The French have long complained their riders suck at the Tour de France because the race runs at two speeds. Hyperdrive for dopers; pedestrian for the clean.
So when Jean-Christophe Péraud crumpled against a fence and wept after stage 20 of this year’s Tour—unable to speak through tears of joy at becoming the first French rider to podium since Richard Virenque in 1997—I wondered if there might be substance to this French excuse.
Are biological passports and changing rider attitudes about doping removing the extra chemical cogs from what had became a two-speed field?
On the final day of the Tour, Péraud’s countryman Thibaut Pinot clinched third overall. Pinot, 24, also won the best young rider’s jersey. You have to go back to 1984, when Laurent Fignon won and Bernard Hinault took second, to find two Frenchmen sharing that Champs-Élysées stage.
With Romain Bardet in sixth, three French riders placed top-ten GC top 10 this year. Add 11th place Pierre Rolland and you’ve got a solid crowd of Frenchmen in the upper deck of a race that for the last three decades was largely an American, German, Spanish—and more recently Aussie and British–affair. I had to blow the dust off the 1983 results, another Fignon victory year, to find a Tour with four Frenchmen in the final top ten.
After France passed its first federal anti doping laws in 1965 (two years before the UCI drew up a banned substance list) French newspaper Le Figaro wrote, “The fear of the gendarme is excellent medicine against doping.” The French law targeted the peloton’s favorite pick-me-up, amphetamines. The punishment was a fine or a jail term of one month to a year.
Some shady acts at the 1962 Tour precipitated these French efforts to criminalize doping out of sport. That year’s race saw 14 riders drop out with “food poisoning.” At the time racers were also cavalier about leaving their pharmaceutical aids strewn about their hotel rooms.
With Tour organizers getting antsy about how doping might affect public opinion of their event, the race medical commissioner tossed an official communiqué over to the riders and teams: clean up or we’ll be inspecting your rooms after each stage.
After that year’s Tour, race physician Dr. Pierre Dumas—who was sincerely concerned about riders’ health, not just the Tour’s public image—organized the inaugural European Conference on Doping and the Biological Preparation of the Competitive Athlete. The January, 1963 conference took place in the Alpine spa town of Uriage-les-Bains, not far from this year’s stage 13 finish line. The anti-doping resolutions that emerged from the conference were the seeds of anti-doping laws the French National Assembly stamped into the books in 1965.
In 1966 the Tour de France introduced its first drug tests. Riders responded to what they saw as an intolerable invasion of both their privacy and right to earn a living by walking the first few meters of a stage while chanting, “No pissing in test tubes!” and “A test tube for Dumas!”
The government’s 1965 anti-doping legislation ultimately did not keep riders away from pep pills. However, the peloton’s embrace of EPO in the 1990s and the 1998 Festina affair led French politicians to revisit their 33-year old anti doping laws. In 1998 the National Assembly wrote new regulations that gave French anti-doping efforts a fresh set of teeth—incisors the French public claimed tugged their riders back during a decade when cyclists from countries where sports doping is not a state crime (like the United States) were free to fly without fear of doing chamois time in a prison cell.
Three days before the 1998 Tour de France start, French border police found hundreds of doses of drugs in a Festina team car. The discovery sparked a series of doping revelations that nearly ended the race. Over the following three weeks, French police raided rooms and team vehicles, arrested team staff and riders, and forced the cyclists to undergo searches, medical exams, and drug tests. In the ensuing cascade of drug revelations, riders protested. Four teams withdrew. Chemical shit hit the fan in a very big way.
France’s then-Minister of Youth and Sport, Marie-George Buffet, ordered those police drug raids. A longtime member of the French Communist Party who went on to become the party’s head and a French presidential candidate, for Buffet, defense of worker rights was always a central concern. While the French public was relatively indifferent to doping athletes, Buffet was not.
Since its founding in 1903, Tour de France riders were seen by many as workers at the mercy of indifferent, exploitative race owners and sponsors. As historian Christopher Thompson reports in his masterful book on the race, The Tour de France: A Cultural History, from its beginning Tour riders were variously seen as abused workers, convicts, or indefatigable machines.
Between 1903 and 1926 the average winning stage finish varied from 12 to 16 hours—the same workday as a miner in Roubaix. Race founder Henri Desgrange played up the notion of his riders as heroic laborers toiling in marathon stages. Desgrange outlawed derailleurs until 1937, hectoring riders that they must “Leave gear changes to women and the old, you are the kings, the giants of the road, you must vanquish the obstacles with which it confronts you by your means alone, without recourse to subterfuges unworthy of you.”
In 1935 the French newspaper L’Humanité criticized this rider treatment. “Like an exploiter in the factory,” the newspaper argued, Desgrange “requires ever-greater productivity with less security and more fatigue.”
