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A tough opening week to this year's Tour makes for great spectacle - but at what cost to the riders?

Two serious, high-speed crashes on Stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France reminded us of the pain associated with the world’s greatest cycling race, writes Professor Simon Chadwick.

Thursday’s slower crash on Stage 6 robbed us of another leader. Germany’s Tony Martin limped home in his yellow jersey with a broken collar bone much as his Swiss rival Fabian Cancellara had a few days earlier with cracked vertebrae.

In the immediate aftermath of the pile-ups, there was a reminder too of the special culture that often exists in professional cycling. Stage 3 was neutralised, with riders asked to maintain a sedate pace to let injured cyclists catch up; Tony Martin’s team mates lined up alongside him to push and cajole his pain-wracked body over the line.

Surely this is elite professional sport at its very best? And it is a decency combined with exceptional performance too.

This Tour has already had a record-breaking ride on the first stage as Rohan Dennis delivered a staggering time trial performance. The Australian rider covered a 14km (8.6-mile) route round Utrecht in 14 minutes, 56 seconds – at an average of around 55kph (34mph).

But with the highs in cycling come the lows. The Astana team has struggled to keep its place in the elite of cycling this year after a series of scandals, and in pre-race tests their rider, Dutchman Lars Boom, showed low levels of cortisol.

This can either be a sign of fatigue, or can sometimes signal evidence of cortisone use. However, cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) stressed that no rules had been broken and the rider said his use of an asthma inhaler prompted the test result.

Truth and reconciliation

Earlier this year, a UCI report and recommendations by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) into the causes of the pattern of doping that developed within cycling and allegations of ineffective investigation by official bodies was published. The report’s findings predictably emphasised the need to control doping, which remains the scourge of professional cycling.

But despite the sport’s reformist mood, for cynics and jaded fans alike, doubt is a tenaciously negative mindset to overcome. Indeed, one of the most worrying features of the UCI report was the acknowledgement by riders and by the report’s authors that doping continues to be a significant problem – one professional rider even estimated that 90% of the peloton still dopes.

With this in mind, during this year’s Tour it will be interesting to monitor whether any more speed records are broken. And with several riders now nursing injuries from the serious accidents of Stage 3, it will also be interesting to observe recovery rates as well as overall performances.

Going the distance

An issue which the CIRC report notably failed to address is arguably one of the most important underpinning drug use – competition design, notably the length of the race and of some individual stages. This year’s Tour de France is nearly 3,400 kilometres long. For riders, this is a major test of endurance.

The challenge is further heightened by the average speed of the Tour, which for this year’s event is likely to be around 40kph (25mph).

And it is worth considering too that Tuesday’s Stage 4 (the longest of this year’s Tour) was a near 230-kilometre scramble from Seraing in Belgium to Cambrai in France. Significantly, 13 kilometres of the stage were cobblestones, one of the most difficult surfaces in professional cycling to ride on.

So for some of the riders in this year’s race, having been thrown face down into a Belgian ditch in excruciating pain on one day, they will then have had to wake up the next day and ride the race’s longest stage across its worst surface.

It is therefore unsurprising that these slender framed young men often feel the need to dope, especially as demands on them are not only to ride – they are expected to win as well. This raises some highly pertinent questions of the CIRC report, cycling in general and, indeed, the people like us who feast on professional cycling.

Business model

For the general public, this three-week soap opera is seductive and compelling. But the drama comes at a cost, most notably in the form of the riders’ fractured bodies and souls. For those of us who care about other humans, this should be sufficient to change our view of how the Tour is run. It should certainly impact upon our view of doping and its causes.

For the event organisers, there are issues too, most notably pertaining to the Tour’s business model. The main sources of revenue for the race come from sponsorship and hosting fees paid by towns and cities for stages.

In order to deliver a return on investment, maximising the race’s duration seems an imperative. The problem is, the longer and harder a day a rider has on his bicycle, the more likely he will be to aid his recovery through drug use.

This is where the convergence of doping, competition design and governance becomes significant, not least in the way it shows that we are all complicit in cycling’s ongoing travails.

Stage 3 of this year’s race made for great drama, but at what cost to the riders? Stage 4’s cobblestones were designed to be the ultimate test in human endurance, but were actually tantamount to torture. And yet in spite of the carnage, sponsors and stage hosts will still seek to make the most of race’s intensity.

Cycling can no longer find the solution at the tip of a needle. But in order to ensure that doping doesn’t remain a viable option, then these more fundamental, structural issues around the sport must be addressed in a way that the CIRC report failed to.

So, as you settle down to watch the next stage of this year’s Tour de France in anticipation of ensuing speed and danger, it’s time to consider the way our greedy consumption of the Tour’s mystique is helping to feed its ongoing problems.

