DOPING JULY 22, 2013
But what a splendid Tour that was—and what a wonderful race the Tour de France still is! Despite everything, with all the animosities and accusations and the dark shadows, the one hundredth running of the Tour was one of the best and most exciting editions in its history. There was true joie de vivre on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday evening. After Chris Froome, with much dignity, donned the winner’s final yellow jersey and doffed his cap for “God Save the Queen,” he gave a graceful speech, partly in French, dedicating his victory to his late mother who died of cancer but “would have been very proud” of him.
He has not only won the Tour in devastating fashion, he has won French hearts, or many of them, by riding brilliantly while also answering questions, however obnoxious, with courtesy and restraint, and in good French. On Sunday, while the acrobatic French air force jets painted the sky with the red, white, and blue of the tricoleur, and the Arc de Triomphe was the backdrop for a slightly over-the-top son et lumière, he lavished praise on France and its great race.
All right, no French rider finished higher than Romain Bardet in fifteenth, 26 minutes 42 seconds behind Froome, and no Frenchman won any jersey or podium place. The first three in the general classification were British, Colombian, and Spanish, the green sprinters’ jersey was won by a Slovak, the “red peas” King of the Mountains jersey and the best younger riders’ white jersey were both won by the same Colombian who finished second, the wondrous Nairo Quintana, and the team prize went to the Danish Saxo-Tinkoff. A small crumb of comfort for France came on the last Thursday when Christophe Riblon won the stage, and was subsequently given the rather subjective “combativity” prize.
"This is a beautiful country with the finest event on the planet," Froome said, and that wasn’t mere politesse. This Tour has delighted the millions of people who watched it as it passed through their towns and villages, up their hills and down their valleys, and reminded us what an extraordinary part the Tour has played in French social and cultural life for so long. Popular songs have hymned the riders since “Charlot”—not Charlie Chaplin but Charles Pélissier—90 years ago: “Les meilleurs des coureurs / C’est le géant Charlot / Fameux en tour de piste / Il veut avoir le maillot.” By 1927 Perchicot was singing “Les Tours de France”: “Je suis allé / Les voir passer / Les ‘Tours de France’ / Ils pédalaient / Et leurs mollets / Rythmaient une belle cadence / Qu’ils étaient beaux! / Sur leurs vélo / Dans leurs maillots pleins d’élégance” (“I went to see them pass, the Tours de France, they pedalled and their calves put rhythm into a beautiful motion. They were so handsome on their bikes, in their elegant jerseys,” though this may lose something in translation).
France being France, popular entertainers were kept pace by the intellos. One of the best of the Mythologies, Roland Barthes’s series of essays deconstructing everyday life, from wine-drinking to striptease, was “Le Tour de France Comme Épopée,” the Tour as epic. More than 50 years on, his choice of the names of riders he saw as hailing from an ancient tribal age—“Brankart le Franc, Bobet le Francien, Robic le Celte, Ruiz l’Ibère, Darrigade le Gascon”—stirs only faint memories even with Tour fanatics.
But Barthes was right: More than any other sporting event, the Tour really is an epic, in time and distance and heroic combat. The race ends on “the Elysian Fields,” and it wasn’t hard to see the heroes of the Tour as our Achilles and Ajax. An open-top car followed the peloton round the Champs-Elysées last night, with four distinguished-looking middle-aged geezers in shirtsleeves, smiling and waving, three sitting on top of the back seat—Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, and Miguel Indurain—and in front—as he usually was in his great days—Eddy Merckx, with a mere 18 Tour victories between them.
One man was absent, except as a spectral presence, the only rider to have won* the Tour seven times, and you know what Lance Armstrong's asterisk means. Throughout this race, Froome has been heckled and jeered, with malevolent fans holding up giant syringes and shouting “Dopé!” But then so they did ten years ago when Armstrong passed, and then the cynics were absolutely right.
“It’s quite hurtful,” is the understandable response of Froome’s manager Sir Dave Brailsford, no sensitive plant. But if the denigrators are wrong about Froome, as I and most people covering the race believe, what can he and Sky do? Well, Brailsford has done just about everything possible. David Walsh of the London Sunday Times is a hero of the story. He saw through Armstrong from the beginning and said so, and was hounded and traduced for his pains. That included a huge payment to Armstrong and his lawyers under the abominable English libel laws, when Walsh had told the truth and Armstrong had lied. The Équipe, the French sports paper, was likewise sceptical throughout about Armstrong and his performances “sur une autre planète.”
This year Walsh was in effect embedded with the Sky team and given total access to see anything he wanted to see and ask anything he wanted to ask, while Brailsford has released a large quantity of Froome’s clinical data in confidence to the Équipe. Walsh has now proclaimed his unequivocal belief that Froome is clean, and Dr. Fred Grappe, the Équipe’s in-house medical expert, has also given a thumbs-up. "Froome's PPR [Record Power Profile] over two years shows no fundamental anomaly," Grappe wrote. "His performances are coherent."
There are other heartening signs. For too long cycling just did not take the doping scourge seriously enough, though that was true of other sports as well. Indeed the imminent reappearance on the Yankees’ roster of a player I gather is known as A-Rod suggests that baseball may still have some way to go in this respect. But this year and for the past two years we’ve seen the mighty fallen: climbers completely cooked on the great ascents they once flew over. We even saw Froome himself faltering on Alpe d'Huez.
And the splendid achievements of the Colombians, Quintana’s success coming after Rigoberto Urán had likewise taken second place in the Giro d’Italia, is further good news. Colombia produces brilliant, small, ferocious climbers, thanks not least to the altitudes at which they are born and learn to ride, but they lost that natural advantage when so many other cyclists were chemically-fuelled. Their new ascendancy is indirect evidence that the Tour is now being ridden on even terms.
Or that’s what I hope, and just about believe, after many years of bitter disillusionment. Chris Froome has won a famous victory. "And this is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time," he said with deliberate meaning. If he can show beyond doubt that the Tour is clean at last, and that the maillot jaune is worn by an honest athlete, he will have won a greater victory still.
This post has been updated.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s book Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France is published in a new and updated edition.