In 1936, the year before Desgrange lifted his cruel ban on a gear-changing device that had been around since the turn of the century, France’s Popular Front passed laws mandating eight-hour workdays. In tandem with the changing expectations about the workweek, the average Tour stage had also been reduced to about seven hours.
Buffet’s unleashing of the police at the 1998 Tour was rooted in this tradition of trying to keep the Tour de France in synch with evolving French values. In sympathy with her Communist party’s worldview, Buffet saw the fact that cyclists must dope to keep up with the infernal productivity demands of the Tour owners—who didn’t, and still don’t, share profits with the athletes who make the race a spectacle—as exploitation. Sending the French police into the riders’ private sanctums sent a loud message to both the Tour de France organizers who largely overlooked drugs, and the riders who saw doping as a job requirement.
Buffet was also sympathetic to riders who tried to abide by French law. In his autobiography, Christophe Bassons, a Festina rider who was ultimately driven out of the sport for his unwillingness to dope, describes Buffet offering him support throughout his ordeal. “Citizenship cannot end at the stadium gate,” she assured Bassons. Buffet also helped Bassons land a job when he left cycling.
Curious about how Buffet’s actions in 1998 might be related to French successes at the 2014 Tour, I called Thompson where he teaches at Ball State University in Indiana. In 1998 he was in France researching his book. He watched the Festina Affair unfold with great fascination.
“There was a lot of shock amongst the peloton of all nationalities at the way cyclists were treated,” Thompson told me. Riders were strip-searched. “It was traumatic for the racers to be treated like criminals.” (Indeed, during the late 1990s French police rattled so many riders in their own homes that many packed up from the French Riviera and relocated to Girona, Spain, where lax doping laws and disinterested police made life comfy again.)
“The anti-doping campaign was obsessed with and motivated by the idea that you have to protect youth coming up from imitating their idols,” Thompson explained. He added that there was also concern that endurance sports were becoming so difficult that “professionals would fall into the trap that the only way they could make a living and compete is by doping—with potential threats to their health and maybe to their lives.”
These concerns about athletes as workers go back to the years between the World Wars. The French Communists—and remember that outside of the United States communism is not necessarily a four-letter word—argued that spectator sports pacified the working masses and distracted them from social and economic injustices. Left wing French politicians, the Communists in particular, championed participatory sports whose objective was to help all people stay fit and enjoy the inherent pleasure of sport, not dull the public and generate profit through bread and circuses.
Thompson also pointed out that historically, French Communists were concerned about drug and alcohol use because addiction was a destructive social problem. As France industrialized in the 1800s, the bottom of a glass was one of the few places where a mine or textile worker could find relief from their grim existence.
This history of French class conflict, anti-drug campaigns, and debate over the role of sport in society backgrounded the French decision to release the cops on the 1998 Tour. Thompson observed that from the French government perspective, the raids were meant to protect the riders “from themselves, from their work environment—we are going to help them help themselves because they are part of a structure that almost imposes doping.”
Looking back at the late 1990s and the EPO-fueled decade that followed, Buffet’s political instincts seem right.
In light of revelations about how the cycling ecosystem protected Lance Armstrong for years—ejecting those who would challenge the sports’ secrets and rewarding those who went along with its fair-play charade—we know that only outside forces have the power to break that self-interested system. Buffet and the French police did it in France. Travis Tygart did it in the United States. Actual doping reform seems to always come from without.
The rules the National Assembly passed in 1998 required all French pro cyclists to submit to tests that gave the government a performance baseline for each rider. Future performances (and signals of doping) were measured against this physiological baseline. The penalty for doping was once again jail. Whether coincidence or correlation, the year these strictly monitored federal anti-doping measures went into effect also marked the beginning of a long dry spell for the French at their national event.
Past winners Chris Froome and Alberto Contador abandoning certainly opened up more space on the 2014 Tour de France podium. Sky leaving Wiggo behind did the same. And the fact that the race was mountainous with only one time trial suited the French racing style. However, the success that put four French riders in the top 11 may well suggest deeper changes afoot.
Not to be a foolish optimist—some humans will always cheat, pro cycling will never be 100-percent clean, and sports managers will always worry as much about protecting their economic interests as defending notions of fair play. Nonetheless, if more riders are riding clean, and being rewarded for doing so, France’s return to the 2014 podium after years in exile might just signal that pro cycling is easing itself down to a more natural performance level—one the French government forced its riders onto in 1998.
Writer/photographer Mark Johnson’s most recent book, Argyle Armada, is on a year with the Garmin pro cycling team and the business of pro cycling. He is writing a new book on the historical and cultural context of performance enhancement in sport and society. It will be published by VeloPress in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark and Instagram @ironstringphoto