Cycling's chemical creations no match for all-too-human heroism
One of several fraudulent justifications for the rise of what may now be called cycling's Armstrong culture is that we were asking for it.
''If people don't mind the Tour de France and 25km/h, the riders don't have to prepare,'' former International Cycling Union president Hein Verbruggen once said to World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound. ''But if they want it at 42km/h, then, I'm sorry, the riders can't do it without preparation.''
On Sunday night and Monday morning, I and several bug-eyed thousand watched as Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka played each other to a 25km/h standstill on Rod Laver Arena in the best match of this year's Australian Open. They depended on skill, fitness, wit, will, courage and the certainty that one or the other eventually would blink - but until then, no one else dared.
They had help, in the form of courtside massages and patch-ups, but they did not have, to use Verbruggen's lame euphemism, ''preparations''. Tennis fiercely debates whether even this much help is appropriate, since some abuse it.
Exhaustion, while a fascinating dynamic in great sports contests, does pose a health risk. One of the defining images of this year's tournament is of Slovenian Blaz Kavcic with a drip in his arm after his 40-degree five-setter against Australia's James Duckworth.
But performance-enhancing drugs, even when strictly monitored, and quite apart from the moral dimension, pose a greater risk. They can poison. Riders could die. Riders have died.
Yet in Verbruggen's warped world view, it would have been fair enough for Djokovic and Wawrinka to dose themselves to the eyeballs and play all night long, the way Armstrong did, all day long for all those years, the way Floyd Landis did in that Disneyland breakaway in 2006, after which the gig should have been up for cycling forever. In this bereft landscape, once the tennis players had cheated, they would have to continue to cheat because the fans would expect no less.
It is a pitiful argument. Firstly, average Tour de France speeds have fallen since the Armstrong era, yet the race is more popular than ever; people are starting to believe in it again. Secondly, whether the peleton is travelling at 42km/h or 25km/h scarcely matters in the towns and villages it flits through and, in fact, 25km/h might be preferable in terms of a spectacle. Thirdly, in the mostly foreshortened television image, there is not much discernible difference between 42 and 25 anyway.
What is more compelling: a bunch of chemically created supermen, indefatigably ticking off the milestones like an Eveready ad, or a couple of mortals pushing each other to natural limits of human resourcefulness in all its forms and then a little beyond? When Djokovic and Wawrinka at last were done, Wawrinka braced himself against the net, drained, and Djokovic did not have the strength quite to rip his shirt in two, though he tried. They had given their all and we have to believe that it was their own all and no more.
Perversely, the most reassuring validation Australia has about Cadel Evans is not his Tour de France victory in 2011 but the way he sweated and strained and fell just short in the preceding years and the way he was cut down by nagging injury last year. The sum of these parts suggest that Evans has only ever competed on his own merits, remarkable in themselves but humanly frail, making the moment when he conquered them all the more worthy.
Armstrong never got injured, never slowed, never faded and never lost. Verbruggen, incidentally, denied ever speaking to Pound about a problem in cycling. Denied, that is, according to the Armstrong dictionary.