At a ceremony here Wednesday full of high-octane hoopla to unveil next year’s route, the Tour de France turned its back on the man who once dominated the event longer than any other, and looked resolutely to the future.
Lance Armstrong’s name was on nobody’s lips. His image flashed onto the screen for only one split second, seemingly by accident. He has been erased not only from the record books, but from the Tour’s public memory.
The Tour de France is desperate to shake off scandal, three days after the International Cycling Union (UCI), cycling’s ruling body, stripped Mr. Armstrong of all his titles since August 1998, including his record seven Tour victories, and banned him for life from competitive cycling, for his use of performance enhancing drugs.
“The Tour will be stronger than doping and trickery,” declared Jean-Etienne Amaury, president of the company that owns the Tour, to applause from the thousands of spectators gathered in Paris’ largest theater, along with the French minister of sport, to learn the details of the 2013 Tour, the 100th edition of the event.
In its wake, the Tour will leave the record books blank for the period 1999 to 2005, Armstrong’s winning streak. Only one of the riders who finished on the podium during those years is not tainted with proof or suspicion of drug use, according to the US Anti-Drug Agency, making it impossible to find worthy replacement winners without going far down the standings.
Despite this cloud, the sport’s flagship event will bounce back, says Marc Madiot, a former Tour rider and now manager of the Francaises des Jeux team. “The Tour de France has a capacity to regenerate itself that we might not suspect,” he says. “It is deeply anchored in the French populace.”
The ordinary French people who turn out to watch the Tour each year – and there are 12 million spectators each July – see the race as a metaphor for life, Mr. Madiot suggests, which makes them more tolerant of doping. “Life itself is never simple,” he says. “There are ups and downs and disappointments, and the Tour is like that too.”
'The Tour still has its shine'
The event still appears to have retained its international appeal; TV stations in 190 countries will be broadcasting next year’s Tour, Mr. Prudhomme said Wednesday.
“The Tour still has its shine,” says Cam Winstanley, editor of “ProCycling” magazine in Britain. “It is still the great prize. People may be blaming the riders, but they are not blaming the race.”
The malaise afflicting the Tour in the wake of the Armstrong scandal, Mr. Winstanley points out, is much wider than that one race, which is emblematic of cycling. The whole sport is affected.
“There is no doubt that this … is the biggest crisis cycling has ever faced,” UCI President Pat McQuaid said Monday, accepting the USADA report that Armstrong had been at the center of “a massive team doping scheme, more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history.”
Mr. McQuaid recalled past drug scandals, however, and pointed out that “this is not the first time that cycling has reached a crossroads or that it has had to begin anew.” He insisted that “cycling has a future.”
What role the UCI will play in that future, however, is still uncertain. The international body is responsible for both promoting the sport and for policing it – improving its image and catching its cheats.
“That’s a toxic combination under one roof,” argues Ryan Newill, a columnist for “Velo” magazine in the US. “The fox is guarding the henhouse.”
Were Armstrong and cycling officials in cahoots?
The USADA report, along with French drug testers, has even raised suspicions that UCI officials were in league with Armstrong, giving him advance warning of tests so that he could manipulate the results.
“All drug tests must be done only by organizations completely independent of the cycling federations,” insists Cyrille Guimart, a sprinter who won seven Tour de France stages in his career.
That is a commonly held view amongst reformers, but UCI leaders do not appear to share it. Asked Monday whether the organization should split up its regulatory and promotional roles, McQuaid replied, “I don’t see why we should.”
“I see very little way forward with the folks and structures in place at the moment,” worries Mr. Newill.
That might mean that Amaury Sports Organization, the company that owns and organizes the Tour de France, will have to take its own measures, suggests Madiot, whose team regularly contests the Tour. Until now, as part of the UCI-run “Pro Tour” series of events, the Tour de France has accepted all the riders and teams that the UCI has presented it with, regardless of their doping history or reputation.
“The Tour de France is strong enough to say no if it wants to,” says Madiot. “It should refuse to accept teams with a bad reputation.”
The future of cycling
“There can be changes in cycling if the Tour de France takes the right decisions,” agrees Mr. Guimart. “If they don’t, they will be missing an opportunity, and if they do that they will bear responsibility for the degradation that will follow.”
Already, the signs of that possible future can be discerned.
Michel and Sylvie Rochefort had brought their young charges from the Bois d’Arcy junior cycling club, outside Paris, to Wednesday’s ceremony because “the Tour de France makes the kids dream,” says Mr. Rochefort.
But their small amateur club is not thriving. “This year we had no new members,” explains Ms. Rochefort. “Parents don’t want their children to get involved with cycling because of the doping image.”
“The doping stain on cycling may not hurt the Tour de France,” adds her husband. “But it is penalizing amateur cycling a lot.”