Two Wheels Bad: The Dark Side of the Tour De France

Tranquilisers, amphetamines, a code of silence, whistle blowers and bitter recriminations. Welcome to the Tour de France, a sporting event turned soap opera.
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Tranquilisers, amphetamines, a code of silence, whistle blowers and bitter recriminations. Welcome to the Tour de France, a sporting event turned soap opera.

Well he sure ain’t pretty exactly. And what he wrote ain’t pretty either. Towards the end of May, as the US’s showcase professional cycle race, the Tour of California, had just got underway, somebody leaked a series of emails from disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis, the ‘winner’ of the 2006 edition of the Tour de France who was later stripped of his title after testing positive for testosterone during the race. In the emails, he alleges (among other things) that it was his previous team leader, Lance Armstrong, who introduced him to blood doping and how to avoid detection. He also said that Armstrong paid a substantial bribe to the UCI, the sports governing body, in order to cover up the fact Armstrong had tested positive in the Tour de Suisse. Armstrong, despite blustering and prevaricating, has now been forced to admit that he gave money to the UCI to fund the purchase of a blood analysis machine in order to combat doping, which under the circumstances is beyond irony (no receipt is currently forthcoming from the UCI’s vaults).

When cancer survivor Armstrong, possibly the most famous cyclist ever and the only man to have won the Tour de France seven times, was being lead day after day over the high mountains passes of the Alps and the Pyrenees by all eight members of his own team, did no-one question it? It was unheard of. The majority of these men were ‘roulers’, big strong men capable of riding for hours into the wind on the flat, protecting Armstrong from the elements, not bird-like climbers who could fly up mountains and unsettle the main contenders with their rapid accelerations and changes of pace. What was going on?

There’s an omerta, a code of silence, that governs professional cycling – ‘Don’t speak, don’t tell’. The omerta has undermined all real attempts to investigate allegations of drug use and corruption in the sport. Now, with the Tour de France underway and cynical and wise heads saying doping is still endemic, a new generation of riders are refusing to play the game. They are finally breaking the silence and naming names, at the risk of their careers.

Professional cycling is without doubt the hardest of endurance sports and, historically, has been rife with riders receiving pharmaceutical assistance, including ether, strychnine, tranquilizers, brandy, amphetamines, painkillers (including the infamous ‘pot belge’ or ‘Belgian mix’, a notorious mixture of tranquilizers, cocaine and heroin), corticoids, testosterone, human growth hormone, blood doping, transfusions and EPO.

There’s an omerta, a code of silence, that governs professional cycling – ‘Don’t speak, don’t tell’

If you are to be a professional rider and appear and act ‘professionally’ (which are two different things) – to observe what the French call ‘Le Metier’, doing it the right way – then there are rules you are expected to follow. One of those rules is the rule of silence. You do not speak of what you have seen, you do not speak of what you know, even when you are found out and disgraced. If you keep your mouth shut you will be welcomed back into the community, ‘the family’, with open arms. And if you do speak out about what you know in an effort to clean up the sport, you will be ostracised, branded a nutter, a liar, a bitter loser. This is the position in which Floyd Landis now finds himself.

This has come to be the de facto position and, despite some riders speaking out, it still exists stronger than ever. Why? Is it the power of money, the power and cult of personality or the power of a sports governing body with huge vested interests which they are determined to protect at all costs?

Although there have always been drug tests, if somewhat haphazardly applied, in the 1990s it became apparent that there was something very different and strange happening. Average race speeds increased substantially; riders who were considered ‘donkeys’ were suddenly not only getting over the high mountains in the company of the pure climbers but were actually winning races, including the biggest of them all, the Tour de France. A complicit media said nothing.

However, everything was blown out of the water in 1998, the day before the tour was due to start, when French police stopped a team car as it crossed the border from Belgium. It was stuffed to the gills with illegal products, including blood boosting agents. This set in chain a series of events and arrests with which the sport is still dealing now.

In 1998, French police stopped a team car as it crossed the border from Belgium. It was stuffed to the gills with illegal products

To have a chance of winning the tour, riders need the best team, the best training, the best bikes, the best mechanics – and the best nutritionists and doctors. And those nutritionists and doctors are often ahead of the rules.

There are riders whose careers were ruined by drugs, there are whistle-blowers who were ostracised, and there are riders who have cleaned up their act, made a comeback and are free to speak about the state of the sport today.

