The Tour: Not Just For Doping Anymore

This year is, of course, 2016 – an even year. I like even years or, rather, I regard odd years with dread. For in those odd-numbered years, the European football seasons routinely terminate towards the end of May as usual, and then the following weeks pass within what is for me a hazy mental cloud of wondering how to pass my time, indeed of wondering why I am even here. Even years, on the other hand, always manage to fill this particular period with meaning, with purpose, via the great football tournaments, either the World Cup or – this year – the European Championship.

You might object, “Well, you only need to make it to the beginning of July – then you have the Tour de France!” Yes, but that always strikes quite a different sort of note. The football tournaments are drama; the Tour de France, in contrast, is comedy.

Or perhaps I should specify further: The Tour de France is of course farce. No need to get very “in” to it, to recognize or memorize the rider who might happen to “win” it: sooner or later his accomplishment will be rescinded due to revealed doping of one sort or another. This ultimately makes the phenomenon only interesting in that faint way that WWE (that is, professional “wrestling”) matches are interesting: you can only marvel at how people can take so seriously something that is obviously so fake.

Now we have reports that a completely different problem has arisen to erode the Tour’s credibility further: that of hidden motors installed to provide competing riders with a bit of mechanical assistance.

This first came up last January at the world cyclo-cross championships in Belgium, where the Belgian favorite in the women’s under-23 event, one Femke van den Driessche, was indeed disqualified for having used a small motor installed on her rear wheel.

The officials in charge of this year’s Tour de France are ready to prevent any sort of monkey-business like that from occurring. This was announced today by no less than France’s Secretary of State for Sports, Thierry Braillard, who stated that there would be an extensive system of thermal cameras to catch such hidden motors. In fact, for some reason it is the French Atomic Energy Agency (CEA, in French) that will be installing them – yep, that’s what the article says – cameras so sensitive that even motors not in use will be detectable. Apparently, experiments run this past weekend gave these officials confidence that they will work as promised.

“It is very important that we can detect a cheat,” as the president of the Union of International Cyclists, Brian Cookson, pointed out at today’s very same press-conference. Well, yes . . . I guess, although the Tour does not have a very good record in doing so, or at least in detecting cheats in time to actually deny them the glory of appearing on the victor’s podium at the Tour’s end. Then again, its officials are fighting against the inexorable advance of science, after all – medical science, and now, mechanical and miniaturization science.

This is further a “special” year in that, shortly after the Tour is wound up, the Summer Olympics start in Brazil. And again we will have a classic WWE-type farce; indeed, from the turmoil that has already gone on about doping in athletics – including, of course, the exclusion of the entire Russian track and field team – the Tour will surely only be the appetizer to a veritable feast of cat-and-mouse intrigue in Rio between cheating athletes and those who are responsible for catching them.

It will be amusing, no doubt – but, as usual, nothing to take very seriously.

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