How many times have we heard that the Tour de France would be a better, more interesting race if riders weren’t doping? How many times have we heard that, EPO-free, the Grande Boucle would be awash with attacks, collapses and general, high octane drama?
I’ve always suspected as much myself. I can remember talking to ex-Festina trainer Antoine Vayer last year about the impact blood-boosting products, in particular, on a) riders’ physiology and b) the spectacle of professional cycling. Vayer noted that, after the advent of EPO in the early nineties, the natural hierarchy of sprinters and climbers flattened out drastically. As a result, average speeds climbed across the board as the thrill-factor began to wane.
This should all be music to our ears; there’s a broad consensus on the Tour this year that this will be the cleanest race for many years, perhaps as many as fifteen. It follows that it should also be the most dramatic race for some time. Or at least so you’d think.
Three days in, I’m not convinced any more. Bradley Wiggins isn’t either. Chatting in Waregem before the start of stage 3 this morning, the “Wigg” said that he wasn’t expecting too many fireworks in the Alps next week, and neither should we as journalists and spectators. Tongue only half in cheek, Bradley ventured “that’s the problem with this clean sport…Fifteen years ago you’d have seen someone doing a massive number in the Alps. Now everyone’s going to be worried about getting through the three weeks”.
Just a few minutes earlier Française des Jeux directeur sportif Martial Gayant had said similar things. Gayant also remarked that fewer riders are now prepared to embark on the suicide breaks which used to characterize the first week, as the cost-benefit ratio simply doesn’t stack up. “OK, you can go away to get your face on TV, but you might pay for those efforts later in the race. We’re trying to tell our riders that they might have one chance, and all their resources have to go into that one day, that one break which might succeed. For almost all of our riders that means a stage somewhere past the Alps.”
Gayant says that anyone riding clean is now acutely aware of their physiological limits. “The break goes out and, when the gap stabilizes, they try to stay at around 150 or 160 beats per minute, which is exactly the same intensity as the riders in the main bunch. They know that it’s dangerous to go any harder”.
Without realizing it, Gayant had perfectly pre-empted a Tour stage which, for five hours and 200km, would be as bewildering as it was – sadly – boring. Not for years had we seen riders tootling along like the main peloton did most of the way between Waregem and Compiègne today.
Perhaps even more bizarrely, the two riders who’d escaped after 6km, Matthieu Ladagnous and Nicolas Vogondy, seemed delighted to be mincing along at the same leisurely pace until they were joined by Stéphane Augé and Frederik Willems. We could only assume that they were playing mind games – trying to lull the peloton into a false sense of security – or that there was some kind of orchestrated go-slow afoot. Either that or everyone was just being bloody lazy. It did at least light up later on once the breakaways had a sniff of victory, and it turned out to be quite an exciting finish.
Whatever the reality, we now know that, novelty value aside, maybe slow cycle races aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Make no mistake, today’s stage was downright tiresome. All we need now is for the German newspapers and TV channels which have deserted this Tour in droves to come scurrying back, preferably with banners appealing for EPO’s reinstatement to the peloton. What an irony that would be, if German broadcaster ARD actually started blaming its shocking viewing figures (down to six per cent of the share on stage one) not on doping, but on the Tour being too clean.
I hope I’m wrong, but could it possibly be that a Tour minus drugs is a Tour minus excitement?