Now that Pat McQuaid has been voted out of the UCI presidency and the troubled institution is being led by Brian Cookson, there is some reasonable hope that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be formed and testimony will take place. Given how cycling has been governed since the UCI was formed, this is a turn of events so surprising and unlikely it is befitting an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
Let’s imagine it for a second: Someone will be willing to pay attention as Jesus Manzano speaks.
Consider that Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton will have an opportunity to sit down in the same room as members of the UCI, tell everything they saw and took part in while members of U.S. Postal and Phonak, and when finished Pat McQuaid won’t be there to call them “scumbags.”
Now that we have the faith that the UCI has a president who will actually do what he says, and that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will convene, we have a question to consider: How far back should the TRC look? Technically, the choice of how far to look back belongs to Cookson or whoever he charges with running the TRC, but that Cookson is president now owes much to public outcry. We do have a voice and the success of a TRC will rest on public satisfaction.
So who should testify? The TRC should do more than just listen to riders and team personnel. We should hear from as many doctors, pharmacists and lab techs as possible. Let’s include the odd motorcycle driver or two. This testimony will be key in corroborating what the riders say. Anyone watching social media has noticed that there’s some suspicion about whether George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer confessed all of their doping to USADA or not. Testimony from medical professionals and coaches will have the ability to confirm their previous testimony or demonstrate that they withheld some activity. It will also show just how fearful riders were of Travis Tygart, or not.
However, if the TRC only looks back as far as 1999, it won’t be far enough. We will have little reason to be satisfied. The TRC needs the freedom, resources and time necessary to take testimony from anyone with a heartbeat. That means we should listen to Belgian soigneurs from the 1950s. We should listen to guys like Lucien Aimar, who was a domestique for Jacques Anquetil. And yes, we should listen to Eddy Merckx.
Why go so far back? Because it will educate the sport’s governing body, riders, team staff, the public and sponsors—in short every stakeholder the sport has—on how entrenched doping and attitudes toward doping have been. Because it was ingrained at an institutional level, it will show that cycling takes doping not just more seriously than any other sport, but as seriously as one may take it. That is what will be necessary to win back sponsor and audience confidence.
The reality is that we won’t hear from everyone we would like to. We must also accept that the UCI is unlikely to allow the TRC to run for five years. They need to focus their effort, concentrate on the biggest part of the problem. To that end, I suggest that we do what we can to encourage testimony from as far back as 1990.
Based on everything I’ve learned about the rise of oxygen-vector doping, I think we can put a date on when doping fundamentally change in pro cycling. That date? May 18,1990. With it comes a specific location: Bari, Italy. That was the day and the location of the prologue for the 1990 Giro d’Italia, which was won by Gianni Bugno. Bugno went on to wear the pink jersey for the 19 days, all the way to the finish in Milan. It was the first time a rider had led the Giro from start to finish since Eddy Merckx did it in 1973. Because we know Bugno worked with Francesco Conconi and testing revealed a high hematocrit—for which he was sanctioned—I think it’s fair to mark this as the date when racing grand tours changed. Fair enough, that is, until we get testimony through a TRC.
Simply put, the 1990 Giro was the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO.
While EPO use changed the whole of racing, it had the greatest effect on the grand tours, where being able to stay out of the red zone thanks to extra red blood cells paid dividends as the race wore on. It was during the 1990 season that Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci stormed to prominence. A year later Miguel Indurain won his first Tour de France, and like Chiappucci and Bugno, Big Mig counted Conconi among his advisors.
The 1990 season was a turning point in that not only did it see the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO (the Giro), it also saw the last clean win in the Tour de France prior to two generations of wins tainted by oxygen-vector doping. Has there been a clean winner of the Tour since Greg LeMond’s 1990 win? Very probably, but certainly not between 1991 and 2006. The possibility of a clean winner seems to have grown more convincing with each year since 2007.
A TRC has the ability to settle this question.
