One of the most recent times a Tour was likely won clean
On July 11, 1991, I was sitting in the cafe of our holiday camp on the west coast of France with my dad, brother and our cycling club watching stage six of the Tour de France. I was nine years old and I was trying to figure out how my favorite cyclist Greg LeMond was doing, which was proving a challenge given I didn’t speak a word of French. Each morning one of the men on our trip would pick up a French paper and inform us who was leading and what was happening. I’m not sure if he spoke French or just looked at the results and made his assumptions but it kept us in the loop at least.
The stage that day was won in epic fashion by Thierry Marie, who rode clear of the bunch early and stayed away for 234 kilometers to win by almost two minutes and take back the Yellow jersey he had won at the prologue a week before. Two days later we traded in watching the Tour on TV for standing at the side of the road to watch it for real. We made the 300 kilometer trip from Saint-Jean-de-Monts to Alençon in the clubs old mini-bus that had managed to get us all the way from Bangor, Northern Ireland, across to Scotland, down through England and across the North-West portion of France without falling apart. It was the first individual time-trial of the Tour and it was the day LeMond would strike.
But he didn’t … well, not really. A Spaniard by the name of Miguel Indurain beat LeMond by eight seconds with nobody else close. But LeMond moved back into Yellow and the next day when we went 180km to Rennes to watch the final three hundred meters of the stage, standing for several hours catching all sorts of goodies thrown from the passing caravan. After watching a break of ten men speedy by, in which Mauro Ribeiro won, I caught a brief glimpse of LeMond as he flashed past in Yellow while surrounded by the fast moving collection of colours, metal and skin of the peloton. Had I held my breathe the moment the first rider of the peloton past, I’d have no fear of oxygen deprivation by keeping it held until the last went by and everyone started making their way home.
Over the next few days however, it would be apparent that despite the wishes of this nine-year old boy, LeMond wouldn’t be winning another Tour and that I had seen him in the Yellow jersey for the final time. He may be wearing number one as defending champion, but 1990 would be the last time we seen him at his absolute peak. He was thirty years of age in 1991 and for some reason he was in decline. As I would later come to understand, it wasn’t his age that had seen him beaten and it would be more than twenty years before I would get to see a winner of the Tour de France that I could really believe in.
“In 1990 I won the Tour and my team [Z] won the top-team classification,” Said LeMond in a 2004 interview with French newspaperLe Monde. “One year later, not one of us could follow the pace in the pack. There had been a radical change.” Indeed. LeMond was referring to the use of EPO that was creaping into the peloton around this time and he wasn’t wrong. The sport had made its turn for the worst.
The Festina Affair in 1998 opened all our eyes to the seriousness of doping within the peloton … gone were the good old days of multi-vitamins, stimulants or caffeine pills that were seen as little more than supplements to help keep the system balanced for the grueling demands of the Tour … no … cycling had gone all scientific and the riders were the test-tube subjects of chemists.
As Willy Voet — a Festina staff member, whose car had been raided by French border police and found with a cashe of drugs that any good South American drug-lord would be proud of, thus igniting the whole Festina Affair in 1998 — would later say: “The difference was that the old drugs helped a rider to maximise his own potential. The new drugs transformed the rider.”
Over the next twenty years I would watch the Tour frequently but as the years rolled by it began to dawn on me that a lot of what I had grown up watching and thinking was real … really wasn’t. Some results took longer than others to question, but as time has worn on so the veil of trust and belief in almost everything I seen at the Tour de France level over two decades had fallen away. For too long I had forgiven professional cycling for it’s varied drug related scandals under the pretence that a new era would emerge only to ignore the alarm bells that should have signified something still wasn’t right.
Indurain would win that 1991 Tour and the following four. Over the next decade and a half Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong (seven times), Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador (three times), Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans and finally Brad Wiggins would all cross the finish line in Paris with the Yellow jersey upon their shoulders, but how much of it could I believe? Certainly not Riis, Ullrich, Pantani, Armstrong and Contador. They’ve all been linked to, admitted to, or caught in, the act of using performance enhancing drugs which just about covers every Tour from 1996 until 2010.
