With the Tour de France nearly upon us, here's a shout-out to Wordsworth's wingman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" -- which comes in particularly handy when you're watching a pro bike race.
When is a suspension not a suspension? When it is issued in Spain, against a high-profile cyclist. On Tuesday, members of the discipline committee of the Spanish Cycling Federation (RFEC) declared Alberto Contador innocent of doping charges. The defending Tour de France champion had been suspended three weeks earlier for a positive drug test during last year's Tour. Contador's urine showed traces of clenbuterol, a result he attributed to a contaminated steak eaten during the race. It was ruled, at the time, that even though he may not have knowingly ingested the substance, Contador was responsible for its presence in his body.
Until he lost his appeals and changed his tune, Floyd Landis pioneered the Jack Daniels defense. Another athlete, a former American track and field sprinter, insisted that his elevated levels of testosterone were the result of repeated intercourse, and copious amounts of beer, on the eve of the test.
LE GRAND BORNAND, France -- Worst kept secret at this Tour de France: Astana general manager Johan Bruyneel will announce tomorrow that he intends to start a new team next year, backed by American sponsorship and led by Lance Armstrong.
SAINT MAURICE, France -- Okay, people, you've had a couple days to come to terms with the cycling's New World Order. How's the grieving process going? Coping okay? Did we have a bit of a sulk on Sunday? For a lot of yellow-braceleted faithful, that day marked the death of illusions and wishful thinking; the moment Alberto Contador ("Contador le Matador" as L'Equipe dubbed him) rode into yellow. And he did in a voracious, merciless, effortless style that: 1) evoked a young Lance Armstrong; and 2) suggested very strongly that he'll be sporting the maillot jaune all the way to Paris.
Recall, if you will, Bernard Hinault's terse message to Lance Armstrong five years ago, after the Texan drained much of the suspense from the 2004 Tour de France by winning his third straight alpine stage. "No gifts," declaimed the Badger. Implicit in those words: a pro bike race is a knife fight, not a bridal shower. There is no place in it for charity or sentimentality or mercy. No gifts. Lance-o-philes loved it so much they put it on a T-shirt.
Alberto Contador is a 26-year-old professional bike racer from Spain who in two seasons has won the Tours of France, Italy and his homeland. It's a feat matched by only four other riders in history, and by last fall Contador's performances had depleted the European press of its supply of superlatives. Then, in March, wearing the yellow leader's jersey one week into the Paris-Nice stage race, he did what even the finest racers are occasionally known to do, but Contador since his rise to prominence had not yet done. During a mountain stage, he cracked.
For three weeks they admired his matador's daring, his dark good looks and his abundant charisma. But as Spain's precocious Alberto Contador stepped onto the podium and the strains of La Marcha Real filled the Champs-��lys�es, cycling fans had one overwhelming thought: Please, God, let this kid be clean.
ANGOULEME, France -- This seamy, sordid Elmore Leonard-type Tour will end, it seems, with a chapter by John LeCarre. Alternately grand and grotesque, this race was partially redeemed Saturday by some heart-stopping drama in the brandy-making capital of the world.
The leaders of the Tour de France were playing chicken in the final climb of stage 14 on Sunday when they were briefly overtaken by ... a chicken. To the Borat impersonator in a lime singlet who ran alongside the cyclists during stage 8, waving the flag of Kazakhstan, and the guy who adorned his bike with gigantic racks of deer antlers in stage 10, add the fellow in the yellow-feathered costume to the list of amusing spectators at this, the most unpredictable Tour in memory.
Loudenvielle -- The Human Phoenix, Alexandre Vinkourov, whose serial resurrections have become a subplot in this Tour, got over the parcours in five hours, 34 minutes and 28 seconds today (almost exactly half as long as it took me to ride this stage one week ago, a misadventure that I will share with you tomorrow). The two guys locked in mortal combat over who will win this three-week beast -- Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen and Discovery Channel's thrilling young talent, Alberto Contador -- powered down the Col de Peyrosourde together, crossing the line 5 � minutes after Vino.
ALBI, France -- I was among the score or so of reporters skulking around the lobby of the Novotel in Montpellier on Friday, hoping extract a quote from embattled race leader Michael Rasmussen of Rabobank. (The crafty Dane gave us the dodge; officials of the Danish Cycling Union, apparently, can relate). Sharing the hotel with the Rabos was Team Astana. While we loitered on the lookout for Rasmussen, Alexandre Vinokourov emerged from the dining room. With a total of 30 stitches in his knees, he made his way across the lobby with the stiff-legged gait of a man with advanced arthritis. It was clear that the podium was beyond his reach.