Tour de France 1991

The Tour de France first controlled for drugs in its 1966 edition. It has taken the better part of 40 years for the UCI to convince both the riders and the public that they mean business about making the sport clean.

Truly, that rather inauspicious day back in 1966 was a turning point. Without the Tour de France being controlled, the sport was essentially uncontrolled because by the 1960s, it was the one event other than the World Championships that was virtually guaranteed to feature a truly international field.

Interestingly, the first test—Raymond Poulidor’s famously lax urine sample that resulted in a protest the next day—didn’t occur during the prologue or even stage 1, it was taken following stage 8. That Poulidor was the first controlled rider demonstrates that officials had some sense impartiality. Through those first eight stages German rider Rudi Altig wore the yellow jersey following his victory in the prologue and not a single French rider had won a stage. Or were they afraid to catch a real doper?

Until fairly recently, doping control has been a fairly hit or miss affair. Due to the rate at which riders who have been known to dope have evaded detection, even targeting a particular rider for additional tests often didn’t result in a positive test. But there has been enough of a correlation between positive tests following great performances that we now associate success with the specter of doping. It’s unfortunate, but that is the promise of doping: You go faster and win races.

But with that understanding comes a dangerous corollary: We have begun to suspect that any rider who wins is probably—if not certainly—doped. Bicycling Magazine’s Joe Lindsey put forth an idea a few years ago that uses a sort of Keatsian negative capability to make sense of the pro peloton and help put a lid on overactive suspicion. In effect, Lindsey said, we must accept the peloton is doped to the gills. However, each of the riders deserves the presumption of innocence.

This is where the principles of American jurisprudence can inform the rest of the world. Without actual proof of an infraction, we should presume each individual to be innocent.

The average cycling fan can say what he or she wants about any pro and the slight is, well, slight. But once members of the media, even ones as fringe as bloggers, start couching their concerns as actual allegations, at that point a racer’s reputation can be harmed.

There’s been a perception by some readers that I have it in for Greg LeMond and that the only altar I kneel at has a picture of Lance Armstrong hanging above it. My personal feelings for both riders aren’t really important. I have a duty, however, to be very careful what I publish about Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping—or any other rider’s alleged doping. Yes, there is some very incriminating evidence that would suggest he engaged in tactics common to riders of his generation. But he has the presumption of innocence on the side of his reputation as he hasn’t been convicted of an infraction. Open, shut.

As a writer and cycling fan, my opposition to LeMond pursuing Armstrong as a doper is simple. It’s simply not his job. He’s overstepping bounds in a big way and unfortunately, to many people who follow cycling, his single-mindedness about Armstrong eliminates the even-handed justice that would be on his side if he offered to work with the UCI to use his incredible knowledge to help them refine the profile for suspicious riders. In short, LeMond is not an enforcement apparatus and needs to understand that.

That said, if it is true that Armstrong said to LeMond, ‘I could find 10 people that will say you took EPO,’ it is one of the uglier statements he is reported to have made. I’ve got no place in any mudslinging that takes place between these two, but because Armstrong’s statement seems to have raised questions about LeMond using EPO, I’m going on the record to say that I don’t believe we have any reason to suspect LeMond took EPO.

There is much to suggest that the spread of EPO at the Tour in 1991 was LeMond’s downfall. LeMond has said of ’91 that the racing was faster and attacks more frequent than in previous years. We know Claudio Chiappucci, who finished third that year, was on EPO. It’s easy to be suspicious and just say that from 1991 on, everyone was on EPO, but the situation isn’t that simple.

Conspiracy theorists like to point to how LeMond managed to get in shape just in time for the Tour as evidence that he must have been on EPO. While LeMond and Ullrich might have had getting fat over the winter in common, the only other thing they had in common was phenomenal talent. The real mark of EPO is better evidenced by the example of Bjarne Riis who raced both with and without EPO.

Bjarne Riis finished the 1991 Tour in 107th place, more than two hours down on the yellow jersey; he had yet to discover the miracle elixir. Back then, he was riding for Castorama in support of Laurent Fignon. Only two years later he finished in fifth place while riding for Gewiss-Ballan, a team that was later revealed to have had an organized program. In his press release in which he admitted his “mistakes,” Riis pointed to the years ’93-’98 as the years in which used EPO, human growth hormone and corticosteroids. His results seem to bear this out.

