Tuesdays with Wilcockson
In last week’s column, I began to trace my journey in cycling from the 1960s, first as a racer then a writer, in connection with the sport’s escalating problems with illicit drugs. This week, I’ll continue the story from where I broke off, at the 1998 Tour de France, when the French team Festina was thrown out for organized doping. What the Festina Affair revealed was the degree to which EPO had transformed cycling in the worst possible way.
“Before EPO,” the 1988 Giro d’Italia champion Andy Hampsten told me, “we knew we were always racing against guys on drugs, but I don’t think those drugs gave them more of an advantage than the advantage we had knowing they’re gonna come crashing down. We didn’t lose energy worrying about what other people were doing; we just focused on ourselves, and we didn’t need to win every race.”
That “higher ground” attitude of Hampsten’s American team, Motorola, began to change in 1994. “There was a lot of grumbling on the team,” Hampsten said, “and we did get technical data from team doctor Massimo Testa because he’d talk to his colleagues on other teams. He was always straight with me. ‘Sure enough,’ he said, ‘if so-and-so who you raced with for eight years and you always dropped on the climbs, if that guy’s beating you now, his hematocrit is 15 points higher, and he’s gonna kill you in the mountains.’”
Because the new drug couldn’t be detected in anti-doping tests, no one knew for certain who was using EPO—and riders kept that secret to themselves. So, for the best part of a decade, until the Festina Affair, rumors were the only source of what was happening in the peloton. And rumors, without any corroborative evidence, were not things that professional journalists could write about. And when we did ask questions about doping those questions were sidestepped more often than not.
The situation began to change slightly in 1997 when the UCI mandated a maximum hematocrit level of 50 percent. Cyclists who tested above that level were not allowed to compete for at least two weeks, or until their red-blood-cell count returned to a “normal” level. But that couldn’t be translated into knowing a rider had used EPO. In any case, the new “health” regulation was a tiny deterrent because riders soon learned how to use portable centrifuges to test their own blood and keep the hematocrit level below 50—or so it was rumored.
The full extent of doping in the 1990s didn’t emerge until well after the Festina team was busted. First came the 1999 tell-all book, “Massacre à la Chaîne,” by soigneur Willy Voet who was fined and given a suspended prison sentence for his part in the Festina Affair. He wrote the book with French journalist Pierre Ballester, who worked for the Paris sports newspaper, L’Équipe, whose writers were just as shocked as everyone by the Festina Affair, the subsequent revelations in Voet’s book and the facts that later emerged in French courtrooms.
Testimonies at a December 2000 tribunal, which investigated the inner workings of the Festina team, showed that the French squad had engaged in organized doping since 1993. Prior to that year’s Tour de France, the tribunal’s report states, “the team riders who had yet to use EPO were growing impatient to get access to it several days before the start…. The main reason had to be that other teams were already administering this substance.”
Luc Leblanc, a French leader of the Festina team, admitted he used EPO in 1994 at the Vuelta a España and Tour de France, but he denied that EPO helped him win that year’s UCI world road title. But another witness, who worked for the team throughout the 1990s, testified that “all the Festina team riders at the 1994 world championships were given the same preparation: EPO with supplements. Luc did the same as everyone else.”
Riders entering the sport at that time were faced with a much more difficult decision than my racing peers had faced in the 1960s, when popping speed or getting injections of bull’s blood might have given riders a psychological edge but not much of a physical one. The dilemma in the ’90s for new professionals was to accept the use of EPO or risk never making the grade. That’s what Tyler Hamilton says made him begin doping in 1996, according to his new autobiography, “The Secret Race,” written with former Outside magazine journalist Dan Coyle.
Hamilton’s decision to use EPO coincided with his small American team, Montgomery-Bell, getting title sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service that allowed them to start racing in Europe. By coincidence, I bumped into Hamilton on a flight back from Brussels to the U.S. in April 1996. I’d been reporting the spring classics for VeloNews, and Hamilton, then 25 and in his second year as a pro, told me about events he and the team had raced in the Netherlands, including his winning the Teleflex Toer stage race. Obviously, he didn’t say anything about EPO.
Like most other cycling journalists, I saw Hamilton—who majored in economics at the University of Colorado prior to turning pro—as part of a new generation of young riders from North America who were not polluted by Europe’s doping culture. Clean cut and quietly spoken, Hamilton seemed to be too smart to risk his health by doping, especially with the litany of dugs that appeared to be necessary to maximize the use of EPO.
