At least in the Danish coverage of le Tour, everyone’s reporting that viewing figures are dropping massively throughout Europe, due to – yes, you guessed it! – cycling’s doping-infested image. Danish paper Berlingske Tidende also ran an article claiming that the drop in popularity is exacerbated by the fact that a certain Dane is very close to winning the race. Audiences wants a winner from Germany, France, Spain, USA, heck, even Borat-land Kazakhstan! In the Metabunker, things are different. Firstly, we don’t care about the nationality of the winner, though it’s somehow funny and surprising that the leader of the pack, Mr. Rasmussen, is from around here. Secondly, we like the fact that this year’s Tour is dominated by tiny climbers (such as Rasmussen and Boy Wonder Alberto Contador), rather than heavy muscle guys such as Lance Armstrong or Jan Ullrich (though those guys certainly haven’t been replaced properly yet, riders such as Klöden, Vinokourov, Leipheimer, and Evans do their best). And thirdly, we enjoy being humble spectators with no obligations or responsibilities. Tour director Christian Prudhomme and UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) chief Pat McQuaid are surely not allowed that luxury, as they are probably deeply concerned with the future of cycling.

Since the last Metabunker post on le Tour, the race has shown itself from its most generous side: the fact that it is without stars seems to be the best that have happened to it for a long, long while. Though one must acknowledge and admire the larger-than-life aspects of five time-winner Miguel Indurain and seven time-winner Lance Armstrong, the Tour was crippled by predictability in those years. EPO or not, it was both exciting, refreshing and deeply entertaining to watch Bjarne Riis demolish the reign of Indurain in 1996. Last years Tour was also highly entertaining, but Floyd Landis’ victory was somehow a little harder to admire, not due to his claimed use of testosterone, but because he didn’t win the race from the former champ; Lance Armstrong simply left the race.

Also, since last time, T-Mobile’s Patrik Sinkewicz (who crashed into a spectator after finishing a stage, and thereby left the stage) has been tested positive for doping (in June, before the Tour) – this made two major German broadcasters shut down their Tour-coverage immediately. Shortly after, it was revealed that maillot jaune Michael Rasmussen has received four warnings from the Danish Anti-Doping Agency and UCI for acting neglectfully in the informing these institutions of his whereabouts while training for the race. Then an American mountain biker told Velonews.com that Rasmussen tricked him into smuggling human blood substitute some five years ago. Will this story, this allegation, lead to yet another Tour-winner’s fall from grace? No one knows at this moment. Alberto Contador is only 24 years old, but also he is folowed by the shadow of doping; today leading Danish Tour de France-papaer Ekstra Bladet claims that Contador is mentioned in the documents from Operacíon Puerto as “A. C.” as a rider, who is supposed to “get the same as J. J. (=Jörg Jaksche, Contador’s team mate from Liberty Seguros )”. The maillot jaune is a hot spot, and here at the metabunker we more than doubt that ANY serious contender for the podium would be able to wear yellow, without taking heat.

Inside the Race, the double fall and rebirth of Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov has been among the most spectacular shows. Saturday’s time trail was also great, particularly the moment when Rasmussen passed Caisse d’Epargne’s Alejandro Valverde. French champion Christophe Moreau’s series of attacks in the Alps were as exciting as his fall in the transition stages, as well as in the time trailand the first two stages in the Pyreness were sad. Disappointing. (But keep an eye out for Moreau; after all, he IS the guy who’s wearing the tricolore in le Tour de France…). American time trail champion David Zabriskie abandoned the race after a lousy effort (on Velonews.com he blamed… – his shoes, d’oh!), with lots of suffering riders following him…

Now, if all this doesn’t sound as great entertainment, then blame my writing abilities. If Tour de France audiences decide to stop watching, it’s their loss. We few, we happy few, that remain loyal to this mythological race are generously rewarded. Pardon the cliché, but this race is both a human and divine comedy – dramatic, surprising, moving, tragic and actually deeply thought-provoking for those who are prepared to follow events inside and outside the race. But make no mistake: the race itself has been a great and joyful one so far.

It really seems like this Tour will be won by an outsider, but will it be Rabobank’s Rasmussen or Discovery’s Contador? The answer will almost certainly be given on Wednesday’s dreadful stage from Orthez to Gourette-Col d’Aubisque, 218 kilometers of p-u-r-e p-a-i-n. Watch it from early on, as attacks will come from the first of five climbs!

Long live the Tour!

Photo showing Contador with maillot jaune Rasmuusen on wheel, by Frank Fife