The Tour de France is, without question, one of the most grueling sporting events in the world. It requires strength, stamina and perseverance, nearly beyond measure.
But right now, it’s in dire need of a timeout. In fact, if the 21-stage bike race over more than 2,000 miles were an NCAA program, it would probably be given the death penalty.
Which is exactly what it needs.
And that’s too bad.
It’s too bad because cycling is a wonderful sport and the Tour epitomizes it at its peak. But in a sports era racked by the tsunami known as performance-enhancing drugs, the sport has also come to represent “cheating” at its most sophisticated.
This was supposed to be the sport’s watershed season, the year when doping officials said “Fini!” and put a system in place that would rid the sport of dopers and other scalawags.
But then Thursday, one of the sport’s biggest stars — Italy’s Riccardo Ricco — became the sports latest doper. He was expelled from the race for failing blood tests. A local prosecutor said he may face charges of “use of poisonous substances.” Ricco had won the sixth and ninth stages and was ninth overall.
This is now the third consecutive Tour marred by drugs, seemingly the gazillionth overall.
To their credit, cycling officials have been headstrong in their efforts to clean up the sport and had made progress. “May the cheaters get caught. May they go away,” Tour president Christian Prudomme has been widely quoted as saying. But even one of his colleagues, Patrice Clerc, who heads Tour organizer ASO, acknowledges that the mess will require more than a few sponges. “You can’t believe that a wave of a magic wand can change the world of cycling.”
Maybe a break will.
Put the race on hiatus for, say, two or three years, during which time cyclists are tested, tested and re-tested, and the cheaters are weeded out until all that’s left are, well, cyclists.
Last week, three-time champion Greg LeMond told The New York Times he was more optimistic about the sport than he’d been in decades. “I believe there are ways that you can eliminate 98 percent of the advantages of drugs, and I think the Tour de France realizes it,” he said.
But they may not truly realize how long it will take, or how drastic the measure might need to be.
Perhaps they do now.