Now, regarding LeMond, it’s easy enough to find comments on Facebook or Twitter from people willing to accuse him of having doped. Even without a TRC, the evidence suggests that in 1989 each of the grand tours was won without oxygen-vector doping. The Vuelta was won by Pedro Delgado, the Giro by Laurent Fignon and the Tour by LeMond. Each of those guys had won a grand tour prior to the availability of EPO. While we know that both Delgado and Fignon doped, we have reason to believe they weren’t using EPO in ’89. What’s interesting about ’89 is that this is the year Chiappucci, Bugno and Indurain began to threaten the GC. In ’89 Chiappucci finished 46th and 81st in the Giro and Tour, respectively. A year later? A remarkable 12th and 2nd. In ’88, Bugno withdrew from the Giro and finished the Tour in 62nd. In ’89 he went 23rd and 11th. In ’90, of course, he won the Giro and finished the Tour in 7th. Indurain’s rise was more gradual, less outwardly suspicious; he finished 97th in the ’87 Tour, but gradually climbed the ranks up to 47th, 17th and 10th before winning.
What makes all three of these riders of a piece is the fact that they started anonymously before rising to prominence. LeMond, Fignon, Merckx and Bernard Hinault all share in common the fact that their brilliance and potential shown early on. LeMond differs only in that he didn’t win his first Tour—he was third.
Lance Armstrong is accused of being at the center of the greatest doping program in history, the greatest sporting fraud ever perpetrated. It’s a charge we can’t really resolve. If there was a greater sporting fraud, it hasn’t been exposed. Ultimately, this isn’t a terribly important question. What the Armstrong fall has done, however, is to open the public’s eyes to the breadth of doping that has taken place. It has introduced suspicion into the cycling fan’s vocabulary. The problem before us is how to put this behind us. We may never put the genie back in the bottle, but a TRC has the ability to educate us on more than just who doped; it has the ability to clear those who did not dope.
Aside from simply dispensing the truth, a TRC will freshly frame the achievement of riders like LeMond, riders who would have accomplished more were it not for the rise of EPO. A TRC that reaches back to 1990 will give us a new way to define courage.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
With all due apologies to Frank Zappa, it seemed appropriate to note that what I’m about to announce isn’t exactly new news.
We blew through most of this year’s run of Roubaix shirts in fairly short order, so I did a second run and in an effort to respond to those who have requested non-black T-shirts, we did a run of the Roubaix shirts in gray. We looked at what could be done to try to do this shirt in white, but there was no way to work the graphic that didn’t make it look like a photo negative. So gray it is. This is but one of the terrific designs Joe Yule of StageOne Sports has done for us. Stay tuned for more of his work.
And this first day of the Giro marks the return of the Eddy ’72 T-shirt with the amazing illustration by Bill Cass. It’s back in black and Belgian blue. No apologies to AC/DC will be forthcoming. Or necessary. Just give it a second.
There’s some scary shit in there. But it’s all part of the history and tradition of the race, whether you come in first or 40 minutes behind, like my first time. You get into the velodrome and go into the showers, and De Vlaeminck, Merckx, Hinault—all these legends have been in there before you, and you’re scrubbing mud out of your ears. It’s all part of the adventure.
In 1966, Paris–Roubaix became Chantilly–Roubaix, at least on the map. It moved out of Paris and off to the east to include cobbles that mayors hadn’t seen the need to resurface. And in 1968 it took in Jean Stablinski’s road through the Arenberg forest.
The Arenberg created a sensation. The British journalist, Jock Wadley, arrived in France to find newspapers predicting “only 30 at most will finish this race. Even fewer if it rains.” Another suggested riders would need a sprung saddle, padded bars and fat wired-on tires to finish in the first 10. One official said nobody would finish at all if it rained.
There were now 57 kilometers of cobbles. The 15 kilometers between Templeuve and Bachy had almost no tar at all.
Pascal Sergent wrote: “The press announced that the 1968 edition would be, without doubt, the most difficult and the most extraordinary in history and that the Queen of Classics would see a legendary winner in the style of cycling’s heroic period.”