One of the leading riders to speak out about doping is Britain’s David Millar, currently lying 15th in the tour and the only British rider to have worn all four Tour de France competition jerseys. As well as vociferously lamenting the problems facing the sport, he is also co-owner of the team he rides for, Garmin-Transitions, a team with a very strong anti-doping ethos. But he only reached this position after a rather spectacular fall from grace. In 2004, French police raided his apartment in Biarritz and discovered why he had been ‘flying’. Stripped of his belt, shoelaces and dignity and left weeping in a police cell, the process of stripping his victories began, starting with his 2003 World Championship Time Trial win and a stage of the 2003 Tour de France and culminating in a two year ban.

When caught, Millar took the typical denial route and branded Philippe Gaumont, the rider who’d fingered him, as a lunatic, accusing him of talking "absolute crap". Gaumont, notorious for having confessed to extensive doping and explaining a lot of the tricks of the trade, said, "I have been treated as an informer and a madman. I knew that one day I'd have to get it all off my chest. You don't drug yourself for 10 years with a smile on your lips."

Millar spent most of the first year of his suspension drunk, but when he sobered up he realised it had been the culture of the sport that had bought him down and that it didn’t have to be this way. "I would like the UCI to use me as an example," he said. "I think I'm in a position where I can stand on a soapbox and say I'm clean, it's all out in the open."

Lance Armstrong, despite his obvious borderline sociopathic personality defects, is in the curious position of having been both good and bad for the sport: good because his relentless desire for glory and wealth has raised the sport's profile, bad because those exact same qualities have intimidated not only riders but arguably also the sport's administrators. Leaving aside his campaign via his Livestrong Foundation to raise funds for cancer research – although the relationship between Livestrong.org (for charity) and Livestrong.com (for profit?) is a tad unclear – he is a well documented enforcer of the omerta.

Take, for example, the following incident at the 2004 Tour de France. With only a few days left, Armstrong was a shoo-in for his sixth title. But then he did something both incomprehensible and, at first glance, out of character. A breakaway had slipped ahead of the pack and, as none of the riders were a threat to the overall result of the race, they’d been allowed to go. 'Let them work if they want to' was the mentality. One of them will win the stage, they’ll get airtime for their sponsors and the rest will improve their prospects of sorting a new deal for next year. Another day at the office.

The FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are now investigating Landis’s claims

An Italian rider, Filippo Simeoni, saw this rapidly diminishing opportunity and attempted to bridge the gap. All was normal until Armstrong, the race leader, started to chase him down. What on earth was he doing? Surely his move made no difference to him? But with Armstrong now in the group, his rivals in the bunch behind had no choice but to close the gap, ruining for the lesser riders their day in the sun, something that could make their whole season.

Armstrong knew exactly what he was doing. He said that he’d sit up and allow them to get on with it, but only on the condition that Simeoni sat up too. After much abuse from the other riders, Simeoni felt he had no choice. Armstrong and Simeoni allowed themselves to be caught by the chasers. In the midst of all this, Armstrong turned to Simeoni and did his now infamous 'zip your lips' gesture.

What was that all about? Well, in the late 1990s, Simeoni had admitted to doping and named a Dr Michele Ferrari as his supplier. Ferrari is notorious for his attitude to doping. In fact, he has been quoted as saying that taking blood boosting products is no more harmful than drinking a glass of orange juice. And his other clients? Well, they include none other than Armstrong (something he had previously denied).

Armstrong had made the mistake of calling Simeoni a liar and the Italian had subsequently started defamation proceedings. Interviewed afterwards, Armstrong said many other riders had congratulated him for his actions in 'protecting the interests of the peloton'. Murky, to say the least. That was omerta in action: not only in action, but broadcast live to millions of people. There was a fuss for a few days – the police even considered a charge of 'intimidating a witness' against Armstrong – but it all just faded away.

But with the Feds, in the form of the FDA investigating Landis’s claims there is a feeling that these latest allegations will not fade away just so easily and they may just be the beginning of the end of omerta. No wonder Armstrong keeps falling off in this year’s Tour. Not concentrating on the race y’see? He’s got other things to think about.

The narrative has changed. Hopefully for the better.

But with the Feds, in the form of the FDA investigating Landis’s claims there is a feeling that these latest allegations will not fade away just so easily and they may just be the beginning of the end of omerta. No wonder Armstrong keeps falling off in this year’s Tour. Not concentrating on the race y’see? He’s got other things to think about.

The narrative has changed. Hopefully for the better.