It’s no secret that the 2014 Tour de France has been an absolute war of attrition. Top ranked riders have been dropping like flies and abandoning due to injuries. Other riders have lagged and suffered much more than usual, turning in oddly lackluster performances.
British sprinter Mark Cavendish was forced to abandon after a crash in the first stage when he blatantly head-butted Simon Gerrans in the final meters of the stage. That is simply bound to happen due to Cavendish being an absolute tool and having no regard for the safety of riders around him.
Yet it becomes curious when we see look at two situations. Overall favorite Chris Froome had to abandon after a series of crashes. Almost immediately after, the other favorite, Alberto Contador, also abandoned after injury.
These two situations are nothing remarkable when viewed in a vacuum. They make some sense when viewed in the context of the rain-soaked early stages. Yet, take a few more steps back and something interesting develops.
First look at the history Contador has in the Tour. In 2010, he produced a sample that tested positive for a banned substance, prompting a one-year ban after being stripped of that year’s title. If you’re wondering, he tested positive for clenbuterol — which will become important in a moment. Following his ban, Contador has been a footnote in the Tour and was only favored this year because of Bradley Wiggins‘ absence, as well as the absence of climber Nairo Quintana.
Then there’s Froome. While it’s important to stress he has never been convicted of doping, there has been a deluge of speculation that he may have doped in his 2013 breakout victory. Writer Antoine Vayer as well as other publications have raised suspicions and have shown evidence of his 2013 performance being nearly identical to and better than those who have confessed to doping in the past. Even shadier is that he and Team Sky randomly released his bike data to the press without being prompted.
Pro cycling has been dealing with the fallout of disgraced champion and awful human being Lance Armstrong and his own doping scandal. With someone as high profile as Armstrong coming clean about being dirty, it has sent other riders scrambling for cover. UCI and USADA won’t make the same mistake again, and the word is out among riders not to get caught doping, because books will be thrown.
Yet in each Tour, race organizers plan routes based on the recent performance of riders. If riders start doing well on certain routes, organizers will adjust the difficulty to fit the average ability. Put these two things together, and you have riders who have given up on doping riding a course inadvertently designed to be ridden by riders who are doping.
Why do cyclists use PEDs? Is it to amp them up to ride faster? No. The substances they use are usually focused on shortening recovery time, regaining muscle capacity and making the body able to perform at peak levels for longer periods of time. Take that away, and you have riders who are now having to recover and bounce back from normal wear-and-tear without the help of modern chemistry.
Remember Contador and his use of clenbuterol? Guess what clenbuterol does? It’s a bronchodilator that gets more air into a rider’s system, giving them greater capacity to ride longer and faster. The more air a body has, the more work the muscles can do. Contador is without that help — and anything else he was using — and his body could be having issues with recovery.
It’s wrong to look at top riders abandoning and assume it’s ipso facto proof that doping used to happen. That is awfully specious reasoning. However, these are dots that aren’t that hard to connect.
It’s wonderful that less riders are doping, and Andrew Talansky — who has never tested positive — refusing to quit on stage 11 and finishing +32:05 off the leader despite excruciating back pain is emblematic of this. But riders like Contador with a history of doping, and Froome who has been heavily suspected of it, do nothing to disprove this theory. If Superman suddenly can’t run the 40 under four seconds, someone’s going to question if there’s kryptonite in the arena.
Less doping is fantastic, but should it be the cause of the rash of race-ending injuries, it’s the final smear on a dirty period in a great sport.