Professor Simon Chadwick is Chair in Sport Business Strategy and Marketing at Coventry University Business School. This article originally appeared on theconversation.com and is republished with kind permission under a Creative Commons licence.

This content has been added by a member of the road.cc staff

17 comments

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mikroos [257 posts] 4 years ago
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TL;DR, but the title presents a completely wrong diagnosis.

It's not the difficulty of the race which creates a desire to dope. It's the rivalry itself and the desire to beat opponents, as well as the possibility of getting away with cheating.

No matter how easy a race would be, it would always be all about arriving at the finish line first. The level of difficulty is the same for all riders so no matter how difficult/easy the race, riders will always benefit from doping.

I'd even say that the tougher the race, the more other skills come into play, such as one's mental mindset and bike handling skills, which are not (or are just minimally) enhanced through doping.

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Chuffy [202 posts] 4 years ago
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Good grief. Started reading but gave up. I take it Prof Chadwick knows:-
a) Nothing about the history of the Tour
b) Nothing about athletics.

As more sensible people have said before, repeatedly, athletes dope for a 10sec sprint. They dope to win, not to mitigate the difficulty. I wish people would stop opining on stuff they know absolutely sweet FA about.  102

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redmeat [150 posts] 4 years ago
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Yeah. It's not like the majority of those drugs are used to aid recovery. Don't be so stupid.

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Must be Mad [652 posts] 4 years ago
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hmmm..

Quote:

A brutal Tour de France will always create a temptation to dope, says Professor Simon Chadwick

Professor Simon Chadwick may be a professor; but is he a professor of any relivent discipline?

Quote:

Chair in Sport Business Strategy and Marketing at Coventry University Business School.

doesn't sound as though he is an expert in sports doping or psychology or anything which may give some professional insight into why some athletes turn to cheating?

I find the idea the cyclists picking them selves up from a crash, will turn to PEDs to get them through the following stage to be a little odd. The likes of Michael Matthews have been struggling to hold onto the back of the pelloton - why cheat just for that?

Of course, I'm not saying the PEDs are not out there, but the reasons for cheating are probbly different.

And I also do have to wonder at what pain killers some cyclists are using......

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crikey [1251 posts] 4 years ago
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Professor Absolutely No Idea....

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Joelsim [1975 posts] 4 years ago
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Blimey this article is a little naive. The testing is at best, rubbish. One race isn't going to get someone to dope. Getting away with it consistently and knowing others are and gaining an advantage is what is going to make riders dope.

Unfortunately even though cycling leads the sports world in doping it's pretty apparent that it falls well short.

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AJ101 [281 posts] 4 years ago
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Start line random testing
Publication of all TUEs

and ban tramadol to keep the number of crashes down.

Not sure why the professor felt the need to write his empty article really.

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Colin Peyresourde [1844 posts] 4 years ago
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If the difficulty of the race had anything to do with it I missed the point when I and thousands of others did a big amateur event in the Alpes which scaled 5,000m of climbing and 176km….I would bet that beyond the pros/VIPs aiming for a pro contract, most competitors were riding clean. The need to win is clearly the main driver.

When I was 9 my six year old cousin was caught pull money from the Monopoly bank…..it wasn't that it was a tough game, but merely that she sort an unfair advantage to win. She almost got away with it too.

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Quince [380 posts] 4 years ago
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The piece seems to assert (very reasonably) that there are two driving factors that ecourage doping; those imposed by rivals (i.e. Competetivity), and those imposed by the demands of the race itself (i.e. Overall difficulty).

It also seems to (equally reasonably) assume that to remove competitively from a sporting event would be to undermine its entire purpose, and so does not argue that doping should be discouraged in this manner.

This leaves us with the argument that the TdF is too difficult by nature, which is combined with an assertion that the event is being made progressively savage - at cost to the riders - simply to please spectacle-hungry fans and sponsors.

It is this assertion, thought not unreasonable sounding, that I would like to see backed up with evidence.

Yes, this year's Tour is 3,400km. Yes, this is long. But the 1926 Tour was 5745km, over 17 stages rather than 21 (which averages 338km per day - over 100km longer than this year's longest stage). This was done on bikes that weighed over twice as much, and without dérailleurs. I even think it was illegal to slipstream, leaving the rider constantly at the mercy of the greatest force a cyclist needs to overcome.

Of course, I'm cherry picking a single counter-example, but I'm positive that if anyone were to compile a graph of 'Tour de France Difficulty' by various metrics, none would support the assertion that 'The Tour de France is becoming harder than ever, and to such a degree that it asks an unreasonable amount of its athletes'.

