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Still a spectacle, Tour de France fails to pass test of credibility

Chicago -- During the first 15 years after my trip to Belgium to interview Greg LeMond a few months before the first of his three Tour de France victories in 1986, I frequently had access to live coverage of the race while vacationing in Europe.

I soon found myself utterly - and surprisingly - mesmerized by what at first glance seemed little more than two or three hours of wheels spinning.

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Seven years ago, when Outdoor Life Network began providing the same coverage to viewers in the United States, I paid for digital cable (the network since has been renamed Versus) and developed a July morning ritual: a run, then a swim in Lake Michigan, followed by a breakfast of yogurt, granola and fruit, accompanied by the newspapers and the Tour telecast.

There were days when work kept me away from the TV and, in 2005, I went to France to complete a professional cycle in covering the final five days of Lance Armstrong's seventh straight Tour victory, also having covered the end of his first. Last year, I was back on the couch, watching Floyd Landis' dramatic triumph.

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It had become my must-see TV, captivating me with its blend of an impossibly demanding endurance competition and a colorful spectacle of fans, quaint towns and summer fun.

The 2007 Tour begins Saturday in London, but there no longer is reason to watch it as a competition because cycling has made an unseemly spectacle of itself.

I am not alone in this feeling. Two distinguished colleagues, Austin Murphy of Sports Illustrated and George Vecsey of The New York Times, both of whom have written frequently of their passion for the race, recently expressed feelings similar to mine.

"It is cycling, unfortunately, that cannot be taken seriously," Murphy, who will be covering his fifth Tour, wrote in this week's SI.

Vecsey, who has covered parts of four Tours but will not go this year, wrote in the May 27 Times:

"Sure, go ahead, enjoy the Tour de France this year. Stock up on the pate and the baguette and the vin ordinaire, either in a beautiful corner of France or in front of the television. The Tour will still be a compelling sight.

"Just don't take it seriously. That's all I'm saying. Don't take the riders into your heart the way I once took the gritty Tyler Hamilton or the loopy Floyd Landis into my sentimental journalist's notebook, my common sense suspended."

Suspended is the key word in cycling these days.

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The outcome of the 2006 Tour is suspended pending the ruling in an arbitration hearing on Landis' having tested positive for synthetic testosterone during the race.

In May, Denmark's Bjarne Riis, the winner of the 1996 Tour, and two former teammates confessed to what everyone long had suspected: They had used the blood-booster EPO, which aids endurance, and a variety of other banned drugs.

Riis since has been suspended and stripped of his Tour title, while the sport has been stripped of its credibility.

"The tipping point was Landis last year," said Versus broadcast team member Frankie Andreu, an Armstrong teammate during his 1999 and 2000 Tour triumphs. "It affected people economically."

Andreu, who admitted last year to using EPO - or erythropoietin - in 1999, was not taking a position on Landis' innocence but pointing to how it seemed like the straw that crushed the camel.

Phonak, which sponsored the team for which Landis rode, quit the sport, leaving several dozen riders looking for work. Armstrong's old team is losing its sponsor, Discovery Channel, after this season and is still searching for a replacement. The Versus commitment to the Tour expires after next season, and the network has yet to disclose whether it will continue coverage.

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"A lot of scandals, it sure has had a negative impact on the image of the sport and definitely has an impact on the sponsorship search," Discovery team director Johan Bruyneel said last week.

Discovery's leading current rider, Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa, Calif., has a shot at a top-three finish. Leipheimer knows many people now think of cycling as a sport with results that, like pro wrestling, are not credible.

"If I win the Tour, there will probably be a lot of people saying that," Leipheimer said.

When I asked Armstrong during a recent conference call about the impact of doping cases on the sport, he replied, "It is a black eye, but I suspect there are a lot of sports out there with black eyes."

Armstrong's assertion that cycling is merely one of many sports with black eyes is unassailable. Cycling's problems, which began with the widespread use of EPO in the 1990s, parallel baseball's problems with steroids.

Tour de France organizers are demanding all the 2007 riders sign a document pledging they will not use banned substances.

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"Cycling has brought everything that happened on itself," Andreu said. "The race still is a grand spectacle, but I don't blame the people watching for having doubts, considering the past."

Count me among those for whom doubts have killed a once fervent desire to watch. An empty spectacle deserves no ritual.

Philip Hersh writes for the Chicago Tribune.


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