In the case of Armstrong, it was the finest example of the bigger the lie the more people who will believe it that you’ve ever seen. The story of his comeback from Cancer to glory sold better than the speculation of doping and everyone — myself included for a long time — bought in. When anyone would interject with their feelings that Lance had doped, they were put down as bitter and when it was the French they were described as ‘those jealous French, annoyed that an American was dominating their race’. Even when LeMond came forward to express his disappointment that Armstrong was working with Dr. Michele Ferrari — the disgraced trainer who was well known to be one who encouraged the use of performance enhancing drugs — few listened to him and he was pawned off in the media as a bitter old champion who was no longer the only American winner. Positive tests went away, detractors were put down and the fairytale lived on for much longer than it ought to. Indeed, only this year has it fully come crashing down.
But what about the man who replaced LeMond at the top, Miguel Indurain? For a long time I believed Indurain was nothing more than a freak of nature whose huge lung capacity and low heart-rate at rest had allowed him to beat the rest five times straight, but the more you look into it the more suspicision you see and the more things don’t add up. Indurain came through a Spanish system of the late 80’s that encouraged the experimentation of blood doping as a means to the nations success on the sporting stage. He withdrew from his first two Tours before finishing 97th, 47th, 17th and 10th heading into ’91 when it’s believed — as LeMond alluded to — that EPO really began to creep into the peloton.
A former team-mate of Indurain, Thomas Davy, would come forward years later and testify that, “At Banesto there was systematic doping, under medical supervision.” When asked by a Judge, curious about Indurain’s stance, if everyone on the team used drugs? Davy responded: “I don’t know. I didn’t go round all the rooms, but I think so.”
I wish Indurain had been above it all, but it seems hard to believe. To remember Indurain ending the era of LeMond at the age of just thirty, and to learn from so many sources that LeMond was as talented as many had seen on a bike and was one who never indulged in stimulants and vitamin injections, not to mention EPO and Blood Doping, only strengthens the belief that not everything was on the straight and narrow with Indurain, as brilliant as he was.
From the last time I seen LeMond in Yellow that week in France as a nine year old kid until today, there’s only one Tour of all the Tours I would go on to sit and watch that I would lay down decent money on being absolutely legitimate, and that came this year when Bradley Wiggins won. Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans might take umbrage with such a view, and for it I apologise for a good part of me wants to believe that both their wins in 2008 and 2011 respectively, were indeed clean but they can take up their grievance about my cynical mind with their fellow professionals who created such a fan.
Yes, from the ‘shocking’ Festina Affair of ’98, to the ‘Why am I not surprised’ Operation Puerto scandal of ’06, to the ‘The only surprise is that someone finally made it stick’ USADA downfall of Lance of ’12, each fresh scandal at the rate of about one every seven years has promised a fresh start and a bright light for the future of cycling only for the fans to lap up such promises and the media to bury their heads in the sand. Is it any wonder us fans have the minds we now do? Watching titles being stripped, top riders fail tests, scandals, and the general mocking of the sport from those on the outside that we feel we have to defend the sport to … it hasn’t always been an easy twenty years to be a cycling fan as much as a lot of it was still enjoyable to watch at the time.
And here we are, still hanging around. And you might ask me why, if the last time you seen a champion in Yellow you could believe in, was as far back as 1991, would you keep watching? Well it’s a beautiful sport … and then there’s guys like Bradley Wiggins who pop up and prove to you that yes, there can still be men like LeMond out there winning the Tour.
Wiggins’s win this year was a first for British cycling, but it was also a first for me. I’m sure I watched the 1990 Tour, but I just don’t remember watching it and while I know LeMond won in ’90, it was watching Wiggins do it this past July that was the first time I seen a man win the Tour I could honestly believe was doing it right.
