'Shock' a dwindling commodity at Tour de France

Updated: July 26, 2007, 5:03 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

It was a good try, the attempted analogy. Wasn't leader Michael Rasmussen's abrupt late-stage removal from the Tour de France, a friend suggested, much like seeing Peyton Manning pulled from the field in the fourth quarter while leading the Colts on a potential Super Bowl-winning drive?

Answer for most U.S. citizens: Not so much, no. And among the many reasons why that is the case, beyond the obvious (cycling isn't football), is this notion of shock value -- a thing that is fast becoming an endangered species among truly plugged-in sports fans.

Michael Rasmussen
Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty ImagesMichael Rasmussen was dismissed by his Rabobank team after becoming a virtual lock to win this year's Tour de France.

It's hard to know what would honestly shock a fan anymore, or what even constitutes fair grounds for a shock in high-stakes athletics. Most major sports, and most sports leagues, have been the semi-regular staging ground for this scandal or that over the years. Lately, in the United States, it's a veritable cornucopia of dreck, from last year's Rick Tocchet gambling story in hockey to Michael Vick to Barry Bonds et al, and, perhaps most chillingly, to Tim Donaghy.

Donaghy, the NBA official accused of betting on games and potentially affecting their outcomes with his calls in order to manipulate point spreads, no doubt has turned the basketball industry upside down -- but significantly, perhaps, because he isn't the athlete. From the players themselves, we've become more accustomed to the idea that their occasional cheating to win, or to gain an edge, is a present and future condition of watching games.

Some will cheat; some won't. Some of the cheaters will be exposed; some won't. Some fans will mind tremendously; some not so much that they ever allow a scandal to diminish their overall enthusiasm for watching elite athletes perform.

But shock? That has to be a dwindling commodity, even for the Tour; maybe, these days, especially for the Tour.

In Rasmussen's case, it can be argued that some surprise value is there, simply because (A) he was leading the Tour and widely assumed on his way to winning it; and (B) he hasn't actually tested positive for anything. Rasmussen was removed by his own team, Rabobank, for lying about where he was during training in the pre-Tour months. By not making officials aware of his true whereabouts, Rasmussen was able to avoid any of a number of potential random, out-of-competition drug tests -- one of the basic conditions of employment for Tour riders.

Rasmussen went home. His team continued without him. The Tour itself will go on, again tainted by scandal as it was by the Floyd Landis case last year.

But is all of this truly a shock? By the time of Rabobank's action, after all, Rasmussen's bona fides had been questioned several times. He'd already been booted from the Danish national team for the upcoming World Championships and 2008 Olympics. Other riders on the Tour, French and German in particular, had organized a collective sit-in at the beginning of Wednesday's stage to protest the stain that doping is leaving on the sport.

Rasmussen was even being doubted out loud by others on the Tour -- again, unusual without being nearly unique. Baseball fans would, I think, liken it to Barry Bonds' facing the constant incredulity of some of his Major League Baseball peers at the records he has compiled (as Bonds most certainly does face). Now, Bonds' case has been building for years, but the basics are the same. In an athletic era of suspicion based upon the certifiable recent history of cheating by a few too many of the elite, these scenes and comments are more common than ever.

That's a cynical view; but, in some ways, it is representative of a cynical era. In a recent poll conducted by Journal du Dimanche in France, nearly 80 percent of those who responded said they always or often doubted whether Tour winners or other cycling championships won without performance enhancers.

Meanwhile, the Tour itself continues to a conclusion. The cyclist who had been behind Rasmussen in the overall standings, Alberto Contador of the Discovery Channel team, might make a good bet to charge to the championship. In other news, Contador was one of those named in a Spanish doping scandal last year. He was cleared in the case. It was an investigation that left many people chagrined, but precious few actually shocked.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland", published by HarperCollins, is in its third printing. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.