As a sports journalist, you have to draw a fine line between writing about an athlete’s accomplishments and getting to know him (or her) through interviews and chats at races so that you can put those performances in perspective. Having had friendly working relationships with most of the sport’s successful modern “Anglo” riders—from pioneers Phil Anderson and Jonathan Boyer, followed by Steve Bauer, Greg LeMond, Robert Millar, Sean Kelly and Sean Yates, along with Andy Hampsten, Allan Peiper, Davis Phinney, Stephen Roche and many others—it seemed natural that I should do the same with the next wave, led by Lance Armstrong, Hamilton, George Hincapie, Chris Horner, Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer, Kevin Livingston, Fred Rodriguez and Christian Vande Velde.
It was difficult not to like all these guys. They were all young, intelligent and ambitious. And they were all making their mark in pro racing. When you did a one-on-one interview with those American cyclists you expected them to be truthful. That was the case in nearly all aspects of what they said about their lives, their training and their races—and you hoped it was true when they condemned doping and dopers.
Hamilton says in his book that he lied about his doping practices, even with his close friends and family. He was not the only one. I will write more about doping next week, but for now I’ll end with a quote from Brian Holm, now a highly regarded directeur sportif with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The Dane wrote about his 13 years as a pro cyclist in his 2002 autobiography, in which he admitted to doping, just as Hamilton has today.
After Holm and many of his counterparts elaborated on their use of EPO at the Deutsche Telekom team, he said this to a Danish publication: “When I turned pro there was not that much talk about doping…and finally it was so normal that no-one thought it was illegal anymore. Many from my generation say that they were never doped, just as I said myself for a long time, because you thought that it really wasn’t doping or cheating. I actually think I could have passed a lie-detector test when I stopped my pro cycling career [in 1998], because I was convinced I was clean. It is only years later that you start realizing that it may not have been the case after all. It had become such a big part of your daily routine.”
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
As far as I know, Maurice De Muer and Jerry Casale never met. But these two men, one French, the other American, shared a love for cycling in very different ways, and each was a mentor to countless numbers of young cyclists. They both died last week.
De Muer, 90, passed away after a short illness. He was best known as a successful directeur sportif from the 1960s through the ’80s. Casale, who lost a long battle with prostate cancer at age 70, was a co-founder of Philadelphia’s CoreStates USPRO Championship (now the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship).
Casale was born in the Chestnut Hill suburb of Philadelphia, where his dad, Gerald F. Casale Sr, owned a bike store, Hill Cycle Shop on Germantown Avenue, which he opened in 1929. Father and son worked together at the shop for some four decades. The Casales saw their business as a place where riders could gather and soak up their atmosphere created by true cycling enthusiasts. One of the teenagers who came to the shop was Dave Chauner, who became one of the country’s best racers before turning to race promotion.
The Casales ran and sponsored Team Hill, an amateur squad that helped young riders get started in the sport. And the younger Casale’s skills as a mechanic saw he make trips to European races. One trip was as chief mechanic for the small U.S. pro team, headed by Greg LeMond, at the 1984 world championship in Barcelona, Spain, and that’s where he had the idea for creating a major road race in his hometown.
Casale said the impressive boulevard at the foot of the Barcelona circuit’s Montjuich hill reminded him of Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway — which is where he and Chauner decided to put the start/finish for the Philadelphia race. They also needed a climb. They “discovered” it in the Manayunk neighborhood, on the route Chauner took to ride from his home to Hill Cycle. Chauner named it The Wall because it climbs at a vicious 17-percent grade up a street of row houses that wouldn’t look out of place in a European classic.
The race was an immediate success and became this country’s biggest one-day classic, where stars such as Davis Phinney, Lance Armstrong, Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss have done battle over the past 28 years. Casale, who closed the bike store after his dad died in 1993, became a fulltime race-operations director with Chauner, who was the smooth-talking promoter. Together, they put on some 200 bike races all over the country, including, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and West Virginia.
I’ve attended nearly every edition of the Philly race, so my indelible memory of Casale is watching him — a short, broad-chested, balding figure, usually dressed in black — doing what he did best: helping other people however many different duties he had on race day. But most of his work was done well before the race, making sure that the logistics were always in place.
According to his official obituary, Gerald F. Casale II is survived by his wife of almost 50 years, Philomena “Cookie” Casale, their three sons Gerald F. Casale III, Nicholas and Joseph, and six grandchildren.
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While Casale helped pro cycling get established in a country that had no heritage for road racing, De Muer came from a land that fomented the sport. Born in Normandy in 1920, De Muer grew up in le Nord (the North), the French region made famous by the cobblestone roads of Paris-Roubaix. He became a racer at the end of World War II, and embarked on a nine-year career with the Peugeot-Dunlop team. His best results came in 1944, a victory at the Paris-Camembert semi-classic, and 1946, second place behind Italian Fermo Camellini at Paris-Nice.
After retiring as a pro, De Muer became a dealer for Peugeot bikes in le Nord, but stayed in touch with his former teammates, who included 1950 Tour de France winner Ferdi Kübler. De Muer returned to the sport by starting a small regional team in 1950 for a rival bike manufacturer, Sauvage-Lejeune, The team went pro in 1961 with title sponsorship from Pelforth, a beer marketed by the local Pélican brewery.
