Hell of a Race

We got up Wednesday morning with the rest of the cycling fans and Tour de France geeks — we noble, perplexed few — to watch what everyone knew would be the climax of the 2007 race: a fantastically difficult climbing stage in the Pyrenees during which Michael Rasmussen, the Dane wearing the yellow jersey of the overall race leader, would try to fend off a last spate of attacks from the handful of riders who still had a chance to beat him. And putting aside my feelings about Rasmussen, a racer with no charisma who was riding under a cloud of suspicion because he had missed several random doping tests, there’s no other way to describe his day: He rode a hell of a stage.

On the slopes of the day’s final climb, he was left alone to contend with his three closest rivals, Alberto Contador (Spanish) and Levi Leipheimer (a Yank), both of the U.S.-based Discovery Channel team, and Cadel Evans, an Australian riding for Belgium’s Predictor-Lotto squad. The battle came down to Rasmussen, who rides for Rabobank of The Netherlands, and the two Discovery riders as Evans just struggled to hang on. Contador and Leipheimer didn’t spare their foe. They repeatedly tried to break him by charging off the front of the tiny group and challenging him to follow. But time after time, Rasmussen slowly caught them and waited out the next attack. Finally, with 1,000 uphill meters to go, he stood up and accelerated himself and easily outdistanced his opponents. He won the stage and increased his lead. He was a lock to be this year’s Tour champion, and he looked like he’s won it the hard way, by facing down his strongest rivals and outperforming them when it counted.

And then something happened — something not entirely unforeseen in a race and sport that is making a habit of throwing out its top performers over actual or suspected illegal doping: Rasmussen’s team fired him and withdrew him from the race over the issue of the missed tests; he not only failed to tell team and testing officials where he’d be in the month before the Tour, he lied about his actual whereabouts.

There’s no exact parallel I can think of in U.S. sports, though pro basketball and pro football are getting close with their aggressive discipline against lawbreakers and on-court/on-field miscreants. But in the Tour, it’s not just individuals players who are taking the fall. To date,, two full teams have pulled out of the race because individual members have reportedly tested positive for doping. In a few hours, Rasmussen’s team might become the third to quit. Imagine the New York Yankees folding their entire season because it was discovered Jason Giambi and friends had been juicing, and you come close to the enormity of what’s happening.

So what now? This year’s race might remain interesting as a freak show, though maybe the remaining 19 teams and 140-some riders might rise above what’s happened and put on a serious performance for the four remaining stages. But whatever happens between now and Sunday, this Tour is a race without a champion, and a race like that is hardly a contest at all.

Lots more to be said: about how much of what’s happening now is driven by hysteria and overreaction, about whether the notion of due process should be thrown entirely out the window, and about whether the international sports drug cops are really up to the job of keeping games and contests clean in an evenhanded, just, disinterested way.

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