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Le Tour Warmup: Rewinding the Peloton

One theme I'd like to keep tabs on during the Tour de France is the desire to rewind the race back to the days before doping. Obviously the substances themselves are patently unethical and unhealthy, hence the bans. But more than that, they've kind of ruined the Tour for a few years (or decades) running. Wind everyone up on EPO and they'll all get to the top of Alpe d'Huez together, fresh as daisies. The kind of slowing of the daily average and occasional massive blowups we've seen lately in the '07 Tour or the '08 Giro are a good indication that things are getting cleaner, and the shame of doping may largely fade into the backdrop.

But it's also a sign that racing may be on its way to becoming more interesting, and nowhere is this more important than at Le Tour. With riders risking going into the red sooner and more easily (e.g. on the climbs), the choices riders and teams make become more important and more difficult. The race becomes more of a chess match. More varied and interesting outcomes become possible. Life is good.

A sidebar to this discussion is the use of race radios. Obviously this has no connection to doping, but the presence of race radios has long enabled the peloton to keep a close eye on breakaways, and for years now the peloton has known just when to pick up the pace in order to preserve the top teams' goals for the day. Long, heroic escapes which prod the imagination were rarely ever rewarded with a win... and when they were, it was chalked up cruelly to the peloton's indifference.

In this sense, race radios are another factor that, like doping, has reduced the Tour to a more metronomic exercise: on the flats, it's escape, capture, sprint; in the hills it's escape, (maybe) capture, explode on the final climb. On Bastille Day, it's escape and let the French guy win. In the end, the best time trialist takes home the yellow jersey. But Le Tour has at least tinkered with the idea of banning race radios in certain mountain stages this year, as a demonstration exercise with an eye toward greater restrictions. I don't know what the status is, but sincerely hope they give it a whirl. Watch endless escaping riders soar away on newfound hope of success. Watch the peloton engage in some comically ugly group-calculating about whether to respond. Subtract doping from the equation, and the idea of sending your domestiques up to the front to burn precious matches on such a chase becomes pretty unappealing. And the Tour devolves into chaos! The good kind, for once.

I don't know if this is how ASO sees their mission, but it wasn't all that long ago that the Tour was incredibly intriguing and fun to watch. If the race starts looking more like it did in the 1980s, this has to be good for Le Tour. Wouldn't hurt if Remy DiGregorio were up the road too.

Anyway, if you too are feeling nostalgic, here's some media. L'Equipe has a lengthy section of historical videos, including Greg LeMond on Superbagneres circa 1986, where he ditched his erstwhile "teammate" Bernard Hinault once and for all. And speaking of videos, there's this...


Pretty cool stuff.