The Pelforth-Sauvage-Lejeune team earned its fame at the Tour de France, and De Muer signed top riders such as Henry Anglade, the brothers Joseph and Georges Groussard and Jan Janssen. In 1969 De Muer moved to the powerful Bic team, following the accidental death of its directeur sportif Raymond Louviot. It was with Bic that De Muer guided French-based Spanish rider Luis Ocaña to victory at the 1973 Tour de France.
But De Muer’s most successful tenure was back with his original team, Peugeot, where he directed Bernard Thévenet to Tour titles in 1975 and ’77. Talking about De Muer, Thévenet said last week: “I remember a man passionate for cycling, having a strong desire for results … whether it was a stage of the Tour de France or the GP de Peymenade in February.” De Muer also directed a new generation of English-speaking riders at Peugeot, including Australian Phil Anderson, Scotsman Robert Millar and Irishman Stephen Roche — all of whom went on to become Tour de France stars.
For all the sport’s current sophistication, De Muer worked in an old-school era, where he and his peers turned a blind-eye to drug-taking and where he worked with his wife Jacqueline to trace race routes on a Michelin map to decide the best places for his team to attack. After retirement, De Muer lived in Seillans, in Provence, the small hilltop town where he took his Peugeot team for training camps in the 1970s.
He was still making daily rides until recently, but after a fire burned down his Seillans house last fall he moved to a nearby retirement home, where he died. Former Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who turned pro with De Muer with the Pelforth team, told Reuters, “He was a little tired in recent months, but he was one of cycling’s great personalities.”
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
When I think back on the coldest, wettest and, ultimately, hardest days I’ve had on the bike, I can’t come up with any where I was seemingly inches from disaster the whole day. This is one of those stake-in-the-ground days. Spoiler alert: It hasn’t made me feel more PRO.
Wednesday, we rode from our hotel in Albertville to the top of the Col de la Madeleine via the northern route. A whopping 26 kilometers to 2000 meters of elevation. I’d forgotten that more than a few of the kilometers tick by with average gradients of nine or 10 percent. It’s a climb of a level of difficulty that other than the Rocky Mountains, very few places in the United States have climbs that can compare. There’s just no way to prepare for a climb this hard unless you live in the shadow of a mountain, a big one.
And in one of the only events of my life where I found a flat to be a relief, after we had finished our Cokes and slices of pie, I grabbed my bike and discovered—Quelle surprise!—I had a very flat tire. Suddenly, the soft rear tire I had imagined was slowing my progress over the last 4km wasn’t so imagined.
So that’s why I was so slow at the end.
Thursday’s route was simple enough on paper. Leave the hotel in Albertville, climb the Cormet de Roselend, descend into Bourg St. Maurice and then tackle the gentle ascent to Val d’Isere. But paper is for fiction and toilets.
Our group decided to climb the Col de Pré before hooking up with the last 7km of ascent to the top of the Cormet de Roselend. For the record: When someone tells you, “The Alps aren’t as steep as the Pyrenees,” what they are telling you is that they’ve watched Versus and they’ve heard Phil and Paul say that the climbs in the Alps used by the Tour de France aren’t as steep as the climbs used in the Pyrenees.
I’m here to tell you that the Col de Pré is one of the toughest climbs I’ve ever done. Category 1 or not, there were sustained pitches of 10 and 12 percent. What passed for a false flat was six percent. And as I mentioned, it was raining. As a matter of total fact, the higher we climbed, the harder it rained. I don’t know how that works in cold weather. I’ve been places that were hot and the rain evaporated before getting to sea level and I’ve seen snow at 2000 feet turn to rain by sea level, but I’ve never experienced no rain at 2000 feet become driving rain at 5000 feet. There’s a mechanism to this and I need it explained to me.
We reached the pass and headed for the van for food and other assistance. At the time, I was wearing bibs, base layer, jersey, arm warmers and rain cape. My legs were slathered with an embrocation from Sportique that I’ll be reviewing soon. I pulled on knee warmers (knee warmers over embro is a first for me) and one of our guides who was driving the van gave me his Campagnolo wind breaker to add on top of my rain cape. I was still cold—numb toes, even.
The descent of the east face of the Cormet de Roselend was almost recklessly fast because my brakes didn’t work too well. It seemed to take an extra 100 feet to get them to bite. I was sleeted on for several kilometers, which added a novel sting to the rain. Think of it as a cold sandblast at 40 mph. And then there was the Peugeot Clio that raced me down the first pitch, passed me and then left me no room to pass and half the braking distance I needed upon entering each turn. With each successive turn I wondered if I’d have my own personal Davis Phinney moment with its back windshield.