Wiggins’s anti-doping stance has been a vocal and long standing one. Back in his early days he almost walked away from the sport when Cofidis team-mate Cristian Moreni failed a drug test. His team were kicked out of the Tour and on his way home Wiggins dumped his racing kit in a garbage bin. Then this year, while in the Yellow jersey, he was challenged about doping in the sport and he launched a tirade of abuse at the question. He composed himself a few days later for his column in The Guardian saying that “Doping would simply be not worth it. This is only sport we are talking about. Sport does not mean more to me than all those other things I have. Winning the Tour de France at any cost is not worth the possibility of losing all that.” The ‘that’ in which he was referring to was his family, his reputation and everything he has so far achieved.
A guy with the attitude of Wiggins who has never embraced the limelight and who always looks like someone who could walk away from the sharp end of the sport at any moment, you can’t help but take his anti-doping stance at face value.
The whole saga of watching Lance fall from grace these past few months, the admission of others to their history with drugs, and the vocal stance taken by a number of young riders in the peloton — something you would never have seen a decade ago when the likes of Christophe Bassons was banished from the sport by his fellow pros for daring to speak out — shows that there truely does appear to be a culture shift in the peloton now.
Call me and idiot and tell me that the same words were sounded after 1998 and 2006, but I like to think that the last twenty some years have allowed me to finally know a good thing when I see it. If I’m going to believe there is no hope for the sport then I might as well stop at the end of this sentence, hit submit then never return to watching or writing about the sport again.
The next step cycling truly needs to take for a fresh start is a ‘truth and reconciliation’ for it’s riders and a change at the top of the UCI. The same faces that presided over the failure to jump on board the opportunity for change in the sport after Festina 1998, Armstrong 1999, Puerto 2006, among other black-eyes, shouldn’t be around for this golden opportunity for change today. Cycling needs a new leadership who will truly help cycling to embrace a new era. Someone who knows what it’s like to ride and win clean.
Where have you gone Greg LeMond? Cycling turns it’s lonely eyes to you…
That sentence paraphrases the lyrics to the 1968 Simon & Garfunkle song, Mrs. Robinson in which Paul Simon sang, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? / Our Nation turns its lonely eyes to you / Woo Hoo Hoo” When asked about the song DiMaggio initially complained that he had not gone anywhere, but after a meeting with Simon, the singer explained that the line was meant as a sincere tribute to DiMaggio’s unpretentious heroic stature, in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our hero’s, Di Maggio dropped his complaint.
LeMond didn’t go anywhere either and the same lyrics can act as a tribute to LeMond’s unpretentious heroic stature, in a time when a sport riddled with drug stories from it’s past makes us question who our hero’s are and if they can still exist?
On Monday, December 3, 2012, I flicked up the cycling websites and sports pages of various newspapers and came across the following headline on the website of The Times:
“LEMOND PONDERS CHALLENGE FOR UCI PRESIDENCY”
Yes, I could get behind that.
“I want to do whatever I can to change the sport but I’m not pushing myself. I’m not really a politician,” LeMond said. “We need to find a great leader for the UCI who is beyond reproach. If there is nobody else willing to do it and if that means an interim presidency, I would be willing to do that.
“If this sport is to change, it’s now or never,” he continued. “What’s the UCI recommending at the moment? Nothing. They [McQuaid and Verbruggen] should resign. Any honourable person would have done that years ago.
“I would like to see Armstrong admit what he has done. I might even shake his hand. It would be the one redeeming thing that he could do because he has done a lot of damage to cycling.”
So how about LeMond for UCI President? Is it feasible? I find it hard to believe McQuaid will just step to the side and hold the door open for LeMond on his way out, but if it were to happen? Well, the idea of LeMond being back in the fold — overseeing the sport, even for a short while — he could continue pushing cycling forward in the direction it appears to be finally moving … forward to represent the kind of sport LeMond stood for.