Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's interior minister, used to be a cycling fan. "I was always interested in the Tour -- the adventure of it fascinated me," Schäuble said in an interview with the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel over the weekend. "But the enjoyment's all gone. It's hard to believe that it's legitimate anymore. I no longer take pleasure in the Tour de France."
As the third stage of the Tour began today under heavy rain clouds in Waregem, Belgium, more and more fans were joining Schäuble in turning away. In the last year, watching cycling has been like watching a slow-motion crash. The wheels started to slip more than a year ago, when Spanish police raided a doping ring and announced links to dozens of riders. Then 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis tested positive for testosterone -- though the final verdict in that case still hasn't been announced.
And in the months before this year's Tour began, career after career hit the ground as a series of riders -- many of them having raced for the Telekom team in the 1990s -- came forward to admit their doping pasts. Erik Zabel. Rolf Aldag. Udo Boelts. Bert Dietz. Christian Henn. Brian Holm. 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis. And Jörg Jaksche.
Cloud of Doping Suspicion
Landis, Riis and German cycling star Jan Ullrich, who won the 1997 Tour, are all on a long list of riders who will be staying home this year. Ullrich has retired from cycling amid a cloud of doping suspicion.
Through it all, the sport's sponsors and regulating bodies seemed helpless to stop the disaster. More testing just brought on more scandal. Before he retired, Lance Armstrong was fond of claiming that he was the most tested athlete in the world. And even though he never tested positive, he still rode each Tour under a cloud of suspicion. Riders in today's Tour may be smarting from all the needle sticks -- every stage winner is tested, anyone holding one of the Tour's four leader's jerseys has blood drawn, and riders are tested randomly.
Doping, of course, is a problem in almost every sport. The infamous Operación Puerto lists -- which led to Ullrich's downfall -- included more football and tennis players than cyclists. And yet few assume all marathon runners are dopers, or dismiss the entire sport of baseball based on a few artificially enhanced biceps.
Cyclists, though, have been doping for a century -- from "bull's blood" cocktails of cocaine, caffeine and cognac in the early days to repurposed cancer wonder drug EPO in the 1990s. As soon as authorities catch up with new tests and controls, riders seem to find new performance-enhancers or masking agents that help cover up infractions.
And after years of defending the sport, fans are finally feeling betrayed. Almost two million Americans watched Lance Armstrong's last tour, in 2005; viewership dropped by more than half in 2006. German TV networks almost dropped their Tour coverage entirely this year, and it's an open question whether they'll renew their broadcast contracts in 2008. At the many smaller races without the name recognition of the Tour, viewership has dropped by two thirds and many European networks have cancelled coverage entirely.
Sponsors are bailing out almost as fast. Cycling has always been a cheap but effective sponsorship deal compared to more expensive propositions like sailing and football, but more and more companies are reluctant to have their brands tied to a sport so rife with problems. After German star Erik Zabel admitted that some of his sprint wins may have been drug-fueled, dairy company Milram is looking for a way to drop his Telekom team. Wholesome American cable giant Discovery Channel is winding up its sponsorship of Armstrong's old team this fall, after just three years. And after more than a decade in green and white, French bank Crédit Agricole is pulling out this year too.
The moves make business sense: According to German marketing research firm IFM, sponsors are simply getting less for their money. The sport's image and declining audience have pushed the advertising value of a sponsorship down 52 percent.
Interior Minister Schäuble -- a cycling enthusiast who frequently rides his hand cycle (he's been confined to a wheelchair since an assassination attempt in 1990) through the forests on the edge of Berlin -- is likewise taking a more critical view of the sport. The 2007 World Championships are scheduled for the German city of Stuttgart, and the German government is supposed to contribute 150,000.
"For now we're holding on to that money," Schäuble said Saturday. "Stuttgart certainly doesn't want to risk its reputation as a sports city by hosting the last great competition of a sport wallowing in an ethical swamp."
The comments brought a quick meeting with International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid Monday evening. McQuaid will require all riders competing in the World Championships to sign a pre-emptive declaration of innocence, the same one riders starting this year's Tour were asked to sign.
'It'll Be Money'
"I swear to my team, my colleagues, the UCI, the cycling world and the public that I have not cheated, have not been involved in the Fuentes case or in any other doping case," the statement reads. "I declare myself ready to give a DNA sample to the Spanish judicial system so that it can be compared to the blood bags taken in the Operación Puerto."
But after a decade of lies, will a single signature be enough? Ultimately, any solution will have to come from the teams -- and sponsors. Several top teams, including CSC and T-Mobile, are paying to set up additional internal anti-doping programs managed by the UCI. Riders have agreed to forfeit any winnings and a year's salary if caught doping.
But is it too late? Three years ago, police raided the home of British rider David Millar and uncovered a small pharmacy's worth of doping products. After a two-year suspension, Millar is racing again -- and well. He starts today's stage in third place overall. He's coldly realistic about the past -- and future.
“There comes a point, and I reckon we're there now, when sponsors are going to pull out and the sport won't be economically viable," he told the Independent on the eve of the Tour. "We’ve reached a kind of endgame. It won’t be ethics that brings this whole thing to a halt. It’ll be money.”
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