Eventually I did find an opportunity to pass the Clio but by this time the descent was even steeper and what I had yet to realize was that I had so thoroughly burned through my brake pads that the reason my fingertips hurt was because I was bottoming out the lever against the bar. Who knew?
I approached one right-hand switchback only to see a camper swing into view; I braked even harder, to little avail. Just as I was to breathe again a motorcycle swung into view, and another, and another. I realized that my choices given my tepid drop in speed were to turn hard and hope I don’t end up on my hip—which seemed unlikely—or shoot for the outside of the switchback and pass—no matter how hazardously—between motos two and three.
The driver of moto three shook his head at me just as you would for anyone after they had committed an act that, if deliberate, would qualify as the dumbest thing you’d seen this year. I suppose he was a bit frightened. Not half as much as I was.
In Bourg St. Maurice I found a bar and ordered chocolat chaud, twice. My companions arrived during my second, ordered one each and before I could get a sandwich and Coke, were out the door. The caloric math for me wasn’t good. With roughly 30k to ride—and all uphill—I knew my tank didn’t have the reserves, but I vowed to stick with the boys (the buddy system is smart, right?) and make for the hotel. It wasn’t long before I’d downed the last of my Shot Blocks and an Accel Gel.
As expected, I did have to turn to one of my companions with 10km to go and announce that my personal idiot light was on. I made for Tignes, just 4km for our hotel and marched into the first bar I found. Despite the tobacco fog, I marched in and two Cokes and one Nestlé crunch bar later I was big-ringing it through the last four tunnels.
As tough a climb as the Col de la Madeleine was, when I think hors categorie, I will forever associate that phrase with today’s ride, not yesterday’s. I’m told (and I have to rely on others because my Garmin isn’t working) the ride was 60 miles and not the 8500 feet of climbing I tweeted, but a whopping 10,000. That’s 133 feet of climbing per mile—the highest ratio I’ve ever personally encountered.
I assumed at some point I’d reach an existential curiosity about what I was doing. ‘Why bother?’ is a fair question. What I didn’t expect was that I’d be so close to hypothermia for hours on end and that I’d encounter a descent so dangerous that I’d wish, simply, for it to end. When you can’t enjoy one of your favorite pursuits in the world, the questions start coming. And while the questions might be troubling, the answers are even more so. I can’t trust a sun dial built for anything that rises in the west.
Growing up, I spent several summers in Vermont. For all its difference to west Tennessee, it might as well have been a different country. The local foods were different, the smells were different, the speech patterns and colloquialisms different but most of all, the landscape and climate were utterly foreign.
Family roots kept us returning to central Vermont, placing us in the shadow of the Green Mountains and the Vermont spur of the Appalachian Trail. We hiked sections of the trail and drove to lookouts. However, my favorite outings were our visits to Killington Ski Area, where we would take the Gondola to the top of Killington and view other peaks, the valleys below, distant lakes and forests of other states as they shrank to hazy horizon.
I was just beginning to ride “10-speeds” and saw in the twisting mountain roads fun waiting to be had. On drives I would press my forehead to the passenger window watching each bend and asphalt wrinkle like a kid nose to glass with a toy store’s Christmas toy display.
When I returned to the area in my 20s, Killington had become home to a stage race held over Labor Day Weekend. While the month of August is the seventh inning stretch to the PROs, for American-based amateurs, it is a cooling ember. In many areas of the country the race calendar is dead. But New Englanders know a good thing when they’ve got it. You race through the August heat because the winter is harder than any sprint.
A stage race over the Labor Day Weekend struck me as the proper send-off to the racing season. There were always a few more crits afterward, but Killington was the last big hurrah. And it wasn’t your typical road race/TT/crit stage rage, either. There was an uphill TT prologue followed by two road races, a downtown crit and a final road race. The five days of racing left everyone spent, no matter what category you raced.
The pictures here are from the first time I saw the race, in 1990. Some of my UMASS teammates were racing with their club teams and I loaded up my touring bike and rode the 120-odd miles up from my apartment to stay with them at a ski house near the race. It was the heyday of the 7-Eleven/Coors Light battle and the only real question on anyone’s mind was whether 7-Eleven could dislodge Greg Oravetz from the lead. (No.)
The first time I did the race I packed on the miles in August, inspired by that year’s Tour de France. Racing the closed roads, climbing through spectators cheering us into debt, flying down the serpentine mountain roads, it was better than I had imagined. Much better. It was also significantly harder.
It’s easy to be nostalgic about your childhood or your college days. What I find myself missing are those big climbing days in 90 degree heat, day upon day of abject suffering as I would train for the biggest race of the season. Labor Day is last call at the bar. Each year as I drove home from the race, I could see the first color in the trees and the cool in the air we felt when we stopped for dinner was a shivering portent of things to come.