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When Rasmussen Was King

September 14, 2007


    In 1898, an American, Hamilton, first pushed the world hour record to over forty kilometers. But his achievement was never fully recognized. Why? Because he’d let himself be paced by a dot of light projected from the field onto the track in front of him. With Hamilton’s disqualification, the Union Cycliste Internationale was the first sporting federation to officially recognize the existence of the sportsman’s psyche. Even so, that recognition went paired with disapproval — as though Hamilton, by making such overt use of his willpower, had cheated.

    — Tim Krabbé, The Rider


Game Over

As I walked to the Broadway-Lafayette subway station here in New York on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed that the window displays of the mammoth Adidas store on the corner of Broadway and Houston still showcase tennis wear. I don’t really know from tennis and if it weren’t for the tennis balls gathered around the mannequins’ feet, I might just as well have been seeing golf wear in those windows.

The point is, the 2007 U.S. Open is just a few days gone and already the tennis skirts and bags and whatnot displayed in the window look irrelevant. The mannequins are a little sad standing so straight and proud; they have no idea they are already relics of the late summer craze. (I realize I can’t expect mannequins to be aware of their status as relics, but I can at least expect them to look as if they are aware of their status as relics. Can’t they be made to appear as if they are packing away their tennis balls?) I’m sure the mannequins will soon be removed or newly outfitted if they haven’t been already. I suppose it just takes a while for retailers to regroup and direct attention to the next tournament, the next finals, the next competition, the next big marketing op. Maybe they’re hoping to attract those few of us in whom the craze persists even days after the game has been decided.

“I’m looking forward to next year.”
— Maria Sharapova on her poor performance at this year’s U.S. Open

Tennis, again, is not my thing. It looks as if it could be really interesting. But for me, for now, you can have your marathons, your series, your bowls, your finals, your opens. I probably don’t know enough about other contests to say, but in terms of sheer depth, the Tour de France just has to have all the other competitions beat. Okay, maybe boxing is up there too, but that’s just because of Muhammad Ali and the way he made boxing far bigger than boxing.

The Tour is the showdown, anyway, that gets me all fired up — even more so without the obliterating presence of that other exasperating Texan, Lance. Before doping controversies ruined the race and its coverage, this year’s Tour seemed to me the most exciting and profound in the ten years I’ve followed the race. Within days of the start, the field was relatively open and stars — for example, the very young German Linus Gerdemann who took an Alpine stage, and the Colombian Mauricio Soler, who despite a less than graceful riding style, killed on mountains that would seem to demand grace — appeared out of nowhere.

Anyway, the sight of those sorry mannequins in the Adidas store windows and the thought of how quickly passion — intense passion — for a game subsides reminded me of how easily my own enthusiasm for my favorite sport subsided earlier this summer. (This would be a great test of media potency: maintain the interest of the general public — not perennial enthusiasts, but the merely semi-curious — in a sport for a month after its final competition has been won. I don’t think even the New York Post could do it, though I’m sure it would try: “Federer Eats Hard-boiled Eggs for Breakfast, Says Ova Account for Stamina and Grace.”)

I worked from home for most of June and July, but have to admit that working was not really what I was doing from about about 8:00 o’clock to 11:00 o’clock most mid-summer mornings. Not with live Tour de France stages aired on Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network and now devoted entirely to the most painful sorts of competition) and brilliantly — sometimes even poetically — interpreted by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. I’m not sure I’d see the Tour for the complicated and gorgeous event it is if it weren’t for Liggett and Sherwen’s narration. But enough about sportscasting.

Rasmussen the Sacrificial Lamb

The thing is the Tour and how closely I watched it and how mesmerized I was by the performances of the utterly unlikeable — cold, stiff, spindly, hunchbacked — Dane who led it until he was booted from the race by his team for lying about his pre-Tour whereabouts. Michael Rasmussen was suspected to have been doping — in other words, boosting his blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity with synthetic hormones like EPO or blood transfusions — while he trained in the Italian Dolomites, where the doctors who oversee such practices are said to hang out. He’d said that he’d been training in Mexico — and of course, not doping — and that it was because he was in such a remote area of Mexico that he’d missed a few doping tests.

Rasmussen never tested positive for doping during the Tour (others — like the tough Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov, the kind of rider who would normally seem to need nothing other than determination to win a stage — did test positive mid-Tour). But the suspicion that Rasmussen had recently doped and the fact that he’d lied about where he’d trained were enough in the eyes of his team and, following suit, his sport’s regulators to make him unfit to race. The Tour was spoiled almost as much by the sanctimony of the Union Cycliste Internationale and tour organizers and team managers — as well as the remaining riders who claimed to be clean — as it was by the riders who doped.

So my interest in the Tour plummeted well before its end. With Rasmussen out and despite Sherwen and Liggett’s efforts to pump mystery into the race, all that was really left of the Tour was the eventual winner, Alberto Contador, the Spaniard who was himself suspected of doping — and remains so to this day. (In fact, just last week, his coach announced that Contador would not be riding in the World Road Race Championships, explaining that the rider’s “head is elsewhere at the moment.”) I could do without watching Vinokourov redeem poor performances with spiked ones. But — and maybe I should be ashamed to admit this — there was no more morning Versus for me without Rasmussen and Contador battling it out.

Eh, What’s a Little EPO?

I don’t want to believe what I hear, that all professional cyclists dope and you can especially expect Tour cyclists to dope (the Onion published a brilliant spoof on this idea two weeks ago). But if doping is as rampant as they say, a little part of me almost wants to make room for it. I mean, that desire to cheat to win, isn’t that human? Isn’t it part of the drama of the race? Sure, what we Tour enthusiasts wouldn’t give for the rider who cheats, as Hamilton did in 1898, by enhancing his willpower with a little beam of light. But the Tour was a hell of a lot more interesting with all the damn dopers in it. I miss that Tour and its drama and art — the way the men move on their machines, an attack, the grace of a good climber. I guess I just miss my enthusiasm for the Tour, an enthusiasm that probably wouldn’t have died had Rasmussen remained (as many accused of doping have before him) and the controversy been staved off until post-race. Apropos of almost nothing, my friends probably don’t miss my Tour enthusiasm all that much…

Chances are I’m not going to get into football — ever. Golf is out of the question. Baseball just isn’t for me. Basketball and soccer are okay, but don’t quite inspire me. Even other cycling events don’t do it. I guess I’ll just have to look forward to next July.

— Suzanne Menghraj


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