Last year, after Floyd Landis won the Tour de France and then became embroiled in a doping scandal, I resolved to give up on my favorite spectator sport. I'd already turned my back on mainstream U.S. sports, which have become a showcase for thugs, ostentation, corporate greed and the exploitation of fans.
When I was introduced to the Tour de France 20-odd years ago, I thought I'd found a spectator's last refuge for the ideals of sporting competition. Then came a series of drug scandals that shook my devotion to the dramas that play out over the course of three weeks every July. The Floyd Landis situation, which remains unresolved a full year after allegations were leveled against him, was the last straw. Or so I thought.
So much for resolutions. Two weeks into this year's Tour de France, I'm as hooked as I ever was.
At this writing, I'm a couple of stages behind the action due to other priorities over the weekend. I've been recording the live feed each morning on the Versus network (with the call by veteran cycling commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen), and watching it over dinner each night. I watched the end of Friday's stage and the last 10 riders in Saturday's time trial last night, and hope to catch up on the first two stages in the Pyrenees tonight to bring myself up to date.
Here's what has me hooked. For the first time in many years, the Tour de France remains wide open with less than a week to go. At the end of Saturday's individual time trial, at least seven riders are in realistic contention for a spot on the podium, if not the individual winner's yellow jersey. The competition for the green sprinter's jersey and the polka-dotted mountain jersey is also tight, as is the team competition.
With one more big mountain stage in the Pyrenees on Tuesday and a second individual time trial scheduled for Saturday -- and with the omnipresent possibility of more crashes, bad weather, miscalculations and other unfortunate situations -- some titles may not be resolved until Sunday's finish in Paris.
Adding to the anything-can-happen feel of this year's race is the emergence of new young riders like Alberto Contador, Juan Mauricio Soler Hernandez and Linus Gerdemann, who are declaring themselves as rivals to established stars in the cycling constellation. And with some of those established stars riding what may prove to be the last Tour de France of their careers -- and, in some cases, striving to go out on top -- there is a sense of one generation overtaking its elders.
This year's Tour de France also has a more international feel than it did from 1999 through 2005, when Lance Armstrong and his team established a U.S. dynasty in the event and his rivalry with Jan Ullrich was all but inevitable. As of Saturday's time trial, the top 10 overall contenders include a Dane, an Australian, three Spaniards, a German, Levi Leipheimer of the U.S., two cyclists from Kazakhstan and one from Luxembourg. The top sprint rivals include a Belgian, a South African and a German.
All these factors add to the usual dramas that play out from day to day over the course of three weeks in July: breakaways that succeed or get reeled back in by the peloton, sprint finishes, crashes, recoveries, mountain ascents that both make and break contenders, descents that ride a fine line between courageous and reckless. All of it supplemented with the insightful commentary of Liggett and Sherwen, against a backdrop of gorgeous scenery, along a route lined by cycling fans who camp out overnight for a chance to cheer on the peloton as it speeds past, or who build elaborate displays alongside the road, or dress up in silly costumes or find some other way to make fools of themselves, or who are overcome with enthusiasm to the point that they'll run alongside their favorites and sometimes get in the way.
And then there is the cycling fan who discards his resolution to abandon the Tour de France, and chooses once again to watch the drama unfold on TV. Maybe I'm hopeful that this year's Tour results will not be corrupted by drugs or some other form of cheating, that anti-doping policies that have been put in place will prove effective, and that the cyclists themselves will subscribe to the virtues of honorable competition.
Perhaps I'm resigned to the possibility that my favorite (and last remaining) spectator sport may always be compromised to some degree, but that the rewards of watching it outweigh such a prospect. It's also possible that I'm both hopeful and resigned. This much is certain: I'm once again hooked on the spectacle.