It remained to see who it would be, for the order was changing. Where Rik van Steenbergen had had to succumb to Rik van Looy, now van Looy was also threatened. Eddy Merckx had won “his” world championship. Van Looy’s not inconsiderable pride was dented.
In 1965 Merckx had been in van Looy’s Solo-Superia team, sponsored by a margarine company and a bike maker. But he had committed the crime of threatening his boss and he moved to the French team, Peugeot. There he won Milan–San Remo for the first of seven times. But Peugeot was skinflint and its riders had to buy their own wheels and tires. It wasn’t hard to move to a new team supported by Faema, an Italian maker of coffee machines returning to the sport. And there, 1967, he became world champion.
Van Looy was grudging. When Merckx started 1968 badly, losing Milan–San Remo and abandoning Paris–Nice, he scoffed: “If Merckx is the boss, let him prove it.” The two were so wary of each other in the break in the GP E3 in Belgium that Jacques de Boever won instead. De Boever had never won a decent race in his life and never did again.
Before Paris–Roubaix, van Looy, now 35, said he was delighted by the tougher route. “It will make the legs of the young hurt,” he said pointedly.
Nerves in the peloton made the first break go at 17 kilometers. It had four minutes by Solesmes. There, riders seemed almost surprised to find cobbles. They got going just as the break began flagging. News of their weakening came back via the blackboard man and Merckx attacked, taking 13 others with him. The notable exception was van Looy.
At Coutiches, Merckx looked over his shoulder and counted. There were too many. He attacked. Only Ward Sels and Willy Bocklandt stayed with him. Of those, Sels was the greater worry. He was a sprinter of Rik van Looy’s level and sometimes his lead-out man. A little later things grew worse with the arrival of the mournful-looking Herman van Springel, whom any film director would cast perfectly as a pall-bearer. Van Springel didn’t have the same talent but Merckx was now fighting on two fronts.
Imagine, then, his relief when Sels punctured 26 kilometers from the finish. Merckx hunched his shoulders and spread his elbows in a style that was just becoming familiar and attacked. Van Springel had to sprint out of every corner to hold his back wheel. Merckx swooped past his rival at the finish by rising to the top of the banking at the finish and accelerating down and past him. He won, his right arm raised, by a wheel.
It was the beginning of the end for van Looy. Three punctures had done nothing to help his chances but the eclipse was starting. It’s not even sure what happened to him. Pascal Sergent says he was in a group sprinting for ninth place, eight minutes down. The result shows the sprint was for eighth, but that matters less than that van Looy’s name isn’t there at all. He rode just once more, in 1969, came 22nd and never rode it again.
And the Arenberg? An anticlimax. Merckx finished with barely a splash of mud on his white jersey.
There had never been a talent like Eddy Merckx’s. He is the only rider to have sent the sport into recession through his own success. Riders became disillusioned because they rarely raced for anything better than second place. Their salaries fell because sponsors saw little value in backing a team they knew would be beaten. And contract fees for village races tumbled because promoters had to pay so much for Merckx, whose simple presence guaranteed a crowd and advertisers, that there was less left for the rest. And this continued for season after season.
For him, Paris–Roubaix was just one classic among many. “I took a particular interest in my equipment,” he said, “especially if the forecast was for rain but, for me, it was a classic like the rest, with its own demands and a particular character.”
In 1970 he won Paris–Roubaix by more than five minutes. The rain fell, lightning was forecast over the northern plains, and riders fell and tore skin. Jean-Marie Leblanc, who went on to organize the Tour de France, broke his frame. Merckx left the Arenberg forest with six riders behind him. He punctured at Bouvignies, 56 kilometers from the finish, changed a wheel, re-caught the leaders and went straight back to the front. And, before long, off the front. He won by 5 minutes 20 seconds.
In second place that day—and fifth the year before—was a dark-haired, gypsy-looking man with long sideburns: Roger De Vlaeminck.
