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When The Going Gets Weird

Posted by MDugard on Jun 30, 2006 10:24:13 PM

On the same day that George W. Bush visited Graceland with another head of state comes the news that Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso are out of the 2006 Tour de France. Their names appeared in a Spanish doping investigation, and the rules say they cannot race. I don't know which is more weird. Basso's performance at May's Giro d'Italia was nothing short of superhuman, as he climbed some of the steepest and longest summits of this year's cycling season with relative ease. I don't like to say that I'm unsurprised that there might have been pharmaceutical assistance, but nobody who was paying attention didn't ask the same question.Not so with Jan Ullrich. He was heavy in the spring, won a crucial time trial at the Giro, and then triumphed at the Tour de Suisse. He looked liked the Jan Ullrich of old -- that is, the Jan Ullrich who won the Tour de France almost ten years ago. Now, as he quietly stepped out of the Tour with pronouncements about his lawyers taking up the action for him, he looks more like the Jan who was suspended for doping just a few years back. To be fair to Ullrich and Basso, they were just honoring a Pro Tour proviso saying that any rider being investigated for doping can't compete, but the passive way they went down was a little pathetic.I was traveling and didn't find out about all this until arriving in Strasbourg a couple hours ago. The town is quiet, mostly because everyone's in the local "sports cafe's" watching the World Cup games. It is an industrial town where people speak German as easily as they speak French, though the boulevards are lined with leafy elms and the usual army of campers are already lining the city streets in anticipation of the next few days. The people of Strasbourg must have paid quite a bundle (the usual going rate to host a start is one million francs), because they host not just one, but two stages, this weekend.Having said that, the crowds and sense of anticipation were way down when I hit the press room to ask for my credential. It felt like the city was hosting a very well organized 5k instead of the Tour de France. That's a big difference from last year, when lines of vehicles drove to the start, everyone waiting to see whether Lance Armstrong could win yet again. It reminded me of 2001, when the woman in front of me in line requesting credentials wasn't writing for a newspaper or a magazine, but for her homeowner's association newsletter. The weird part is that she was granted a credential on the spot, and asked Lance some very smart questions at a press conference later that day.It was still broad daylight at nine p.m. as my Air France flight was landing in Strasbourg. The city was surrounded by miles of green farmland, all parsed into neat rectangles. It was all very France-in-July. I got to wondering whether I could conjure that sense of wide-eyed innocence that comes over me whenever I cover the Tour. I think this could be the most exciting Tour I've ever covered, and I want to pass that along over the next 23 days.Frankly, I had been a little nervous that I had become jaded, this being my sixth Tour. I needn't have been. I'm a Tour geek, just like I'm an Olympic geek every other year, and get all misty when the anthem plays, even when those nameless gymnasts and freestyle skiers win. So I was relieved to experience a nice swell of emotion as my cab pulled into Strasbourg, and I saw one of the Tour's caravan vehicles; one of those lavish commercials on wheels (this one was a car shaped to look like a giant cornet) that make the Tour somehow bombastic, cartoonish and very cool at the same time. I actually got a little misty when I saw that absurd little vehicle. I was back at the Tour. Now, I can't wait to see the lavender fields of Provence and eat the camembert each morning at the Tour Village, and I can't wait to see what happens in the mountain stages.Ok. It's late. I had some sort of chicken breast marinated in champagne cream sauce for dinner at a little brasserie down the street and it's making me drowsy (it's midnight here). I'm going to get up early, go for a run, walk a kilometer down the street and pick up my credential, then start digging around in this doping mess. I can only think that this is good for American riders like Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis and George Hincapie, but it shouldn't have to be like that. It would be a sort of cartoonish, Graceland-like victory to win without the likes of Ullrich and Basso in the field. Then again, if they've been cheating all along, they're not the cyclists we all thought they were.With that somber thought, I'll head off. I think this is all going to be like the Barry Bonds thing at the start of the baseball season, where all people were talking about were drugs and sports. Drastic as it seems, baseball should be as bold as the Tour. Stop the dopers in their tracks, even if it hurts the game in the short run. Just as no one is talking about Barry Bonds three months into the baseball season, no one will be thinking about Basso and Ullrich halfway into this year's Tour. All they'll be talking about will be the race, and right now it's wide open.I'm still curious about that Graceland thing, but that's another issue for another day.Drop me an email Devin and let me know you got to Syracuse OK.Talk to you all later.

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