Cycling's Premier Race: Tour de Drugs?

With the world's premier bike race, the Tour de France, rolling along on the center sporting stage these days, we are getting our annual, depressing reminder that cycling is a drug-infested excuse for a sport.

Sport? Please. It's a world-class demonstration that man can always improve his pharmaceutical chemistry.

In fairness, cycling is far from alone in its malfeasance. The likes of bodybuilders, weight lifters, distance runners and, for decades, East German swimmers, have taught us how much illicit chemicals can do for bodies that legitimate training can't. It was largely thanks to football that we learned about steroids and for many it was the NBA that put us on a very quick learning curve regarding cocaine.

Cycling, however, may be the most blatant offender. It fully admits to it. No disclaimers. No caveats. No squirming. An Associated Press story quotes a Swiss doctor saying he thinks almost all the riders use drugs. A cycling team, Festina, likely was the best in the world. But the other day, just prior to the start of the 23-day, 2,400-mile tour, steroids and a difficult-to-detect artificial hormone were found by customs officials in a car belonging to the team trainer. Festina director Bruno Roussel subsequently admitted to what he called a "concerted"' practice of loading the team up with performance-enhancing drugs. The defense: It was done to help the riders with their illegal drug diets rather than letting them do it unsupervised, which could lead to fatal result.

Yes, that was the defense.

Festina - named for a Spanish watch company, which must be pleased with the association - was booted from the event. Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the decision was "difficult." Why was such an expulsion difficult?

The French sports minister blamed the problem on the overcrowded racing calendar and a former rider told Le Figaro that "it's not the cyclists who are doing wrong. They are looking for their dream."

Yes, that was what they said.

We should be celebrating cycling as one of our classic sports because it requires all that we marvel at in athletics, including equal amounts of physical and mental prowess. Alas, cycling hasn't just wobbled but crashed. Its problems date at least to 1967 when a British competitor died and amphetamines were found in a subsequent test.

But the overriding point is: Why, as humans, in sport and in real life, do we have to be watched and/or checked on to make sure we do right? There are those among us easily able to make the illogical jump that if we are speeding in our cars but don't get caught, good for us. If the IRS doesn't catch us, good for us. If we overtime park and don't get a ticket under the wiper blade, good for us.

Why does every college class in America require proctors when exams are given?

Poor Diogenes, in his quixotic quest to find an honest man, would have been greatly discouraged at the Tour de France.

The overall leader at one point this week was France's Laurent Desbiens. He missed the event two years ago because he was serving a drug suspension. There are reports of more trouble ahead, possibly involving a Dutch team. Sponsors for the American team, among others, say their teams are drug free.

Still, no longer does it seem that honesty is its own reward. One of the few sports with vestiges of honor is golf. In it, there still are candid admissions of shooting a six when everyone in the group thought you shot a five. But beyond this, sigh, we have corked bats in baseball and corner cutting everywhere else.

It besmirches everything. There may be clean competitors, but the better-bodies-by-science people involved in the Tour de France are moral outlaws. This is why millions of people who love all manner of sport avert their gaze when it comes to cycling. Who won the tour last year? See. Spain's Miguel Indurain won it five years in a row through 1995 and most of you didn't know that.

Regardless, on Aug. 2, we will see photos of another wild scene in Paris when the riders - presumably with eyes red and spinning - complete the final 91-mile leg from Melun to the Arc de Triomphe.

But for too many of us, there will be a sinking feeling of sadness that what should be a terrific athletic contest is nothing but professional wrestling on wheels.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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