Tour's Openness Its Greatest Strength, and Weakness

Part of the reason the Tour de France has charmed generation after generation for more than 100 years, seducing people who don't give a flip about cycling, converting some of them into permanent spoke-heads, is simple.

The Tour is open. Most of the course is free of barricades. No tickets, no exorbitant parking, no luxury boxes. All it takes to be part of it is whatever effort you want to put into getting there and setting up your folding chairs and your picnic table.

Fans can walk right up to the top-heavy rolling locker rooms called team buses at the finish and plant themselves in a rider's path when he wheels in still lathered in sweat from covering more than 100 grueling miles. If he doesn't run you over, he might sign an autograph or hand over his plastic water bottle.

Tour reporters get books listing the names, addresses and phone numbers of team hotels, and when you walk in (they're rarely secured), there's usually a rooming list posted on a wall in the lobby. Imagine the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco Giants doing that. It's either quaint or really, really dumb.

Spectators routinely run alongside top riders who are grinding up mountain switchbacks and slap them on the back or pour water over their heads. On rare occasions, a flag-waving, overly enthusiastic fan inadvertently brings a rider down.

More often, the riders bring themselves down, and the very openness that makes bike racing so unique ensures that the ugly side of the sport will be unusually exposed as well.

Professional cycling is conducted in public spaces. It's chaotic and edgy, thrilling and petty, full of arcane etiquette, rife with ego and political infighting, and often dysfunctional -- never more so than in the last 48 hours.

Alexandre Vinokourov, who swept into his pre-Tour press conference in London with the entitled look of athletic royalty, and his Astana team were exiled Tuesday because of his initial positive test for a banned blood transfusion.

In a sad and moving moment that afternoon, David Millar, one of the few riders to confess to doping and come back from his suspension with a fierce, outspoken passion to do the right thing, broke down in tears at the news of Vinokourov's apparent indiscretion.

The next morning, high in the Pyrenees, a small bomb allegedly planted by the Basque separatist group ETA exploded harmlessly in the woods alongside the Stage 16 course. That was only part of what should go down as one of the most bizarre days in the history of this or any other major sporting event.

It dawned with some riders refusing to roll past the start line in Orthez, France. They leaned on their bikes in a symbolic anti-doping protest against, well, themselves, we're guessing, because doping comes down to an individual decision made in private.

The standing protest was poorly organized, a hallmark of most group endeavors in cycling, from business meetings to bunch sprints. So after an indeterminate amount of time, perhaps 10 minutes, the front of the peloton pedaled away. Fans reacted uncertainly, then caught on that not everyone was moving. Scattered booing erupted.

Riders behind the protestors got impatient and began squeezing through one at a time like workers crossing a picket line. They were booed too. Then everyone finally got rolling, including one member of a team advocating clean sport who was busted later in the day for a positive testosterone test.

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