“In a country in love with Eddy Merckx to the point of servitude,” said the writer Olivier Dazat, “literally dead drunk on his repeated exploits, the showers of stones and thorns from the Gypsy constituted, along with the Mannequin Pis [the statue in Brussels of a small boy peeing], the last bastion of independence and humor, a refusal of uniformity in a conquered land.”
De Vlaeminck—it’s pronounced Roshay De Vlah-mink—won 16 classics and 22 stages of major Tours. He rode Paris–Roubaix 10 times and always finished, four times in first place. The only laurels he lacked were a world road championship and, because he was only a moderate climber, a big stage race.
He had a characteristic position. He crouched low across the top tube, his hands on the brake hoods, his elbows lower than his wrists. It provided bounce, springing against the shocks. When he got going seriously, he lowered his hands to the bends of his bars and pushed his body horizontal, a cyclo-cross man turned track pursuiter. He gave, said Olivier Dazat, “the impression of gliding, of being in a perpetual search for speed, like a skier perfecting his schluss.”
The weather in 1972 was apocalyptic. It drizzled throughout the race. Water lay between the cobbles and, more treacherously, on the irregular sides of the roads, hiding missing stones, displacing others under the weight of the cars and motorbikes that preceded the riders. There could be no worse setting for the Arenberg. The break entered it at full speed as usual, riders trying to get there first to avoid piling into fallen riders.
Their speed in the rain brought down a heap of riders, including Merckx. De Vlaeminck rode on and feinted an attack where the old mining road rejoins the tar. The others matched him and he sat up. It allowed Merckx to catch them.
There was a brief hope that a local would win when Alain Santy, a northerner, got clear with Willy van Malderghem, winner of the previous year’s Quatre Jours de Dunkerque. His moment lasted until 35 kilometers from the end, when his weakness showed. Van Malderghem pushed on alone with more than a minute and half in hand.
De Vlaeminck waited. The lead stayed unchanged. Then he set off and caught van Malderghem at Cysoing, dangerously close to the end. He pressed on and crossed the line, his left hand raised, a fraction less than two minutes ahead of André Dierickx and 2 minutes 13 seconds before Barry Hoban. Merckx was seventh at 2 minutes 39 seconds.
De Vlaeminck said: “When you’re really fit, you rarely get a flat tire because you’re more lucid. I had a puncture once, in 1970, and then never again in 10 years. The other secret is confidence. I often started with the idea that I was going to win. I missed my chance once or twice but no more than that. I knew how to get ready for Paris–Roubaix. I used to ride three days of 350 kilometers a day in the week before. I used to ride Gent–Wevelgem and then ride another 130 kilometers having just changed my jersey. One year I rode 430 kilometers in a day. I needed that, that sort of training, to start the race in a good frame of mind.”
He’d got it right. In 1974 he won by 57 seconds, ahead of Francesco Moser, who had crashed.
De Vlaeminck rode now for Brooklyn, a team sponsored by a chewing gum maker owned by brothers named Perfetti. The team—he rode there with his brother Erik and with Patrick Sercu—wore a garish jersey based on the American flag. The curious thing was that for all the American connections in the name and jersey, and the image of the Brooklyn bridge, the chewing gum sold in the USA only three decades after the team folded.
And why did it fold? Because a member of the Perfetti family was kidnapped and there was no money left for a team after paying the ransom.
By now, De Vlaeminck had started training in secret. His technique was straightforward if arduous: “I used to get up at 5am. When it was good weather I went out behind a Derny with my lights on. I used to meet Godefroot to go training and I’d already ridden 120 kilometers. I used to pretend that I was tired because I’d just got out of bed and try to persuade him we should have a shorter ride together. I don’t know if I took him in but I needed to bluff the others to raise my own morale.”
Godefroot trained with De Vlaeminck because the schisms in Belgium cycling meant he never spoke to Merckx. He said of De Vlaeminck: “In the evening he’d call me to ask me if we could go out later than we’d agreed. ‘It’s not worth doing too much,’ he used to say to me. The next day, he’d get up at six, train for two hours behind a Derny, and then he’d turn up at the rendezvous as though nothing had happened. That was Roger.”
