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Adrenaline Junkies

Revelations of illegal doping have marred yet another Tour de France. On Tuesday, the Astana team pulled out of the race after its star, Alexandre Vinokourov, tested positive for blood-doping. The Cofidis team followed them out the door on Wednesday after Cristian Moreni tested positive for synthetic testosterone. And, that same day, the Tour's leader, Michael Rasmussen, was fired by his team for missing doping tests earlier this year and lying to his employers about his whereabouts. As the Tour rides to its conclusion in Paris this weekend, cycling commentators and officials have been trying hard to cheer the success of the sport's war against doping: The cheaters are being caught, they say. "Things are changing. Yesterday, riders sat down against doping at the start of the stage. Ten years ago those riders would have been sitting down against drug tests," said Patrice Clerc, the head of the Tour's organizing group.

But there is a very deep hypocrisy at work here. Many of the sport's officials, team managers, and commentators are ex-racers, men who have long been a part of the sport's doping culture. CSC's manager, Bjarne Riis, this spring admitted that he took EPO, a blood-doping agent, to win the 1996 Tour de France. Rolf Aldag admitted using EPO between 1995 and 1999, but remains a T-Mobile sporting manager. The manager of T-Mobile when both Riis and Aldag raced for it, Walter Godefroot, came out of retirement this spring to help oversee Vinokourov's Astana team. The team that has just fired Rasmussen has one Erik Breukink as its sporting manager. I remember him as a fine racer who finished third in the 1990 Tour. In 1991, he was suited up for the powerhouse PDM team which withdrew all its riders from the Tour with what was variously described as "influenza" and "food poisoning." In reality the riders had been using a nutritional supplement that masked the presence of anabolic steroids in their urine and left the Tour at the organizers' behest to save a scandal. The team and the riders weren't punished, and Breukink went on to race for six more years and now to run another powerful cycling team. The list could go on.

On Wednesday, I watched Paul Sherwen, a wonderful television commentator and both a former rider and team official, discuss the fact that he feels that the racers who remain at the top of the Tour's classification strike him as clean because they looked "tired" at the end of the day's long Pyreneean stage. Rasmussen looked strong and so he was a cheat was essentially Sherwen's point. The extension of his logic is that Lance Armstrong was a cheat, as he looked strong throughout his seven Tour victories, and that all of the dominant champions of the past 30 years have been cheating to win. And he may be right: The doping culture is as old as cycling itself. But casting aspersions on strong riders fails to acknowledge what is at the heart of the Tour's appeal, which is not clean sportsmanship but physical endurance. The Tour last three weeks, with racers day after day riding over the highest roads of a large country at an impossible pace. It is a spectacle of human suffering televised around the world, and what is most thrilling for fans is the display of physical superiority shown by the champions: that final attack where one rider goes forward and one falls away having reached his limit. The irony is that cleaning up cycling doesn't actually make the sport more exciting.

I will always root for the racer who rides with the most élan, with a recognizable sense that the wearer of the leader's Yellow Jersey should earn his victory by physically humiliating all of his rivals, one by one, day after day. Armstrong did this, as did all of his great predecessors. I thought Floyd Landis did it last year with his epic solo attack on the stage to the Alpine ski resort of Morzine. And I think that Rasmussen did it this year. He attacked and attacked and fended off all his rivals. He earned my respect. Any of us could have recognized that he cheated to race well in the time trial--no athlete can suddenly improve their performance to such an extent--but I didn't actually care to, nor did most cycling commentators who defended him until the moment he was excluded from the race. Rasmussen road beautifully, and his attacks were thrilling. I will remember his performance with a pleasure that no scandal can dismay. The race has a long history of beautiful moments. It is greater than the cheater.

This is what made Vinokourov's expulsion particularly disappointing. He is beloved by cycling fans, and even by his peers, for his fearless style. Early in the Tour, he had a horrible high-speed crash that essentially ended his chances of an overall victory. He needed 15 stitches in each knee and was in visible pain on the stages that followed. But he raced on, showing heart and respect for the event. Eight days after the crash, he dominated the first individual time trial. It was the sort of redemptive moment common in Tour history, and it made a nice story. But Vinokourov didn't need to win the Tour or that stage to gain the admiration of fans; after his crash, simply getting back on his bike was victory enough. Having already achieved fame and fortune years ago, he had nothing to gain by doping unlike Rasmussen, who couldn't have hoped to soar away to victory without illegal aid. Rasmussen may have fooled the fans and the officials, but Vino only fooled himself.

One of three men will win the Tour by his performance in Saturday's time trial: the Australian Cadel Evans, the American Levi Leipheimer, or the young Spanish climber Alberto Contador. The first two would be vastly undeserving champions. They are what are known in the sport as "shadows" or "wheel-suckers." On the hills, they ride in wake of the strongmen and never display the attacking spirit. Neither would be the first wheel-sucker to win, but it is not what the Tour needs. If you care about cycling, root for Contador, who rides with panache. He didn't beat Rasmussen, but at least he gave his all on the road. Dullness is as much a threat to cycling as doping.

By Robert Messenger