Where’s My Pirate?

July 10th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

You can have your knitting club, your choral practice, and your soccer matches. I’ve long been into Le Tour.

July is the Tour de France, almost literally as it is a three-week bike race of well over 2,000 miles. A startling amount of that distance is up and down some of Europe’s steepest mountains.  With justification, many call this the most arduous athletic competition in the world.

Disclaimer: I have never been a competitive cyclist.  I was a wrestler briefly and a swimmer (breast) in high-school and college, including water polo as training. I still bike regularly and have for 20 years. On a road bike, I can smoke a lot of young, indolent men, but I’m no racer.

I get vicarious thrills from le Tour. Much to my surprise this year, my chosen favorites have retired or are hanging back in trepidation because of the whiff of drugs. Floyd Landis, last year’s temporary winner, was okay. He apparently figured he could sneak by with a rare drug, which likely didn’t really help him beyond the placebo effect. Lance Armstrong retired with proof-less detractors swearing he just must have been dirty or he couldn’t have won so many (7 straight) times. I prefer to think that old one-ball did it with a competitive drive I’ve never had and an OCD compulsion to excel. I can’t believe that anyone who survived cancer metastasized to his lungs and brain would take any illegal drugs.

My hero though killed himself clumsily. Il Pirata (the pirate) Marco Pantani ODed on cocaine in a pleasure-seeking hotel-room excursion. He got his nickname from his earring (a trait I share) and the bandanna he often tied on his bald head. Marco climbing

Short and ugly, he was a bear on the mountains. He often wore the polka dot jersey of the leading climber in le Tour. When he won the whole race in 1998, he broke the previous year’s victor, Jan Ullrich, in the climbs from Grenoble to Les Deux Alps in snow, rain and sleet.

I want Il Pirata back.If Ben Kingsley was manly instead of smarmy, he could play Pantani. Many of us watch this almost inhumane and superhuman endurance spectacle for those epic struggles that the heroes deliver day after day.

Now in the era of self-righteous anti-doping fervor, I wasn’t quite sure what would be left. For 105 years, Tour cyclists have ridiculed the idea that anyone could complete this race clean. At beginning, some riders would use speed and others alcohol to make the pain endurable. The wine is counter-intuitive now, but seemed to make sense at the time. Who could argue with or reason with someone about to pedal most of the way across the United States in three weeks?

Yet the new guys are not so new, but apparently pretty clean. I have my mental money on Aussie Cadel Evans. He’s racing for Silence-Lotto and has been a player and placer for years. He’s sturdy and aggressive. Alas, he is no Pirata. Yet, he finished second overall last year.

Back to drugs, it’s a terribly demanding competition of three weeks in the saddle. There are those mountains, long stretches, and heart-ripping time trials. The current attitude is no drugs, no way, and disqualify for anything non-essential, like a asthma vasodilator.

Looking at the race for many years, I think the drug testing labs (mostly French) are way behind the technologies and likely to make many mistakes. Apparently they don’t know what to do if someone has naturally high platelet or hormone levels.

Moreover, I’d cut slack for injecting your own blood from time to time back into your veins to keep the platelet and oxygen levels adequate for the demands of the race. We vary in how much oxygen our cells can deliver. If it’s your blood, why not? Well, it’s illegal right now is why.

There also should be a database of what each racer’s natural blood chemistry is. Then the tested variance would be meaningful and not against some theoretical average.

Regardless, I’m behind Evans, who at the moment is six seconds off the lead after over 24 hours of racing through stage six of 21. I’m sorry Lance moved on. I’m sorry Greg Lemond — another great comeback after his shotgun injury — turned out to be so bitter and irrational. Again, I’m sorry Il Pirata is dead.

Le Tour thrives even with those changes. We have 15 more stages and a lot of climbing.

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