In 1975, April 13 started dull with an occasional beam of sun. It had rained the previous days, though, and the race hit a bog of wet mud when it reached the first cobbles at Neuvilly. Chaos followed. Cars got stuck in the swamp at the side of the road and motorcyclists came sliding off. Riders who stayed upright picked their way through and the field shattered. By the time the cobbles ended there were just six in the lead. De Vlaeminck wasn’t there but he came up a little later with Merckx, and then at the approach to Valenciennes, they were joined by a group including Francesco Moser.
There were four by Roubaix, all Belgian. Merckx began the sprint on the back straight. De Vlaeminck looked beaten but struggled back. He passed Merckx just before the line and won with his pedals opposite Merckx’s front tire. He didn’t even have time to lift his arm.
“It’s nice to win,” he said, “especially when Merckx is beaten.”
André Dierickx was third and Marc Demeyer came fourth.
It was the following year that Demeyer both won and started promoting another brand of chewing gum, Stimorol, from Denmark. The success that caused such an exciting advertisement on Radio Mi Amigo wasn’t a surprise; in 1975 he had ridden alone in the lead for 50 kilometers. He was a gentle giant, Demeyer. He turned professional in 1972 with almost casual disregard, spreading his contract on the roof of a car just before a race. And, equally casually he then won the race, the Dwars door België.
Demeyer spent most of his short life as lead-out man for Freddy Maertens. He could win races for himself, as Paris–Roubaix proved in 1976, but he was self-effacing by nature and happy to ride as Maertens’ knecht, closing gaps and opening sprints.
There was no greater bitterness than between Maertens and his fans and the Eddy Merckx camp. They were opposites, Maertens the near-unbeatable sprinter and Merckx the rouleur.
Philippe Brunel of L’Équipe asked Merckx if it was true what journalists wrote, that there was an anti-Merckx brigade.
“And how!” he answered. “You’ve only got to remember the names of the riders there were at Flandria: Godefroot, the De Vlaeminck brothers, Dierickx, Leman, and then later on, Maertens. They all rode against me.”
De Vlaeminck’s response was: “It’s simple: we were all against him. Even my wife! During meals with the Flandria team, Merckx was all we spoke about, from morning to evening, to work out what we were going to do to beat him.”
That was the atmosphere when Paris–Roubaix set off for the 74th time, delayed by a protest which blocked the start. It got away only after the demonstrators had deflated all the tires on the car which Félix Lévitan, the co-organizer, had been expecting to drive. He considered the situation with a mixture of anger and puzzled offense. What had he done to upset the demonstrators, beyond giving them a piece of his mind?
The Belgian civil war between Merckx and Maertens reached an armistice when both fell off at Neuvilly. Maertens abandoned the race and Merckx finished sixth at 1 minute 36 seconds. Freed from his duty to Maertens, Demeyer had a free hand.
De Vlaeminck wanted the race, of course, and tried to split it by sending away two teammates. Johann Demuynck and Marcello Osler stayed away through the Arenberg cobbles but impressed few into chasing. Guy Sibille rode alone in the lead for 35 kilometers but that threatened nobody. Who on earth was this Sibille man, anyway? He’d come third in Milan–San Remo the previous year but he’d never won better than stages in regional tours. He did, in fact, win the 1976 French national championship, but that came after rather than before Paris–Roubaix. The others could ignore him, and they did—for three-quarters of an hour.
In the end, De Vlaeminck sorted things out for himself. There were still 30 kilometers to go. He went so decisively that Merckx couldn’t go with him, his legs and will hurt by having to change bikes five times and chase back to the leaders each time. Francesco Moser was there, though, and so were Godefroot and the lightly stammering Hennie Kuiper—and Marc Demeyer.
But De Vlaeminck was overconfident. He mastered Moser’s efforts to dislodge him and no longer had to worry about Godefroot, who had flatted a tire. He led on to the track, sure he had the best sprint. But he’d ridden too hard in the last 30 minutes and he’d gambled too much on the final dash for the line. Moser came past him and then Demeyer came by them both.
