How To Save The Tour de France
Lance Armstrong confesses to serial cheating

January 2013: Lance Armstrong publically confirmes what many had long suspected, that he and his team mates cheated their way through seven Tours de France. Before I speculate on Armstrong's motives for cheating then and his belated confession (14 years on), I should like to call attention to what must be perfectly obvious to anyone who reads between the lines: he cannot have done it alone. He must have had accomplices (either paid or unwitting) within the testing laboratories and regulating organizations.

June 2013: Jan Ullrich (1997 TdF winner) confesses that he, too, doped. Ullrich claims he did not gain an unequal advantage thereby, since so many others were doping, too; he claims he did it to maintain an equal chance against so many others who were doping.

I said this once before, but I'm going to say it again because the right people weren't listening the first time: the solution is not more testing. More testing of Armstrong would not have detected the cheat. Why? Because the failure to detect Armstrong's cheat was not a technical one; no additional microscope, centrifuge, or litmus would have uncovered it. It was the human element in the testing and regulating system which Armstrong successfully exploited. The testing system itself was corrupt, and as long as millions of dollars are flowing, the human element will remain the weak link--for who controls the controllers?

I propose a radical solution: not more dope testing, but less testing, is the answer. Now, before you write me off as a crank, consider this: the human body has a physical limit. By which I mean, the professionally trained, but undoped and unmanipulated, human body. Consider further that we have probably already reached the limit. The sad truth is, we missed it when it happened because somebody rigged the game. Not ever-more invasive testing, but simple acceptance of human limits, is the clue to the solution to the problem of doping in sports.

Benchmarks. What I propose is this: before the TdF is run, let three teams run a Pre-Tour de France: the same stages in the same order. They shall be Teams A, B, and C and they shall compete against each other. They shall be professionally coached and trained and consist of a mix of internationally recognized riders and promising new-comers. They shall be transparent: by which I mean, it shall be known what they ingest and what they excrete, down to the last molecule. They shall be squeeky clean: no drugs of any kind whatsoever. Not even aspirin if they have headache. These teams shall run the Pre-Tour a week or two before the real Tour, and they shall set a benchmark for each stage. Thus, we shall know what a professionally trained, but perfectly undoped and unmanipulated, human body is really capable of.

The Tour. Then the Tour is run. Any rider or team which turns in a stage-time equal to or worse than the benchmark shall be deemed legitimate. Any rider or team which turns in a single stage-time up to 5% better than the benchmark, shall be deemed legitimate. However, any rider or team which turns in a stage-time faster than 5% better than the benchmark, or rider or team which turns in any three stage-times faster than the benchmark (however tiny the percent), shall face a mandatory and exclusive choice: either
1) accept the peloton time for the stage(s) in question, or
2) submit to dope tests, or
3) 'voluntary withdrawal' from the race.

The Advantage. The advantage is obvious: only three teams need ever be dope tested: the benchmark teams. Every other team can dope all it wants, so long as it doesn't win. This will produce a level playing field, whether drugs are in play or not. By setting a biologically realistic limit, doping ceases to offer any advantage.

The members of the benchmark teams should not be prohibited from competing in the real Tour, but it might be better if they did not compete on the same team together or for the same sponsor.

Titans. Every so often, and maybe only once in a decade, the world is graced by an athlete of surpassing ability, one who, by natural (genetic) endowment and psychological determination, stands head and shoulders above his comrades. In chess, it was Bobby Fischer. On the balance beam, it was little Olga. In swimming, it was Mark Spitz. In cycling, Merckx and Indurain come to mind. It also sometimes happens that a particular team develops a special comaraderie and everything 'just clicks' for them. Though no one member shines, they work together exceptionally well, like a well-oiled machine. They push the mark a notch higher. All due respect to them.

The Fatal Myth. But we are easily captive to a myth: namely, that every Tour and every Olympiad must necessarily shove the mark higher still, that the mark can be set indefinitely higher, that every record can, indeed must be bettered, if only by one-millionth of a second. What this myth amounts to, in plain text, is this: that the human has no limits. This is not merely hubris; it is false. Dangerously false. Injuriously false. This is what leads to doping, this mania for ever-better, ever-faster, ever-higher records. I suspect that Armstrong succumbed to this mania before he ever set foot on French soil, and probably without even knowing it. Perhaps he does not know it today either (he claims he still wants to compete--by which he means, win). Call it blind ambition. No chemical test of a rider's blood can detect this, so there is no point in further testing.

Further Advantages. The benchmark system would not penalize genuine titans (or well-oiled teams) who bettered the benchmark by more than some arbitrary percent. Insofaras their victories were due to natural endowment (viz. teamwork) and not doping, dope testing would validate their supremacy.

Another advantage of a benchamrk system is this: every titan has his day and is invincible for a time; but every titan also passes, and once he passes, the benchamrk system would restore a normal, non-titanic, level. It would counter-act the pressure to keep ratcheting the mark up and up and up, to the point where only doping (or, what next, genetic engineering? eugenics?) would suffice to reach it. Benchmarking would give us a continuous reality check.

A benchmark system is flexible. I do not insist on 5%. That is arbitrary. It could be adjusted from race to race or even stage to stage. I appreciate that the atmosphere of the real Tour, the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint, has an effect on the riders, encouraging them and possibly improving their times by more than 5% over the benchmark team. The weather might be markedly different between the Pre-Tour and real tour. Make it 6% if you want, or 4.38%. Nor do I insist that a single benchmark must stand forever as inviolable; clearly Merckx on a modern machine, with 20 indexed speeds, carbon cranks, and dual-pivot brakes, would have been much faster than he was on the machines he actually rode. Benchmarks can be adjusted to take account of such improvements in technology.

I am confident that after five years of systematic benchmarking, we would know what a professionally trained, undoped and unmanipulated, human is really capable of. Some tolerance must be reckoned, whether it be 5% or some other, for every rider and team can have a good day or a bad day. But we simply must accept the fact that the human body has a finite limit, and that, in all probability, we have already reached it. There is simply no point in shaving another millionth of a second off that; the victory would be both fraudulent and unhealthy.

So what would be left of the Tour, if we could not expect another new record every year? Everything that ever made the Tour worthwhile in the past! The roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint, the strategy, and above all, the sheer determination to finish. It is and remains the most gruelling mass-sporting event in the world.

Exceptions. It may be that some particular athletes have by nature a higher level of some naturally occuring chemical, testosterone or whatever. If so, this should be documented and made known to the appropriate authorities before professional races, not after.

We All Win. One theoretical consequence of a benchmark system with some arbitrary limit of betterment is that there might be multiple winners of any given event. That is, several riders/teams might fall within the tolerance of X% above the benchmark. They should be declared co-winners. This principle is well known in cycling: all riders who cross the line within the peloton are granted the same time, regardless whether they were at the head or the tail of the peloton.

A similar system could be applied to many other sports.

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