The Spectator

The Tour de France starts here

The Tour de France starts here
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Yesterday, I rode up the Ballon d'Alsace, a mountain in the Vosges range that was the first hill ever included in the Tour de France, which starts this Saturday in London. By the standards of the Tour, it's a minor climb -- just five miles uphill, with an average gradient of seven percent -- nothing like the monsters of the Pyrenees and the Alps that riders will be grinding up in a few weeks. It was unseasonably wet and cold, with heavy winds and driving rain, but I hadn't come all the way to France to sit in the hotel. In happier times, I would have been excited to ride in the shadow of legends: Through water-blurred glasses I could see the hundreds of messages painted by fans the last time the Tour made its way over this mountain in 2005.

Much like the messages on the asphalt under my wheels, some of the sport's magic has faded in the past two years. Dozens of riders have been forced out because of doping accusations -- some well-founded, others not. Doping has been like a cancer eating away at the legends of the last two decades, tainting the past and present of the sport as retired riders admit to violations committed years ago.

For fans, it's especially painful. Cycling is one of the few sports where fans can literally experience the same thing as the professionals. Not on the same day, or at the same speed, but it's entirely possible to drop 4000 pounds on a bike identical to the one David Millar rides, fly to France (or London) and struggle over the same routes as the professionals. Part of the beauty of this sort of insanity is the admiration for the professionals it inspires -- if it makes my quads hurt this bad, how can they possibly do it twice as fast, for three weeks straight?

The idea that there are intravenous shortcuts is a betrayal not just of the nebulous "fair play" ideal but of the fans. If you're passionate enough about the sport to travel most of the way around the world to ride a bike uphill in cold, pouring rain, you know how hard it is to deal with the issue. Which is why I am praying for an end to all this. Some sort of clean break, a mass realization that it's just not worth it.

Praying, but not hoping. Doping has been around almost as long as the sport, but the deception has become overwhelming. Professional cycling's broken. For fans like me, it's important that it gets fixed-- or we may be the last generation of fans the sport has.