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Can we ever believe in the Tour in the way we once did?

Last week on my journey up the M7 cycle way in Sydney’s North West I had a flat tyre. A slow leak that became flat rubber right at the base of a steady incline that always tests me as I am returning back to my starting point.

 

I had recently bought a new pump and after removing my back tyre and starting the process of fitting the new tube I, for the life of me, couldn’t get the stupid thing to function properly.

 

I stood there like a simpleton trying to work out the mechanism on this thing, that I have subsequently discovered, was indeed faulty.

 

Most cyclists would be amazed that this could happen, they/you are probably reading thinking, ‘this guy can’t even use a pump.’ I can assure you that I can generally use a pump without too much trouble but this one had me stumped.

 

A lovely gentleman, 72 years old and suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, as I discovered later, pulled over and asked me if I needed a pump. He helped me out, we chatted about all things by the side of the noisy motorway and he even showed me an old technique of working the tyre onto the rim.

 

I told him he was a good Samaritan and thanked him profusely, as apart from saving me a good five-kilometre walk back to my car. I told him he had been an absolute treat to talk to. He had been riding for 60 odd years and was the most kind gentle soul I had come across in my cycling journeys.

 

As I relayed the story to my fellow enthusiasts their similar stories made me realise what generally good people cyclists are.

 

Always ready with a smile or a wave as paths cross, happy to pull over and help out others, I heard stories of all sorts of wonderful good deeds and exhibitions of human kindness.

 

I played golf years ago and one particular member of our group seemed intent on verbally disparaging the early morning waves of cyclists who used to snake their way around the local streets.

 

I never really got it. His language was foul, his sentiment mean and I never really understood the aggro. Perhaps he spent time driving in the heart of Sydney and had been witness to some of the loose driving of the many couriers in the CBD.

 

Personally, I felt that the fitness, fresh air and general health of cyclists probably morphed into their personalities.

 

It also made me think about the passion of the cycling fan, the sheer romance of one of the biggest sports in the world. The massive crowds that line mountain climbs with homemade signs, costumes and the general sense of goodwill they have for the competitors.

 

This led to another question. Would these people ever believe in the sport the way they once had after all that it has been through?

 

I hope the short answer is a simple yes, but I can’t be certain.

 

We all know the history and don’t need to relive it over and over again. The culture of cheating seemed to have grown to epidemic proportions through the eighties and nineties.

Perhaps it had always been a little hidden prior to that time but when the big money arrived, as is so often the case, the temptation to seek the advantage became far too much for some and at some stages, too much for just about all.

 

As the Tour de France struggled to cope with the seven tarnished years of Lance Armstrong, people began to speak about the sport they love in a different way.

 

Whoever did well was questioned. Gathering personal data and examining VO2 and hematocrit levels, examining wattage and output data became the norm and no recent winner of the greatest race has escaped scrutiny.

 

The discovery of an electric bike at a women’s Under 23 race last year has only fuelled the fire as has a number of positive test in 2015. Meldonium has also been in cycling news and not just connected to Maria Sharapova.

 

It does, however, appear clear that the sport is cleaner than ever. Blood passports, improved testing and more active doping authorities seem to have things in check. Yet, can we believe in the way we once did?

 

The UCI’s 2015 CIRC report seemed unclear in its finding suggesting that the ‘doped’ segment of the peloton could be as low as 20 per cent or as high as 90 per cent.

 

The issues that Team Astana have had in recent times and calls for testing controls between the hours of 11.00pm and 6.am to detect micro dosing EPO in order to be clear by morning seem to suggest that many people’s faith in cycling might yet to be fully restored.

 

The report also expressed concerns about substances not banned but still being used to seek advantage. Painkillers, caffeine tablets, Viagra, Cialis and “various nutritional supplements and homeopathic products” were all mentioned in the report.

 

There seems to be a stark difference to the scepticism levelled at Chris Froome’s recent performances and the blind faith and belief that much of the public placed in Armstrong.

 

That faith was built despite many people in the background being fully aware of what was going on.

 

Cadel Evans victory in 2011 as Australia’s first maillot jaune winner has remained ‘clean’ as have all the race winners since. Yet when names such as Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Alejandro Valverde loom into contention the drums start beating.

 

I will watch the race with countless warm drinks, snacks, my race guide at hand and very drowsy eyes in the morning, just like I always do. I believe in the sport, there is a majesty and a beauty about the entire endeavour.

 

The juxtaposition of man and the fearsome landscape, changing weather and the face to face combativeness of cycling enthrals me.

 

I will still be disappointed with the sprint finishes, longing more for a cold, wet and miserable day in the Alps to see who digs deeper within themselves than the rest of the GC contenders. To see the one who drags themselves up a mountain with snot flying from nostrils and sweat dripping their chin.

 

I hope it is a great race this year, and I hope there isn’t ever another Festina affair that brings the sport to its knees, yet it feels a little different to me. Most people I speak to are a little more than sceptical and maybe that’s OK.

 

Perhaps time will be the only thing that will see the new generations of fans develop the same trust in the sport and watch events without even a thought of ‘is he the full natty?’

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