“They just sat on my wheel for the last 20 kilometers,” De Vlaeminck said miserably.
On January 20, 1982, Marc Demeyer went training for 100 kilometers in the morning, then went to collect new equipment from his team manager, Bert De Kimpe, boss of a team supported by Splendor, a bike company whose sponsorship went back to 1936.
That evening he was sitting at home, doing a crossword. He never finished it. He had a heart attack and died. He was 31. He is buried in the Outrijve churchyard at Alveringem, 40 kilometers east of Ypres in West Flanders.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In the time I’ve been penning these personal thoughts about cycling’s problems with doping, starting with the 1960s, I’ve become more conscious of how the cycle of revelations and reactions keeps on repeating itself. And how true breakthroughs in the fight against doping only happen when there’s a combination of scientific advancement and unscripted events.
The death of Danish amateur cyclist Knud Jensen, who was on amphetamines, at the Rome Olympics in 1960 initially woke up the sports world to the need for drug testing. France was the first to enact anti-doping legislation, in 1963, but its implementation was erratic and resulted in a riders’ strike when the gendarmerie descended on a Bordeaux hotel at the 1966 Tour de France and inexpertly took urine samples from a number of athletes, including French star Raymond Poulidor.
But it was only after Professor Arnold Beckett, head of London’s Chelsea School of Pharmacy, finalized a rock-solid test for amphetamines that the UCI became the first sports governing body to introduce testing. The first experimental tests at the 1965 Tour of Britain were so successful that the race leader and two others tested positive and were thrown out of the race. Encouraged, the UCI extended the program, including its own world championships the following year. But, because of those problems with the heavy-handed French government testing, the Tour de France didn’t get any UCI-approved controls until 1968—the year after Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux with amphetamines in his system.
Simpson’s death triggered the International Olympic Committee to set up a medical commission, which Beckett joined, and the first list of banned substances was drawn up before testing began at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As I wrote in a previous column, the early anti-doping controls were not always conducted according to the rules, with pro cyclists finding ways to avoid testing positive (as illustrated by Michel Pollentier at the 1978 Tour). Also, it didn’t help that there was no definitive test for steroids until 1974 (also pioneered by a London laboratory), and even then the riders and their soigneurs learned how to use masking agents, such as diuretics, to beat the system, before they were banned too.
It was widely known in the 1970s and early-’80s that long-distance runners and cross-country skiers from Scandinavia were using blood-boosting methods (by re-infusing their previously stored blood) to improve their performances. In Italy, its Olympic Committee CONI even sponsored sports doctor Professor Francesco Conconi (inventor of the Conconi test for establishing an athlete’s anaerobic threshold) and his biomedical research center at the University of Ferrara to prepare athletes from several sports, including skiing and cycling, using blood-boosting methods. And it’s widely accepted that Conconi and his assistant Michele Ferrari helped Francesco Moser break Eddy Merckx’s world hour record at Mexico City in January 1984.
Blood doping was undetectable and even encouraged until members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team (track and road), under the supervision of the U.S. Cycling Federation coaching staff, blood-boosted in Los Angeles. Some intra-federation memos (this happened before e-mails existed) were leaked to Rolling Stone magazine, which published a salacious article on the affair in its February 1985 issue. The result was several USCF officials being reprimanded. It was regarded as a huge scandal in the United States and resulted in blood doping finally being prohibited, first by the USCF, then the UCI, and eventually by the IOC in 1986.
It was ironic that just as blood doping was being banned a team of scientists at biotech company Amgen in California was researching an artificial, or recombinant, form of human erythropoietin for boosting the red-blood-cell count of anemic cancer patients. FDA approval for the new drug Epogen (EPO) came in 1989, but it was already on the black market in Europe, and EPO eventually became the most widely used doping product in cycling, cross-country skiing and long-distance running.
