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How Team Telekom totalled the Tour de France

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How Team Telekom totalled the Tour de France
Photo: DPA
15:55 CEST+02:00
In the second dispatch of The Local's new column about life in Germany, Portnoy blames Team Telekom for spoiling his love for cycling's top event, the Tour de France.

This is the first July in more than a decade that I haven't watched nearly every stage of the Tour de France. It was a perk of living in Germany and working in various newsrooms crammed with televisions. But this year I haven't even glimpsed at the website. I'm not even sure who's racing. It wasn't a conscious decision – it's just that the event's addiction to steroids, hormones and blood packing made me lose interest.

German class first got me to this country 20 years ago but I stayed as an exchange student to race bikes. I came back during summers in college to speed through Holland, Germany and France on two wheels – never winning much. After I'd hung up my cycling shorts and returned here to work, watching the Tour while on the clock became a guilty and sentimental pleasure – some ex-teammates had even made it as pros.

When the first professional riders started showing up positive in the late 90's, I wasn't surprised. During my racing days I once came back to discover a wiry teammate had ballooned into Arnold Schwarzenegger. His dad worked for the German national cycling team, a detail I hadn't thought much about until German riders in pink Telekom jerseys started peeing hot too.

But I figured the pros that were getting popped were underpaid guys trying to eke out an extra buck or has-beens trying to extend their career. Maybe a spur-of-the-moment decision out of desperation. When then-hero Tyler Hamilton got nailed in 2004, I started to think twice. When Tour winner Floyd Landis came up positive, I figured there was something wrong.

But I still thought the Tour de France could be salvaged – the riders needed to knock it off, sponsors needed to stop tolerating it and the Tour de France itself needed to take a harder stance. The organizers could have also cut the distances and number of climbs to reduce the strain on riders' bodies – and make the race more TV-friendly. But the only thing anyone did was feign denial, sputter excuses and propose incredulous explanations – blaming things like too much whisky or the pre-natal absorption of a twin that died before birth for the positives.

Then came a slew of high-profile confessions from German riders on Team Telekom who had been outed by a former masseuse. Of course, they also swore they hadn't inhaled. The stories and tears were too perfect for the mea culpas to be anything but lies. My three-year-old is just as well-versed in this particular linguistic sleight of hand – confess to a lesser crime in hopes that your larger ones will go unnoticed.

The only one among them who came clean was Patrick Sinkewitz – and he probably did it just to stay out of the clink. His Der Spiegel tell-all, coupled with the incomplete confessions of his teammates, made me realize just how widespread doping was – and why they did it. To win. They weren't looking for a crutch during an injury or hoping to prolong a waning career. And it was more than just an odd doctor handing out too many prescriptions – it was a complex and profitable business. Doping wasn't just a spur-of-the-minute decision – it was part of their training plans.

Even when the spotlight had been on them and this particular issue for years, they still did it. They – and the Tour de France – were addicts. Cycling wasn't what I thought it was at all – it had been a rolling version of professional wrestling. Rather than stories of amazing comebacks and a passionate determination to win, I'd been watching the effects of steroids, the hormone EPO and blood purified in a laboratory. I didn't believe any of them anymore.

The last hero – and my last shred of interest – fell with the never-ending embarrassment of Team Telekom captain Jan Ullrich. For years, he had been the only rider that had a chance of standing up to the too-slick Lance Armstrong. He had made cycling interesting. But when it started looking like he'd been paying a certain Spanish doctor to improve his performances, what did Jan do? He circled the wagons and denied it until he could deny it no longer – and then he retired. Rather than play the leader he was purported to be, he chickened out and lost face by trying to save his pride.

If this July feels a bit different for me, it's because I'm actually working for the first time in a decade. My employers thank you, Team Telekom.

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in our Discuss section.

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