LeMond and Fignon (who finished sixth in ’91) were Grand Tour riders who won the Tour prior to the advent of EPO. Had LeMond been on EPO in 1991, he would likely have won the Tour that year. However, he was riding for the French team Z and the spread of EPO as administered by teams started with Italian and Dutch formations; the French teams didn’t catch on to “the program” for a few years.

As a writer, I’m unwilling to point a finger at a rider who hasn’t been convicted of doping and call him out; there are basic ethical rules against this. The flipside is different. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that LeMond was an unusually clean racer for his time.

Image by John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. trev

    I don’t have any less respect for Greg. He has done too much good for this to tarnish his rep. Lance has done too little to clean up his own rep. IMO.

  2. randomactsofcycling

    For years and years the great Athletics Track Sprinter, Carl Lewis, has campaigned for a clean sport and against drugs in sport. For all intents and purposes, he is Athletics Greg Lemond.
    When it was revealed he actually failed three drug tests – one before Ben Johnson was caught – he simply said “so what, everyone else was doing it”.
    I am not a religious man but I pray to whatever higher power exists that someone from cycling’s Elder Statesmen (if we can call their behaviour Stately) does indeed prove to us all that they did it on their own.
    Thanks Padraig for the continued sanity in an otherwise hysterical debate.

  3. Touriste-Routier

    The assumption of innocence before being proven guilty is an American ideal, not necessarily a European model. And let’s face it, cycling is a European sport, and the UCI a European organization.

    Americans tend to believe in their own system of jurisprudence, and fail to understand the systems of others. WADA, the UCI, and the European National Federations do not follow the US system. If they did, riders would be punished upon conviction (confirmation of tests, or exhaustion of CAS appeals), not speculation (Operacion Puerto).

    Americans also tend to be very biased (not that others are not also biased) I’ll speculate that most of us believed Floyd Landis was innocent, but most of us also believe that Vino was guilty. In general Floyd was welcomed back into the peloton after serving his sentence, while we still jeer at Vino. I find it interesting that David Millar, Erik Zabel, and Johan Museeuw remain heroes, while others are cheats. Does the admission of guilt or the passage of time make all the difference?

    While there are too many unethical participants (the whole system, not just the athletes) in the sport at the moment, the governing bodies treatment of accusation, indictment, and conviction in the same regard and manner tarnishes the sport at least as much as it helps clean it.

    Since the sport continues its prosecution on doping in an ends justify the means manner, the system has no integrity. The doping problem will not be overcome until a single, unified strategy is created and uniformly administered; one where solid science is backed by a scientific method, rules of evidence, and due process, which is adhered to by all participants (riders, teams/staff, labs, federations, doping authorities, promoters, and police). This means you establish the rules and you stick to them; consistent standards, accredited labs with certified personnel and calibrated equipment, no leaks to the press, consistent rules of punishment, etc. If the system breaks down, then the athletes & sponsors shouldn’t be the ones that suffer; consequences for breaking rules should be system wide.

    To get to the next level, the push needs to be to identify the truth more so than pure conviction of cheats. Things need to be brought out into the open. Without any amnesty programs, there are no incentives to admit guilt. You don’t have a clean house if all the dirt is swept into the basement and while skeletons are still hiding in the closet.

  4. Dano

    we can commend ourselves for at least one thing in this, a pursuit that not all sport takes interest in, the pursuit of a clean sport. Consider baseball, football, basketball and all of them, there is an erie sense of conflict of interest, after all, the bigger, faster and more athletic due to dope, the more tickets they sell, the more the sport captures and the more money they make. It is indeed a conflict in interest, and cycling has tried to at least mitigate that. I have a feeling, the other sports in 40 years will be where we are today, hopefully.

  5. Sophrosune

    We are just kidding ourselves if we think there’s an equivalency between the doping that goes on in cycling and what goes on in other sports. Baseball, football and basketball all require highly developed hand-eye coordination that are the key ingredient to these other sports. Cycling does not require that kind of athleticism. It requires high VO2 max and power output at that max. You can quickly tip the scales in cycling by using EPO, blood doping or other means that can get you that VO2 max and power output fairly quickly. So, a talented athlete on steroids will not be as tall as Shack, he will not hit a round ball with a round bat like Ted Williams and he will be able to hurl a football 60 yards hitting a receiver on a dead run. Face it in cycling there is a huge amount to be gained from doping that far surpasses anything to be gained in any other sport, and any back slapping for a “job well done” in policing it while other sports don’t is just not getting it.