There was no way EPO could be detected in blood tests because it was a genetic hormone that helped athletes create their own new red blood cells. Scientists in Europe and Australia began research on methods to identify the use of EPO by athletes, but it was a long, difficult (and expensive!) process. In the early-1990s, dozens of athletes, including cyclists, allegedly died because of their hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) reached levels as high as 60 or even 70 percent. In Italy, CONI again gave money to Professor Conconi, this time to research an EPO test, but this merely led to Italian athletes and Italian cycling teams becoming the leaders in the use of EPO.
That was confirmed when the Gewiss team placed three riders in the first three places at the Flèche Wallonne classic in April 1994, after which their team doctor, Ferrari, told Italian and French journalists in an interview that only the abuse of EPO was dangerous, not the drug itself, and that he wasn’t scandalized by riders using it.
That unscripted incident in 1994 was one that didn’t get the reaction it merited, either from the media or the UCI. It gave Verbruggen an opening to condemn the apparent abuse of EPO in Italy, but he played down Ferrari’s remarks and said that the other teams should work and train harder to challenge the Italians. The press criticized Verbruggen but no real investigative journalism was set in motion, and it should be noted that the publications with the biggest resources, L’Équipe in France and La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, also happened to be the organizers of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively. Conflicts of interest were an obvious factor in the lack of action.
With no detailed investigations by the media or the UCI and no definitive test for EPO on the horizon, the blood-boosting drug became more and more predominant in the European pro peloton. Finally, both the UCI and the international ski federation (FIS) looked at ways of deterring athletes from using EPO. The result was that the UCI, after discussions with sports doctor and the pro teams themselves, implemented a 50-percent hematocrit limit in January 1997. Several medical experts questioned the UCI limit as being too stringent, especially as the FIS limit was much higher (equivalent to some 53 percent before a tested athlete was stopped from competing). UCI president Hein Verbruggen was criticized for saying that the new limit was a “health check” and it did not imply use of EPO, but with no foolproof test yet available he was just stating the facts.
The new blood testing had an immediate effect. In the very first tests before the March 1997 Paris-Nice, three of the 20 riders tested, tested over the 50-percent limit. They were all domestiques: Frenchman Erwan Menthéour (who would write a book detailing his use of EPO and other performance-enhancing products, including so-called Pot-Belge, a mixture of amphetamines, cocaine and heroin that riders, and even some French journalists, got high on at parties); and the Italians Mauro Santaromita (later named on a list of athletes implicated in a police investigation into doping), and Luca Colombo. But the penalties of being excluded from the race, along with a fine and a two-week suspension of their racing licenses, was not a huge deterrent.
It was only after the Festina Affair in July 1998 and the various entities (the IOC, sports federations and federal; governments) came together that the World Anti-Doping Agency was formed in December 1999 and the sports world started to take the modern doping problem far more seriously, with the extra funding needed to institute more testing and to enable more research into definitive drug tests. I’ll conclude this story and comment on other more recent revelations in my column next week.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I read Rik Vanwalleghen’s biography of Eddy Merckx following its translation into English in 1996, my reaction split between simultaneous disappointment and relief. I felt relief to have finally enjoyed a book-length examination of the greatest cyclist the world will ever know. It was a study containing considerable insight into a man who was enigmatic even at his best. But the book was no chronologic biography, it undertook no traditional survey of the man’s career, life. It may be that the book’s particular genius was to leave much unsaid, unplumbed. Vanwalleghem undertook an impressionistic form of reportage, painting portrait after portrait of Merckx, none of them more powerful than his account of the Cannibal’s assault on the hour record in 1972. What stayed with me from that account was less the ride than what Vanwalleghem shared of the events subsequent to it.
Merckx, he wrote, suffered terrible saddle sores from the hour ride, sores that were so bad he laid in bed for days following the record. Merckx is said never to have complained.
Vanwalleghem’s “Eddy Merckx” left me wanting. Wanting more, wanting different, wanting. In that, he did me a service.
