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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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Say it ain't so, Floyd
For one cyclist, Tou scandals are last straw

How many daggers in the heart can a fan take before the fanaticism stops beating?
Given a choice between riding a bicycle and watching someone else ride their bike, I'll take the first option. But there's no denying that I draw inspiration from watching the Tour de France.

I've been watching Le Tour since 1984, when I was bumming around Europe and saw a broadcast on Swiss TV. Bernard Hinault, an outspoken Frenchman nicknamed "The Badger" for his tenacity, was attempting to come back from knee injuries that year to win his fifth Tour de France. But he would finish second to teammate Laurent Fignon, while Greg LeMond became the first U.S. rider to finish in the top three.

Played out over three weeks, the drama was captivating. Between broadcasts, I devoured cycling journalist Samuel Abt's insightful reports in The International Herald Tribune.

Here was a sport that measured the human capacity for performance in thousands of miles. A sport in which will often persevered over suffering but sometimes did not. Like futbol and the Olympic sports that were also ubiquitous on European TV, the great bike tours of France, Spain and Italy offered a refuge from the crass commercialism, corruption and geocentrism of U.S. spectator sports.

Or so I thought, as I bought a bike and took up cycling for the pleasures and rewards of exertion. Maybe I was naïve.

The two decades since suggest that I was indeed naïve. Tuesday morning, The New York Times is reporting that Tour de France winner Floyd Landis's urine sample from July 17 - the day he stormed back into contention after faltering in the previous stage - contains traces of synthetic testosterone.

This hurts.

Professional cycling has always been beset by scandals of one sort or another. But most of these were social in nature, involving violations of unwritten etiquette or the betrayal of strategic agreements between teams or individual cyclists that were sealed with handshakes or subtle nods. Only in the last 30 years have the whispers about doping become audible. In the last 20 years, whispers have become shouts.

Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Francisco Mancebo.... At this year's tour, these and so many other cyclists were implicated that the entire field was all but tainted by association. You could almost smell the sour scent of performance-enhanced perspiration through the TV screen, as if it had dripped on those riders presumed clean.

Pro cycling's governing body does not observe the innocent-until-proven-guilty principles of U.S. jurisprudence. Instead, if you are implicated for doping, you are implicated until proven clean.

Even if you are cleared, you remain under a cloud of suspicion for the rest of your career. And establishing innocence is complicated by the vulnerability of athletes' fluid samples to tampering by third parties.

I hope this is what happened with Floyd Landis' sample. And I hope someone proves that his sample was tampered with, and nails the perp.

On the verge of hip-replacement surgery, Landis may be facing the end of his career even if he is cleared, even if he does avoid the mandatory two-year suspension.

But if it is proven that he was seeking better performance through chemistry, Landis has cheated not only his rivals and any other cyclist who ever rode the Tour de France, but all those fans who got caught up in the drama of this year's Tour and made an emotional investment in it.

Almost everyone who participates in a sport draws inspiration from watching other people excel. But it can be hard to find heroes these days, and it's getting more difficult. Some of us gave up on the NBA because Michael Jordan took all of basketball's elegance with him when he retired and was replaced by thugs.

Some of us stopped following baseball and hockey during protracted strikes that demonstrated utter disregard for loyal fans. Others will turn off the NFL when Brett Favre retires because he'll take the last vestige of the game's spirit with him. And count me among those who can barely bring themselves to watch track and field because Ben Johnson's steroid abuse - almost 20 years ago now - raises doubts about every sprinter who crosses the finish line.

We turned to sports like cycling to look for heroic performances. But how can you watch an exceptional achievement while entertaining a nagging doubt about its authenticity? Somebody does something because they're all juiced up. So what? Not only is that cheating, it's boring.

What thrills me is the human capacity for unalloyed athletic accomplishment derived from devotion to hard training, not better performance through chemistry.

Maybe there are no sports heroes anymore. Maybe we live in a post-heroic age. But, oh, how I hope somebody proves some heartless bastard tampered with Landis' sample.

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