Or maybe its newest. The elephant in the room. Sport's equivalent of the Scottish Play. Those fingers tightly crossed now? Okay, sod the consequences, I'm going to say it: the Tour is different this year because no-one's talking about d-d-d-doping.
It's not just me - everyone's noticed it. And we like it. We like it not because talking, writing, pontificating about doping isn't stimulating or important, but because there's been precious little reason to broach the subject on the first few days of the race, and that's mighty encouraging. It's also a novelty. Once the "D-word" never alighted on Tour journalists lips because they were either too naive to realize what was going on, or too pious to acknowledge it; then came the Festina scandal and a decade when we talked about little else. This week we haven't bothered simply because, well, it's starting to seem as relevant as the new Coldplay album my colleague Ellis Bacon keeps playing in the car.
Now don't get me wrong. At least two stages and their winners this week have elicited their fair share of sniggers and sarcasm (I don't need to tell you who they are). On the whole, though, the atmosphere in the press room has been worlds away from the cynical, rabid, Robespierrian fervor of last year. Soon we'll be logging on to Youtube, wistfully reliving those press conferences where Michael Rasmussen looked one nasty question away from bursting into tears. We'll be pining for Alex Vinokourov and his blood transfusions. But for now we're just fine. Even Paul Kimmage seems to be enjoying himself.
You'd almost be forgiven for thinking that Christian Prudhomme has spent the last twelve months training as an exorcist. If he has, it's done the trick, as has a fabulous route with intrigue and suspense lurking behind every corner. Frenchmen are even winning stages. All we've seen since arriving last Wednesday is smiles. One brasserie even served us passable steak-frites after 10 p.m. - an event which occurs about as often as an Englishman winning Wimbledon under the light of a blue moon.
This might all sound quite flippant, but I'm making a serious point. The ambiance is lighter this year, and it's because the Tour almost certainly is cleaner. Cleaner if not clean. The elephant's still in the room, but he's skulking behind the couch, minding his own business. He may well stay there until everyone exits stage left in Paris.
Plenty of people criticized Prudhomme for excluding Astana, but their absence may also be contributing to this Tour's joie de vivre. While the team's manager, Johan Bruyneel, has worked hard to restore Astana's reputation, there's no denying that the team's name, some of its personnel and Bruyneel himself hark back to a less carefree period of the Grande Boucle's recent past. Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong's US Postal team used to dominate, intimidate, annihilate. The most in vogue, in demand teams at this Tour, Garmin and Team Columbia, are positively cuddly by comparison.
"In 1998, doping was a topic which didn't interest the journalists, whereas we, the riders, talked about it a lot on the team bus. Now the journalists are interested but it's not longer a topic of conversation among the riders", said Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters the other day.
Vaughters is dead right - we are still interested, but maybe, hopefully we won't have to be for very much longer.