  6. Robot

    I am also of the view that the justice in our sport is only as good as our SYSTEM of justice. People like Paul Kimmage and Greg LeMond pressurize the system, but they don’t, in the end, mete out the justice.

    I loved LeMond the rider. Given his massive VO2 max, I question, a little bit, why he didn’t actually win MORE races, earlier in his career, but the man road the Classics and the Grand Tours. He battled. He laughed when he lost, and he laughed when he won, and I admire that.

    My great problem with LA, regardless of whether he doped or not, is actually that he hasn’t been much of a pro cyclist. He’s been a hell of a Tour de Francer (I made that term up), the best ever, but one race doesn’t make a career, no matter how many times you win it.

    If, in the end, he’s convicted of doping, then the conversation shifts tectonically. But cycling is a sport that does a LOT of revisionist history. We all acknowledge Merckx as the best rider ever (most of us anyway), but he doped. Anquetil doped. Coppi doped. We revise their legacies to suit our own needs, to fill our own prescriptions for heroes.

    Time will remember LeMond well. I doubt LA will get that same treatment.

  7. Dano

    sophrosune, I don’t think we are in disagreement, because I do agree w/your observations. I agree that there is hand-eye coordination etc in the other sports, to a large degree but so it is within cycling as well. No doubt, the aerobic capacity for cyclists are greater, therefore that is true, the benefit to dope is tempting. However, the temptation for baseball/football/soccor/basketball is great as well. I know for a fact baseball is in it deep, I have had friends that get in the minor leagues and say its all over the fields and the exception is to play without it. So is the history within cycling. My beef w/other sports outside cycling, is that they do now have a greater sense of a conflict of interest in that IF they pursue dope, then they (owners/managers/players) are afraid of the detriment it would perhaps yield to the level of play they now enjoy. This may impact their records set, ticket sales, support in general, and therefore they seem quite hesitant to openly pursue it aggressively, in my opinion due to a large part they are benefiting so much by the status quo. Is there a difference in what we are saying sophrosune? I agree, dope has cost cycling dearly, but so it also goes for other sports that seem hesitant to do anything about dope in whatever form they enhance performance.

  8. Dano

    BTW, I really appreciate everyones insight here, sophrosune, robot, et al. You all really know great details and have great insight into what we all passionately love.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thank you for the insightful comments.

      I do have one point to add to the discussion of eye-hand coordination. While the nature of the eye-hand coordination in cycling is different than in the stick and ball sports, it is no less there. What we do when negotiating a turn in a pack requires an incredible amount of skill, no less than shooting a three pointer. Descending a mountain pass at 45 mph is unusual in that it requires both calm and perfectly timed movements. Friends who are pilots say cycling is not a lot different.

      Touriste-Routier: You’ve opened up quite the can of worms. That’s not some place I was prepared to go in this post. These two posts I wrote for BKW in 2007 do speak to some of the points you raise, though:

      While I do believe Tyler Hamilton had a valid point about no control for a false positive (his defense wasn’t that he had a chimera, but that a chimera was one of several examples of a false positive that the test couldn’t discern), after doing a lot of reading I came to the understanding that the test really is pretty straightforward and simple to judge. Guilty. Same for Alexandre Vinokourov and Santi Perez, etc.

      Landis is another matter. Having read the 1000+ page transcript of his case, I don’t think USADA proved its case against him. He could have been doped, but they didn’t catch him at it. What especially bothered me was their prejudice. USADA ought to be neutral in its adjudication of cases, but they seem to operate from the Napoleonic Code: guilty until proven innocent. Even if you accept the idea that Landis was doping and was caught red-handed, USADA’s approach was less a search for the truth than a rush to judgement. I have a problem with that.

  9. Sophrosune

    It may be the case, Dano, that baseball and the other sports you mention are riddled with doping. But if you just take the case of baseball (my first love), you still haven’t seen anyone bat .400 since Williams nor a 56-game hitting streak like Dimaggio. My point is the players of today can take all the drugs they want and they are still aren’t better than the players of days gone by. On the other hand, I would like to see a 6′ 2″ 180lb mountain of a man win 5 tour de frances in a row without EPO in the era of Merckx or Coppi. Just sayin’

  10. JZ

    I agree that the physical requirements of cycling make it particularly susceptible to cheating with EPO, blood doping, etc., but it is hardly alone in that respect. All endurance sports, whether it is running, swimming, cycling, x-country skiing, even soccer are just as susceptible. If the amount of testing that is done in cycling was done in those sports I would guess the positive tests would be numerous.

