Friday, July 13, 2007
Le Jour de Gloire
When I described the relative absence of rider-oriented signs along the Tour route, I neglected to mention that most of the ones I HAVE seen were in support of French riders, like these kids cheering on Christophe Moreau at one of the starts this week. (The kid with the Spanish poster must be an iconoclast.) A TV crew walked by, and the kids' chaperone said "C'est la tele!'' and like kids everywhere, they went wild for a moment, then calmed down and went back to craning their necks. Their Hero arrived shortly afterwards, doing his vaguely Roger Daltrey thing. The throwback jersey he's wearing is the French national road champion's getup he earned last month.
The French are hungry for a podium, and Moreau, the 36-year-old, much-traveled, once-disgraced, now redeemed, occasionally hot-headed dean of the Gallic riding corps, is their best hope. Moreau was 10 the last time a local won the race, and there are various explanations about why that is.
A somewhat depressing theory popular in France is that the 1998 Festina scandal ushered in an era of stricter enforcement here than in other countries, thus putting French riders at a disadvantage (i.e. they couldn't cheat as easily) compared with the peloton as a whole. Some students of the scene say gifted young athletes began avoiding cycling in droves because it was perceived as grimy and un-glam, choosing soccer -- which had its zenith here the same summer cycling had its nadir, as Les Bleus won the '98 World Cup in Paris -- or snowboarding, or just about anything else instead.
Some of the riders who have been the most outspoken advocates of clean sport have been French, but as we've learned to our sorrow, talk is sometimes just that.
The French cycling federation has mandated longitudinal testing -- long-term compilation of blood profiles that can flag suspicious deviations before they're actually positives -- for some years now. This is the same methodology being used by the teams doing so-called "internal testing,'' like CSC, T-Mobile and Slipstream.
Moreau was one of the riders who admitted to taking part in the Festina team's systematic doping and served a nine-month suspension in the days before the WADA code standardized punishment. He confessed rather quickly and didn't even miss the Tour the following year. He later jumped to Credit Agricole, which has maintained a decent reputation (although CA just announced they're ending sponsorship after 10 years, which is about the longest shelf life you can expect in this sport). He's now having the season of his life with the Ag2R team (possibly one of the most awkward team names I've ever had to type) at a time when most riders are well on the south side of their careers. There are lots of people by the side of the road who want to trust him. Can we?
We followers of cycling -- journalists and fans alike -- are just now learning to pick our way through some of these minefields. I will be very interested in what media coverage will be like here if Moreau or another French rider pulls off the sentimental win on Bastille Day. As the national anthem goes, le jour de gloire, or the glorious day, has arrived. It would be nice if the result was gloriously earned.
Bastille Day means horrible traffic (especially when it falls on a weekend, as it does this year) and lots of revelers keeping you up if you're in a populated area. On the other hand, tonight I arrived in Villefranche-sur-Saone dead tired, a million miles from tomorrow's start or finish (and surprisingly, encountered other Tour journalists here -- rooms were ridiculously tight in the finish/start city of Bourg-en-Bresse), and opened my 4th floor window and saw the gorgeous sight of fireworks peppering the skyline.
The real Tour starts tomorrow. It's freakin' hot and we're all about to start losing water weight.