POLITICS JULY 24, 2006
The World Cup has ended and Wimbledon has been won, but for those still hungry for global competition, the Tour de France rolls on toward its Parisian finale on July 23. The race was already wide open when this decade's big drug scandal broke. In late May, a Spanish sting code-named Operación Puerto netted five people—including coaches from two professional racing teams and a former team doctor—in a secretive blood-doping program. The doctor's coded notes, along with phone records and videotapes, implicate more than 50 cyclists. Just before the Tour began, the Spanish authorities issued a 38-page précis of the investigation, which named dozens of Tour riders, including the race's overwhelming favorites, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, as members of the doping ring. As a result of the ensuing suspensions and Lance Armstrong's retirement, the top five finishers from last year's Tour are all out of this year's race.
Armstrong's retirement hasn't slowed the French press's relentless effort to prove that his seven victories were tainted by doping. The murky evidence and legal intricacies of the investigations are all but incomprehensible, but L'Equipe, the French sporting daily, runs each vague allegation under a screaming headline like "THE ARMSTRONG LIE." Armstrong has also been feuding publicly with Greg LeMond, the only other American to win the Tour. LeMond claimed in late June that Armstrong had threatened "my wife, my business, my life" over his public criticism of Armstrong's consultations with a controversial Italian doctor. But LeMond's more remarkable claim was that cycling was a clean sport back in the 1980s, when he raced. Like most retired athletes, he has a rose-colored view of his own era. The Dutch racer Joop Zoetemelk has the distinction of being the first cyclist to test positive for steroids, in 1979—which didn't keep him from winning the Tour in 1980. And, two years after LeMond's first win, the Spanish climber Pedro Delgado won the Tour despite testing positive for probenecid, a drug whose only use to an athlete is as a masking agent for steroids. But, as it wasn't yet proscribed for cyclists, Delgado kept his crown. LeMond's "clean" era was, in reality, the Age of Anabolic Steroids.
Doping has been a part of cycling since the Tour was founded in 1903. Back then, riders carried la moutarde—water bottles laced with everything from caffeine and opiates to ether and cocaine. The Tour's first doping scandal came in 1924, when the Pelissier brothers quit the race and complained about the conditions to a muckraking journalist. He dubbed Tour riders the "convicts of the road" and stressed the pharmacy they carried with them on every stage—cocaine, chloroform, and pills they referred to as the "dynamite." After World War II, amphetamines took over. (They were readily available in part because they'd been supplied in vast numbers to the Allied troops in Europe.) When asked if he took la bomba, as the pills were called, the Italian champion Fausto Coppi, who dominated the sport in the late '40s and '50s, replied, "Only when I have to." Pressed to define when that was, he acknowledged, "Almost all the time."
Amphetamine use came under the spotlight during the 1967 Tour, when the British rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died on the long, hot climb up Mont Ventoux. Before his death, Simpson had nicely summed up the riders' attitude toward drugs: "If it takes ten to kill you, I'll take nine." The Tour's organizers made a public show of new doping controls, but the riders rebelled, and it all got swept under the carpet as quickly as possible. As five-time Tour champion Jacques Anquetil said in response to all the handwringing, "You'd have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants."
And there's the rub. Cycling's popularity has always been based in part on the spectacle of physical suffering. Henri Desgrange, the Tour's founder, had initially wanted to make the race so challenging that only a single rider would finish: a Calvary with the winner determined not by speed but survival. For more than a century, the Tour has been a display of man overcoming his own physical limitations. Both LeMond and Armstrong added to this mythology by returning from near-death experiences—LeMond was shot in a hunting accident, Armstrong was stricken with testicular cancer—not just to race again, but to win the Tour.
The signature moment of the last decade was Armstrong looking back at Ullrich as he accelerated up Alpe d'Huez in 2001. Armstrong seemed to be saying, "Come on, let's go," to Ullrich, who could only focus on trying to keep a steady pace as the American charged away to victory. After six hours of riding over mountain passes, Ullrich simply couldn't go any faster. He was at the limit of human endurance. It was a typical maneuver for Armstrong, who used a simple method to win the Tour: Attack forcefully on the first mountain stage and drop all your rivals to gain the lead. Everyone knew exactly what he was going to do, yet, year after year, no rider could stay with him. It was the "called shot" of cycling.
Such moments are why, doping scandal or no doping scandal, the Tour will always be thrilling to watch. On the second stage this year, Matthias Kessler made a perfectly timed attack six kilometers from the finish, and the commentators all thought he had the win sewn up. Fifty meters from the line, though, the charging mass of riders caught him. Kessler shook his head in despair as dozens shot past him. Twenty-four hours later, he attacked off the front again, on the vicious Cauberg climb in Valkenberg, Holland—only 800 meters but at a 7.3 percent grade—and held off the pack to take a glorious, fist-pumping victory. After riding 134 hard miles, he should have been exhausted. Instead, he was elated—as was I by the brilliant racing and a just victory.
Robert Messenger is a Senior Editor at the Weekly Standard.