    With regard to Lemond, I truly wish that he would channel his passion for a cleaner sport into the sport itself. Where is the Lemond junior development team? Certainly if he is truly a “rockstar” in France he could use that as a positive impact in cycling. Even in the US, his name and participation has value. No one I know does not still admire Lemond the rider. I thought at one point he was supposed to be assisting/advising the Garmin/Slipstream/Chipotle team. What happened to that?

  11. Touriste-Routier

    The irony of doping is that it is originally taken to gain an advantage. If many are doing it, then one may take it in order to just keep up. If everyone is doing it, then the level playing field has been re-established in a sense.

    There are of course additional ironies and conflicts of interest. Higher, faster, longer, better certainly applies to cycling.

    While sponsorship certainly exists, closed leagues (such as NBA, NHL, MBL, NFL) gain most of their revenue via TV rights. The owners of the teams may also be the owners of the venues, and many leagues have some degree of profit or revenue sharing. They truly are all in it together. Outside regulation of doping in their sport is not in their revenue interest. They have the economic power and interest of being able to control the testing themselves, so as to make it window dressing for PR purposes, yet largely do nothing. Thus they can largely eliminate scandals. These leagues couldn’t care less about the Olympics, so there is no incentive to be subject to WADA. The athletes do what is required to stay on top of their game (so as to remain interesting to the public and their employers), with relatively low risk of sporting level consequences.

    Cycling, despite the UCI’s Pro Tour effort is not a league. The races are owned by distinct parties, the teams are owned by other parties (and what is the economic benefit of being a team owner; you don’t really own anything tangible), and the venues (outside of velodromes) are public streets.

    Only a few events receive significant revenue from TV rights; many events have to pay to have their events covered (or at least sell sponsorship for them). The average athlete relies heavily on prize money to make up a substantial portion of their compensation, and need results to keep their coveted places on teams.

    All parties are subject to the goodwill and interest of their sponsors. It is not unreasonable to assert that doping from a team perspective, and from a race promoter perspective is not a big deal at the sporting level, but it is at the sponsor level- companies want to be associated with clean endeavors.

    So there are a lot of conflicts built into the system.

  12. Alex

    Even if hand-eye coordination sports benefit less from doping than other sports, IMHO this is not a matter where relativity or half-terms should be accepted: doping is all-or-nothing, like being pregnant. You´re either a cheat or a clean, there´s no half-cheat.

    Though I`m not a football soccer fan and I only ride bikes, I live in the “land of soccer” (Brasil) and I see the effect of doping when local players go to european teams: they leave local teams skinny and small, and after only one season they´re bulky, muscular and super-fast. But that comes at a cost.

    Of course some of that improvement is due to superior and intensive training, it´s evident that they need to conform to higher “technical demands” in such a short timeframe, and the only way to promote that is through dope. It´s just not natural, so much so that the outcome is a bit tragic: the majority of these kids are plagued by injury after their first year as euro pros, and many of them are finished when they´re supposed to be on the rise.

    Pretty much every sport can benefit from better, faster, leaner and stronger muscles, be it VO²max or hand-eye coordination type.

    And yes, I´m with the guys who love Greg. His star may not shine as bright as Lance´s, but his character is strong and his talent undisputed. I hope he finds his way into helping of our sport as Padraig said, he deserves better for what he´s done for cycling!


  13. Adam

    I’d urge you to read this article from SLATE about EPO use in tennis:
    Excerpt here:

    “I think EPO has advantages in all sorts of ways, to anybody, in any sport. The days when we thought it was only helpful for endurance sports are long gone…, a sport that requires power and stamina and speed, “doesn’t lend itself to any one particular kind of performance enhancement.” That’s one way to look at it; another would be to say that tennis might reward all forms of performance enhancement. Tennis, as much as any other major sport, demands a combination of power and endurance: It’s like taking batting practice while running—or sprinting—a marathon. It’s difficult to think of a sport where performance-enhancing drugs could help an athlete more.”

