SMP Images - Vincent Curutchet

Tour on the dope-free path?

IN A copy of the French newspaper L’Equipe, one five-figure number - “39.794” - was given extra prominence, with inch-high bright red letters in the centre of the pages.

Why were they there? Because that is the average speed of the Tour (in kilometres per hour) this year, only the 11th-fastest in its history, and - although L’Equipe did not say it - one of the indirect indications that, perhaps, doping is gradually lessening in this drug-blighted sport. There were other indications, too. The French, traditionally considered one of the cleanest nations, have had an amazingly successful Tour, with five riders in the top 15, two of them Tour debutants, and Thomas Voeckler defending the lead for 10 days.

The average times for the climbs are much higher than before, too, and, for the first time since 1999, in 2011 a Frenchman has finished inside the top five of both the Tour of Italy (John Gadret) and the Tour de France (Voeckler). That, at least according to Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, “means something”.

Cadel Evans’ win overall is taken as another good sign. A steady but largely unspectacular performer - his one stage win in the Tour was in a very tight uphill sprint - Evans is traditionally taken as a barometer of clean cycling.

But, as L’Equipe pointed out, “the world of doping always stands on quicksand” and there have been so many false dawns before that bets that this will be a Tour free of major scandals are definitely off for now. There has already been one positive test, the Russian Alexandr Kolobnev for a banned steroid, and last year, when the French took a record number of stage wins, there was also a feeling the tide had turned.

That was proved to be wrong, and one of the unresolved issues of the 2010 Tour - Alberto Contador’s positive for clenbuterol - still remains subject to a final verdict from the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Had Contador won this year’s Tour, instead of finishing fifth, that, rather than “a clean Tour”, would’ve been the headline.

While the ever-sceptical left-leaning elements of the French press like LibEration remain cynical, even about the French - “Should we hire Europcar?” its headline ran yesterday - they grudgingly admitted that it has been a cleaner Tour. “But that doesn’t mean the end of doping,” they added immediately - although you can’t help wondering what they would write about if, heaven help us, something actually did.

And while France’s jubilation over local success is so great that - for once - they want to believe that cycling is cleaning up its act, one of the few voices urging prudence yesterday was long-standing anti-doping crusader (and as it happens, a director of a rival French team, FranAaise des Jeux), Marc Madiot.

While admitting Evans’ win was a good sign, Madiot urged “a period of waiting before reaching a final judgement”. When asked why, he insisted “because past experience tells me to be cautious”. It’s hard to disagree.

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