The veins stretch up his legs like the knotted roots of a tree. It looks sci-fi, un-human even, like veins on the hands of someone very old, except these covered Pawel Poljanski's entire limbs, from his thighs to his ankles.

The Polish cyclist's knees were difficult to even identify - the joints swollen and stained either side by hours of sunlight, then white from the lip of his Lycra's lowest reach. A man becomes a racehorse.

"After 16 stages my legs look a little tired," said the caption on Poljanski's Instagram.

Yeah, just a bit.


But that wasn't my reflex when I saw when Poljanski's arresting photo. My first thought, involuntary and sad as it was, was simple: Freakish.

Let me be clear - there is absolutely no suggestion Poljanski is involved in doping.

But I can't help but see the Tour de France in its historical context, totally overshadowed by doping.

Is there an event on Earth that stinks of doping more? Who knows for sure whether cyclists today are doping or not? Theories abound either way.

But whether it's clean, cleaner, or otherwise, the fog of Lance Armstrong, etc, still hangs about the tour in a way that doping still doesn't register with other competitions.

Olympic cycling events cannot possibly compare. No hammer throw or shot put event has the same celebrity or doping infamy.

Whether true or otherwise, in the back of my mind, even 100m sprints are cleaner than the Tour de France. Every wondrous moment, every commentators' exclamation, comes with a tiny unspoken asterisk.

"Yeah," I think. "But who out of these guys is clean and who isn't?"


And yet I still watch. I still wonder at the incredible physical and mental feats, chemically enhanced or otherwise.

I can't stand doping in the Olympics or in any other event. But for some reason in the unique context of the tour, I'm not bothered if competitors are doped so long as every cyclist is the same.

It's a complicated, nuanced distinction, which I suppose can be attributed to expectation.

I haven't crossed the threshold in any other race or competition, but doping is the subtext of the Tour de France, and I subconsciously expect at least some competitors to be juiced.

If I do have an issue, it's not in comparing myself to doped-up cyclists. There's no way, if I'd trained all my life, I'd have the mental strength to do what they do.

So I don't care if they're all taking stuff, just so long as they're all taking stuff; an impossible expectation, because the only way to ensure total fairness is to make sure nobody's doping at all.

The whole issue must drive clean cyclists totally batty.

But I will watch as the peloton parades into Paris for tonight's final stage. I'll look forward to next year's race.

And I'll worry I'm part of the problem, because in staring at Poljanski's legs, I realise that I don't watch the Tour de France with the expectation of clean and pure human achievement. I think I watch it for the freak show.