Tag Archives: Tour de France

The Golden Age?

Maurice Garin – stripped of his Tour de France win in 1904 for taking the train instead of riding his bike over stretches of the course

And so, the television host said to the former Tour de France champion, a man who had been lionised for years, feted as the greatest cyclist of his day, did you ever use drugs in the course of your career?

“Yes,” came the reply. “Whenever it was necessary.”

“And how often was that?” came the follow-up question.

“Almost all the time!”

This is not a leak of a transcript from Oprah Winfrey’s much anticipated tell-all with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, but was lifted from a decades-old interview with Fausto Coppi, the great Italian road cycling champion of the 1940s and 1950s.

To this day, though, Coppi is lauded as one of the gods of cycling, an icon of a distant and mythical Golden Age in the sport.

So is five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil, (1957, 1961-64) who famously remarked that it was impossible “to ride the Tour on mineral water.” And then there’s British cycling champion Tommy Simpson, who died of heart failure while trying to race up Mt. Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, a victim of heat, stress and a heady cocktail of amphetamines.

All are heroes today. If their performance enhancing peccadillos are not forgotten, they have at least been glossed over in the popular imagination.

As the latest chapter of the sorry Lance Armstrong saga unfolds, it is worth looking at the history of cheating in the Tour de France to get a sense of perspective. This is not an attempt at rationalisation or justification for what Lance did. Far from it.

But the simple, unpalatable fact is that cheating, drugs and dirty tricks have been part and parcel of the Tour de France nearly from its inception in 1903.

Cheating was so rife in the 1904 edition that Henri Desgrange, the founder and organiser of the Tour, declared he would never run the race again. Not only was the overall winner, Maurice Garin, disqualified (for taking the train over significant stretches of the course), but so were next three place-getters along with the winner of every single stage of the course.

Of the 27 cyclists who actually finished that race, 12 were disqualified, and given bans ranging from one year to life. The race’s eventual official winner, 19 year-old Henri Cornet, was not determined until four months after the event.

And so it went. Henri Desgrange relented on his threat to scrub the Tour de France and the great race survived and prospered – as did the antics. Trains were hopped, taxis taken, nails scattered along the roads, partisan supporters enlisted to beat up rivals on late-night lonely stretches of the course, signposts were tampered with, bicycles sabotaged, itching powder sprinkled in competitor’s jerseys and shorts, food doctored, and inkwells smashed so riders yet to arrive couldn’t sign the control documents to prove they’d taken the correct route.

And then of course there were the stimulants – brandy, strychnine, ether, whatever—anything to get a rider through the nightmarishly tough days and nights of racing, along stages that were often over 200 miles long. In a way the race was tailor made to encourage this sort of thing. Henri Desgrange once famously said that his idea of perfect Tour de France would be one that was so tough that only one rider finished.

Add to this the big prizes at a time when money was hard to come by, a peloton largely comprising young riders from impoverished backgrounds to whom bicycle racing was their one big chance to get ahead, and the passionate following cycling enjoyed, and you had the perfect recipe for a desperate, high stakes, win-at-all-costs mentality, especially given the generally tolerant views on alcohol and drugs in those days.

After WWII came the amphetamines. Devised to keep soldiers awake and aggressive through long hours of battle they were equally handy for bicycle racers competing in the world’s longest and toughest race.

So what makes the Lance Armstrong story any different and his road to redemption any rougher? Well, for one thing none of the aforementioned riders were ever the point man for what the USADA has described in a 1000-page report as “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program sport has ever seen” – one whose secrecy and efficiency was maintained by ruthlessness, bullying, fear and intimidation. Lance was.

Somewhere along the line the casualness of cheating in the past evolved into an almost Frankenstein sort of science in which cyclists, aided by creepy doctors and trainers, were receiving blood transfusions in hotel rooms and tinkering around with their bodies at the molecular level many months before they ever lined up for a race.

To be sure, Lance didn’t invent all this, any more than he invented original sin, nor was he acting alone, but with his success, money, intelligence, influence and cohort of $1000-an-hour lawyers, and the way he used all this to prop up the Lance brand and the Lance machine at any cost he became the poster boy and – deserved – lightning rod for all that went wrong with cycling, his high profile eclipsing even the heads of the UCI who richly deserve their share of the blame. And so it will be interesting to hear what he has to say this evening, whether or not he cares to address, really address, the injuries he has done to so many people over the years, and looking further ahead, to how this ugly chapter in cycling history and its ruthless protagonist will appear to future generations, a few decades from now – colourful rogue or one of sporting history’s greatest scoundrels.


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Watching Le Tour

For a variety of reasons I have not been at sea nearly as much as I had hoped or expected on this assignment – hence my more regular-than-expected posts. Instead of riding the waves I have been killing time day by day in small town hotel rooms feeling alternately like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day and the travelling salesman Norman Rockwell painted for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, 19 August 1950, showing a lonely guy sitting up in bed in a dumpy hotel room playing solitaire on his sample case – ‘Solitaire’, I believe, was the title of the painting.

I’ve no sample case with me, but I do have a laptop balanced on my knees in my Spartan hotel room and a TV set on the wall and for a couple of hours each afternoon I get to watch the Tour de France, something I rarely have the time or opportunity to do back home in England. To be sure, it is broadcast in a language I can only barely understand (at least at the rapidity with which it is being spoken by the cheerfully garrulous presenters) but that is no matter. Their animated voices are a pleasing counterpoint to the dullness of my room and anyway isn’t the Tour de France is all about the grand spectacle? The rainbow swoosh of nearly two hundred cyclists spinning through the French countryside? The attacks on the climbs, the solitary breakaways, the sprint finishes? Who needs the commentary?

I am not into racing, as anyone who has been following this blog will have figured out long ago. Nor am I into watching TV. Everything I don’t know about Tour tactics, personalities, teams and the Continental racing scene in general you could just about crowd into an Olympic Velodrome, but ignorance hasn’t seemed to detract from my enjoyment of the coverage. In my muddled way I have formed my own pantheon of heroes and goats – helped along, I should add, by the more in-depth race analyses I read each evening in a blog called In the GC – and developed a modest rooting interest in a few favourites, the usual suspects, I suppose – Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans, Mark Cavendish and, in a Francophile sort of way, Sylvain Chavanel, to name but a few. In the main though I am sitting here in my far-from-home hotel room taking vicarious enjoyment in these spins through the sunlit French countryside, imagining myself out there – not racing, you understand, but simply pootling along at an agreeable rate of knots on my Pegoretti, as free as air.

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