Thursday, July 17, 2008

Against John Henry: Machine over Man on the Tour

In his contribution to The Tour de France 1903-2003 (Dauncey and Hare, eds.), Philippe Gaboriau places the Tour in the context of technological progress and Positivism, noting that the most significant sporting event in 1903 was not the first Tour de France but instead the Paris-Madrid auto and motorcycle race. In fact, eventual Tour winner, Maurice Garin, rode a motorcycle in that race (a race that was cut short when a crash caused 8 deaths and over 20 injuries).

Gaboriau hints that originally the machines were more important than the men riding them. The sponsoring newspaper, "L'Auto," was named for a machine, after all. And the men in cars were the ones supporting the riders and reporting on the race. In short, no machines, no Tour.

The early professional riders were all grouped according to their bicycle manufacturer. And men were linked to their bikes then in ways that would be unthinkable today: if they broke the frame, they had to find a blacksmith shop and repair the bike themselves; if they blew out a tire, they used new tubes--perpetually carried on their shoulders--to replace the damaged one; they could not even trade bikes with team members. In short, the man was an extension of his machine and could not be separated from it.

This philosophy favoring the supremacy of the machine contributed to the environment that led to cycling's vast doping culture. If the machine is the thing, a race organizer or sponsor is decidedly unconcerned about the harm riders may do to themselves, as long as they make the machine and the spectacle look good.

Certainly, other sports had doping, but in none were the athletes as subordinate to industrial forces as in cycling. Early on, cyclists were expendable, and "dynamite" was encouraged in order to make the machine appear heroic.


SM Sprenger said...

What you're describing is a crass marketing campaign, and that from the beginning of the Tour. Which confirms to me even more strongly that the Tour--even as a devoted cyclist--is a waste of time to follow.

The French paper this morning reported the Tour's first doping victim:

Tour de France: Ricardo Ricco contrôlé positif à l'EPO, l'équipe Saunier-Duval quitte le Tour

How many times are people willing to be suckered?

If the Tour is so impossible to do w/o the doping, maybe they should trim the race back to more manageable levels of endurance OR just let 'em dope. Who cares?

SM Sprenger said...

I stand corrected: it's the 3rd bust in this race. The first really big one to make the headlines though.

Corry Cropper said...

And the third one for the same type of EPO (they're calling it CERA). They must have thought it was impossible to detect.

Now the gendarmes have stopped and searched the entire Saunier-Duval team bus, the team that mysteriously won all the mountain stages so far. Not so mysterious, I guess.

And I suspect the whole team withdrew because they realized they would all be caught since the labs were onto their game. Christian Prudhomme agrees.

Prudhomme, the Tour's boss said of Saunier-Duval: "Maintenant sur le fond, j'ai le sentiment que le manager n'est pas un parangon de vertu. Il y a deux façons de voir leur départ : on peut considérer qu'ils sont responsables ou cela peut sonner comme un aveu. L'avenir proche nous le dira (...) On ne peut pas mettre en doute toutes les victoires mais j'ai trouvé à Hautacam la supériorité des deux coureurs Saunier-Duval écrasante" (source: L'Equipe).
[Paraphrasing: the team manager is "not a paragon of virtue" and the performances of all team members are suspect.]

SM Sprenger said...

In today's Le Monde: Le peloton utilise la "super-EPO" depuis 2004

This news, if true, could take out the entire Tour.

Corry Cropper said...

Peipoli, Ricco's teammate, was just fired from the team and rumors abound that he has tested positive for the same substance.

Roche only recently received approval for CERA (U.S. Jan. 08 and EU Aug. 07) and it was made available in Jan. of this year in both markets. So it's pretty new.

SM Sprenger said...

according to Le Monde, the cyclists somehow got access before it hit the commercial market:

"C'est pourquoi les coureurs n'ont pas attendu sa commercialisation, il y a seulement un an, sous le nom de Mirecera, pour se la procurer. Dans un article publié le 1er juillet 2004, Le Monde révélait que la police italienne avait la certitude que la CERA, surnommée la "super-EPO" par les coureurs, était déjà arrrivée dans le peloton."

you can read the rest here:

The bigger point is--as your summaries of Tour history shows--cycling has been into doping since the very beginning. Why not just think about EPO as a "technology" just like a revolutionary new material for frames. That would avert the inevitable disillusionment because: they will always be taking something. As anyone who has even ridden 200 km once knows: it's just to grueling.

In any case, there are sports where people already expose themselves to much greater dangers than EPO (drag racing, downhill ski racing, boxing): why not let them use it under medical guidance? There would be no more handwringing and speculation about whether the winners were drugged. We'll just know they are and forget about it.

marc said...

I agree with Scott--let's accept the EPO as technology. "ALL HAIL THE NEW FLESH!" as Cronenberg (or Brundlefly) would put it. I want cyborg riders--that's a publicity stunt I could get behind. btw, cool banner, Corry.

SM Sprenger said...

Turns out Le Monde set up a blog today: "Faut-il légaliser le dopage?" (Should we legalize doping?)

See here:

Most think yes--for some of the same reasons.

By the way, did you see the NYT article on the advertisers and the China Olympics? American companies are not so much advertising their products, as China itself. Example of a slogan by Pepsico: "Go Red for China!!!"

Do they have any idea what they're saying?

Derek said...

I don't know French well enough to follow these posts, but I will submit that the first World Series should be mentioned as a premier sporting event of 1903.

Corry Cropper said...

Interesting, Derek, I hadn't made the connection. Both the Tour and the World Series = national championships that have global pretensions, both remain popular today, and both have struggled with doping problems in recent years. We should look at this coincidence more...