Utrecht Doped Up for Tour de France

It’s the beginning of July! It’s time for the Tour de France! But already there is trouble with the main sponsor of one of the competing teams.

Right, check out that guy’s jersey: the team in question is called Giant-Alpecin after its two main sponsors, Giant bicycles (a Taiwan company) and the German shampoo manufacturer Alpecin. The trouble arises with Alpecin’s current advertising slogan, touting its concoctions as “doping for your hair.”

Oops. “Doping”: that’s an awkward word at the Tour de France. Alpecin executives quickly retreated, promising to suspend the slogan for the three weeks of the Tour. CEO Eduard R. Dörrenberg even promised on the company website “a team without any doping, without the slightest doubt. We are well aware of our responsibility and can clearly distinguish between promotion of the effects of a product and sportive trickery.” You can read it all here (if you read German: “No doping-advertising during the Tour”):

That’s very noble of Herr Dörrenberg, but it’s also naive. He has no ability to make such a promise. What is he going to do, have his Alpecin employees patrol the highways and by-ways around every Tour-stage looking into buildings, trailers, barns, etc. to see if anyone is transfusing blood?

Let’s recall how bicycling’s biggest competition, this Tour de France, only a few years ago saw it’s greatest hero, he who had won the thing seven years in a row, stripped of all those titles for doping. It took a while to catch up to Lance Armstrong, for the key facilitators around him to finally break down and start providing testimony; his last such victory was in 2005 while he was not stripped of those titles until 2012. But that did not matter so much, as in the meantime the Tour was repeatedly hit with other winners who also turned out in the end not to be winners since they, too, were (eventually) caught doping. I ask you, what shred of credibility does this “competition” have left?

Of course, regular readers of this weblog will recall that I have never been willing to treat the Tour de France as anything more than a farce, the butt for jokes. It’s only logical, given how human beings work: the great renown and fortune that can be won through Tour success, together with advances in medicine and pharmacology which are inevitably trailed by some years by any corresponding advances in detection technology, means it inevitably will be crooked as a dog’s hind leg (a dynamic shared, by the way, by many Olympic Games events).

Yet what do we have here? . . . This year the so-called Grand Départ, the tour’s kick-off, is scheduled to take place this upcoming weekend just down the road in Utrecht. Nearly a million visitors to the city are expected (tying up the city that just happens to be right at the center of both the Netherlands’ highway and railway networks, by the way); and a whole array of relevant and not-so-relevant festival activities has been scheduled around the event.

What’s next? Perhaps someone could schedule a big Scientology festival? Or maybe a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) celebration? At first glance it seems incredible how so much public attention, so many public funds, could be devoted to such a farcical spectacle. But you quickly realize that any such excuse for a party will do; no grounding in sporting reality is required, especially when attracting the sort of extra revenue to a city that the expected 800,000 visitors will bring to Utrecht this weekend. You only need look to Christmas to see the pattern: stripped of original significance, now just an excuse for a party, for spending money.

Diabolical Legitimacy-Building

Still, little can match the travesty the Tour de France has become over the last, oh, fifteen years. But the organizers are working on that; this sort of outside-of-France franchising is part of their clever strategy. As explained above, the chance to stage the Grand Départ certainly will not be refused, if only for cynical commercial reasons; yet the very act of putting on such a city-wide event, and all the resulting hoopla, lends the whole affair legitimacy, especially in a country so devoted to the bicycle as is the Netherlands. Before long more and more people have forgotten the twisted dynamics behind the competition and begin to believe the winner really is the best rider, on the best team – until the next doping scandal.

Yes, recent history has made it clear to anyone willing to see, and willing to remember, that doping goes together with the Tour de France like a sailor and the sea, like apple pie and America. So I say to those Bielefeld shampoo manufacturers: Don’t stop now, go on right ahead with your “doping for the hair” commercial message, with the Tour de France you’ve come exactly to the right place!

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