    A final point I’d add is that maybe stating that no present player has the hand eye cordination of Ted Williams is the wrong way to look at it, after all, the pitchers he faced were likely all clean. Perhaps, modern players are all the more amazing for the feats they manage against doped pitchers.

  14. Robot

    I actually don’t believe doping is so black and white. These points have been made before, but I think it’s worth pointing out that much of what is on the banned list can be exempted for various conditions (e.g. corticosteroids for asthma), and riders find ways of getting those exemptions.

    Cycling fans I speak with, when asked what doping is, they say: “Putting something unnatural in your body to gain an advantage,” but then become confused when I ask questions like: “OK, so you can eat a banana, and that’s legal, but is it ok to get a potassium injection equal to ten bananas?” Potassium itself isn’t banned, but there are seemingly unnatural ways to ingest it.

    Likewise caffeine, and various cocktails of minerals, vitamins and metabolants than can be combined in ways that Mother Nature would never recognize. Many, many of these are not banned substances, the point being, defining doping can be very difficult. What we, the fans, would like to see, and what the rules actually prescribe are already dramatically out of synch. And here I’m talking about riders riding within the rules, but still attending to their bodies like mad professors quaffing smoking potions of mysterious provenance.

    Doping and not doping begin to look a lot alike when you boil down the various methods of doctors, trainers and occasionally soigneurs.

    I am opposed to doping, but I also realize that there is more gray than either black or white in the peloton’s behavior.

  15. Sophrosune

    I was not arguing that benefits are not to be gained from doping in the specific sports I mentioned (i.e. baseball, basketball, and football), but that the benefits in cycling (and by extrapolation other endurance sports) are much greater. And by making this point, I said it was foolish to draw an equivalency between cycling’s need to police doping and the need for other sports to do so at a the same level. And further onto that, maybe we shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves on all the testing that goes in cycling that seems absent in these other sports. Now I of all people appreciate the skill that is required to descend a mountain at 45-50 mph. But in terms of hand-eye coordination it is not quite the same challenge as hitting a round ball traveling at 100 mph with a round bat from a distance of a mere 90 ft. So, in short, yes benefits can be gained by doping in other sports but not to the degree they can be in endurance sports, specifically cycling. This is why cycling has had to be more robust in its policing of it than in other sports.

  16. velomonkey


    Do you not read what I write? Take dope out of it, I’m not saying I never brought it up, but take dope out of it. If you are going to write a piece on LeMond and Armstrong and only look at LeMond’s business practices, then you must also look at LA’s business practices. I also wouldn’t pat yourself on the back too much for following standards that you dare not cross, you published an unnamed source and called LeMond a “nightmare.” This isn’t watergate, your source wasn’t deep throat and you sir are no woodward or bernstein. You have a decent command of the language and you write on bikes – I like it and so too do other people, but let’s not act like you’re writing for the economist and applying journalism rules, cause you’re not.

    Oh, and the paragraph on Riis, who was doped to the 9s, and his previous placing and proof of his drug use. Where exactly did LA finish while on Motorola?

  17. Marco Placero

    I thoroughly enjoy this type of discussion and learn a lot from all of you in the process. Kinda late to the dance but just a huge Veneto GRAZIE to everyone for their enlightening comments– one of many reasons I find RKP worthy of burning minutes on-planet.

  18. jc

    Sophrosune, I’m not sure I agree with the notion that the drugs cyclists take different in the ways you suggest.

    Specifically, the last three home run hitters challenging Hank Aarons’ record were all dopers- muscle bound dopers. Prior to that, who was challenging the record? Additionally, I’ve heard countless times about stimulants and baseball. Not just Doc Ellis, and not just to stay awake to watch it ;-). Have you noticed how fast linebackers are running now – times in the low 4’s! For guys who way 250lbs or more. I think that maybe if doping is looked at in all its’ forms, not just EPO/blood boosting, that it provides an ‘equal’ performance enhancing effect in other sports- whether it directly effects a mechanism of sport activity or not. Did Barry Bond’s drug use allow him to see the fastball better? No, but they allowed him to move his arms faster, and with more velocity, thus hitting the ball further.

    And I’d dispute the notion that cycling requires ‘less’ athleticism as well. Rather, that your definition of athleticism is unnecessarily narrow.

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