There’s been a lot of talk in the press recently about doping in sports, and in baseball in particular. I watched Andy Pettite give his press conference of endless mea culpas over the weekend, and saw a guy who seemed genuine and remorseful. As everyone has certainly said already, he did it once he got caught, and the integrity of that is not the same as what it takes to confess of your own accord etc. etc.
To this I have to ask when anyone has ever simply stepped forward to admit doping, or almost any other transgression.
So let’s just put that aside.
I have to confess that I have never been much of a fan of Roger Clemens, and while I understand that he is trying desperately to salvage his chances of making the hall of fame, and keeping his legacy intact, there is a sense of implausibility that is hard to shake. I’ve tried to believe before, and I suppose I am just low on capacity for that at the moment, I suppose.
The cynical take here is that the sports that actually succeed at catching doping violators are branded as nests of dopers and treated with suspicion. As Hank Steinbrenner put it the other day, the NFL quite probably has as big a problem as anyone with steroids and HGH, but they make it look like an effort is being made, and catch a few small fry without anyone seeming to care too much.
I come back to the Tour de France in 2006, and remember how it felt to watch Floyd Landis’ travails. I wanted to believe him then, and through it all hope that he will be proven not guilty, though it is hard to imagine it now.
I was pulling for Landis, for his sense of weirdness and his tremendous backstory… a former Mennonite kid who had ridden at night to avoid parental judgment, a mountain biker turned road racer with an utterly demolished, rotting hip and the kind of panache that the French talk about, and that makes the Tour at its best a spectacular thing to witness.
I remember watching the events of Stage 15, where Landis rode away from the yellow jersey to retake the lead and feeling a level of excitement at a dog fight of a Tour for the first time in a few years at least.
I remember the disaster of Stage 16, watching Landis collapse, crack completely on the final climb into La Toussuire, a man with nothing left in him. Left for dead, crawling into the finish and leaving ten minutes on the mountain. By all accounts, he was left with an insurmountable barrier between himself and victory in Paris. He traded his yellow jersey for a six pack of beer, a gesture that makes you simply shake your head and laugh at the sense of humor and absurdity in a man who would do that after a day of immolation.
Eddy Merckx believed, and bet on Floyd winning. Having a guy like Merckx believe in you is a powerful sign, and the next stage delivered the Panache in spades. At the start of the day, he showed his cards and told the peloton that he was going to attack… “We’re going on the first climb, so get a Coke and get ready if you want to come with us.”
I was at work, watching the coverage online, dispatches coming through every few minutes, and couldn’t believe my eyes… Landis made good his word and delivered a truly remarkable thing… he rode the field off his wheel, and tore an inconceivable amount of time that no one could recover before the day ended. 120 kilometers nearly alone, and thoroughly alone at the very end, coming up the final climb on the Col de Joux Plane and into Morzine. I was near tears, and was again when I reviewed the coverage from Versus that evening. No one could stay with him, and no one could catch him.
As Phil Liggett said about another man a year later, Landis was indeed riding like a man with four legs…
Then the testosterone test was made known, and the rest is history, to say the least.
I was tremendously let down, and had a hard time watching the Tour the next year, where I happened to make the wonderful decision to pull for Rasmussen. Good job, fan. At this point you’ve both learned that you shouldn’t take me to the track and take my suggestions, okay?
Funny thing, though: I had the recording of Stage 17 on my DVR, and months later when Landis had basically been stripped of the win I watched it again.
And it was still incredible the second time around. Still awe inspiring, and still basically superhuman. Even knowing what I knew, even with the later realities in my memory, I was still blown away.
Not because he won the stage.
Not because any number of other riders could have been doping (which I do believe.)
Just because of the pure act when it counted, and because we never can really know how much difference a minimal application of testosterone even might have.
Maybe Floyd could have done it without the drug. Maybe it would have just been one of the greatest days any cyclist had had in some of our lifetimes. Maybe we would be thinking back on it with wonder and joy ten years, twenty years later.
Pettite said that he didn’t feel like the HGH helped him. Maybe it didn’t help Clemens either, and maybe he would have won all the games, and all the Cy Young Awards without any unnatural means.
The one sad thing is that now we just won’t ever know, and we won’t ever have that day in France as part of our lore for the sport, and that’s the biggest disappointment and shame of all.
That’s where I feel robbed, and you should too.
That, and at the end of the long discussion there's the inescapable fact that after these last two years I don’t think I can bear to watch the Tour this time around, and it’s something I will miss.