The main issue at this year's Tour appears to be the crashes, and no amount of doping can fix a broken collarbone or a smashed vertebrae. EVEN addressing this issue individually (thus, no longer discussing doping), all the crashes have happened on straights, with Martin's crash even occurring relatively slowly up a hill. Such scenarios are difficult to iron out of a bike race.

Yes, we need to be attentive to the needs of athletes in what is a gruelling sport, but please back up your assertions with something more substantial than 'general concern'. The information is all there.

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mrmo [2097 posts] 4 years ago
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Quince, what you are overlooking is that doping and cycling have always co existed, from the very earliest days.

So to say the temptation is new is wrong,

I am not condoning it, but human nature is what it is, a parallel, watch how motorists behave on the motorway when they can see a police car and when they can't. If people think they can get away with something then some people will go for it.

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fukawitribe [2895 posts] 4 years ago
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mrmo wrote:

Quince, what you are overlooking is that doping and cycling have always co existed, from the very earliest days.

So to say the temptation is new is wrong

Don't want to speak on someones behalf, but i'm not sure he was saying that - that's not how I read it anyway.

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mrmo [2097 posts] 4 years ago
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fukawitribe wrote:
mrmo wrote:

Quince, what you are overlooking is that doping and cycling have always co existed, from the very earliest days.

So to say the temptation is new is wrong

Don't want to speak on someones behalf, but i'm not sure he was saying that - that's not how I read it anyway.

Maybe, i read it as it was hard, it is hard but not as hard, and they didn't dope then but now they do. When the fact is some doped then, and some dope now.

As an aside, the point about crashes, is tramadol still legal....

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Quince [380 posts] 4 years ago
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mrmo wrote:

Quince, what you are overlooking is that doping and cycling have always co existed, from the very earliest days.

So to say the temptation is new is wrong,

I am not condoning it, but human nature is what it is, a parallel, watch how motorists behave on the motorway when they can see a police car and when they can't. If people think they can get away with something then some people will go for it.

I'm not saying temptation to dope is new. I'm saying the assertion that "pressure from fans and sponsors for a spectacle is creating new levels of difficulty that is encouraging riders to dope simply to finish the event" - is wrong.

When Tyson Gay was found to have doped in athletics, no-one argued that '100m is simply too far to run'. He didn't dope to complete the event, he doped to win it.

Blaming doping on the Tour's difficulty - and more erroneously - on the Tour's new-found level of fan-pleasing torture, is a naive assertion. People dope to beat other people, whether that's over 100m or 3,400km.

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ch [188 posts] 4 years ago
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Useless article. It would have been useful to point out that TUEs are bad for riders - (1) it leads riders to forget about pacing themselves, because they assume they can overcome any illness with drugs of some sort (2) it suppresses symptoms enough to ride, while the root physical problems remain unsolved, and perhaps worsened (3) it can give riders unfair physical advantage.

The honorable professor throws a good gob of mud on Lars Boom - even if the mud slides off the wall it leaves a mark. A carefully chosen outside-of-group target.

Looking closer to home at something complete confirmable:
I longer have an exalted opinion of Froome's character after he took, legally with a TUE, steroids to win one of the classic races. And since he whined on twitter about not being able to have a private motor home on the tour. Just another short sighted champion trapped by his own success - hardly the anti-Lance we were waiting for.

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daddyELVIS [653 posts] 4 years ago
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A couple of years ago, Gilbert said that if UCI were serious about anti-doping, they would have to reduce the difficulty of some races / stages, and reduce the number of racing-days of a rider in a season. Not sure if I totally agree with this - probably the most doped sporting event is the 100m sprint. So I agree with others - it is the competition (and money) that pushes riders to dope. And I'm sure PG wasn't clean in his amazing 2011 season (but he's still one of my fav riders!)

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mattsccm [428 posts] 4 years ago
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Who was the big name rider who suggested that a tougher event would be the thing to stop doping. The argument was that in a hard event only a few riders would stand any chance and most wouldn't have any need to dope as it wouldn't make a difference. The point is as least as valid as the one in the article and it was spoken by someone who had experience of the event. It's impossible to go back to the early days of the Tour as roads are surfaced, bikes are so much more advanced as is training, technology and medicine yet in those days the stages were longer and harder. Riders coped then so why not now?
Rider health is up to them. If someone wants to grind their body into the ground that's their concern not some academics.
Surely if the anti doping system works then it wouldn't matter if riders tried to dope for hard races. They would be caught.

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DaveE128 [1010 posts] 4 years ago
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Yeah, and while you're at it, why not reduce the marathon to 100m. That would be sure to eliminate any doping in athletics, right?  35

Don't buy this at all.

Doping is about winning not surviving.