It is into this hunger that “Merckx 525″ arrived. Published, like Vanwalleghem’s Eddy Merckx” by VeloPress, this 224-page Belgian tome was written by Frederik Backelandt and translated by the ever-skilled Ted Costantino (the original editor of Bicycle Guide). For those who sneeze at relatively high prices, the $60 price tag for a coffee-table volume will elicit outraged cries—why it’s 50 percent higher than my Graham Watson book! But as a memento to a career we won’t see again, it’s worth every stinkin’ penny. For those of you among our readers who are American (it’s a sizable majority, but by no means everyone), we deserve to be reminded that we frequently miss out on the best images shot in cycling because they are only printed in European magazines. For this book, the editors drew upon images from Het Laatste Nieuws,Olycom, Photonews, Omega, Presse Sports (from which the bulk are drawn) and the private collections of several other photographers. Merckx 525 undertakes to share with us the best of those photos, and it should, for this work is nothing so much as a picture book.
However, the book is not only a collection of images. There are brief portraits in text as well, here the 1966 Milan-San Remo, the event that set the world on notice, there the 1970 Paris-Roubaix, and near the end, the 1976 Milan-San Remo. Each of the portraits are written present-tense, still harboring the wonder bound up in the world’s curiosity of whether He could do it yet again. Arranged chronologically, one can imagine the book as the ultimate family photo album of the star-shined favorite son.
For my part, the real joy of this book was a chance to feast on images from the early part of Merckx’ career. There are roughly a dozen images of Merckx that I’ve seen over and over and over. This was a chance to break the die and see the Belgian not as the Cannibal, but the man who would become the Cannibal, a young rider whose greatest ambitions were not only unrealized, but as yet unknown, even to him.
This isn’t the be-all-end-all book that will slake a thirst for Merckx’ life on the bike. In that regard, we are still waiting for the definitive study of his career. This is the palate-cleansing sorbet that is its own delight.
Perhaps the most amazing fact to emerge from the first week of the London Olympics was the size of the crowds watching the cycling road races. Last Saturday, the men’s event drew upwards of a million people. That’s said to be the largest number of spectators for any Olympic event ever—which may not be so surprising for an event starring Britain’s top two sports personalities, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, a matter of days after their crowning achievements on the Champs-Élysées. But what about the women’s race on Sunday? If you were cognizant of cycling’s history, you wouldn’t expect too many fans to show up for a stand-alone women’s race. But what happened? Despite no Tour de France stars being on the start line, and despite the race being held in mostly pouring rain, another million people showed up. Incredible!
From the British perspective, the men’s race was a disaster. Cavendish was widely heralded as a shoo-in to win gold after five-star assistance from Wiggins and their three powerful teammates, Tour runner-up Chris Froome, Tour stage winner David Millar and national champ Ian Stannard. But trying to control a race that was as long as Paris-Roubaix with just four riders, however strong they were, was always going to be a near-impossible task. And so it proved.
The GB boys boxed themselves into a corner with their all-for-Cav strategy. An early, powerful breakaway forced them to ride too high of a tempo for hour after hour to keep the break’s lead to bridgeable proportions, and they didn’t have enough gas left to stop three waves of riders making that bridge to the front over the final two laps of the demanding Box Hill circuit. Perhaps it would have been smart to let Cavendish surf one of those waves; he said he had the legs to do it.
In the end, it was extraordinary to see the 2012 Tour de France’s top two finishers, first Froome then Wiggins, ride themselves into total exhaustion trying to bring back the 26-strong breakaway group. That they didn’t succeed was disappointing for Cavendish and his supporters, but the Brits were heroic in defeat. The ultimate victory of anti-hero Alexander Vinokourov bemused the British public (and their media!), but the men’s race did make it to the front page of at least one major newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, which ran a huge photo of a solo, head-down Wiggins trailing in to the finish 1:17 behind the winner, with the headline: “Never mind, Bradley! There’s another gold medal chance on Wednesday.”
Perhaps the Tour champ would recover in time for Wednesday’s Olympic time trial, but a gold medal then would not change the public’s disappointment in the result of the road race. An inkling into just how the British media would have reacted had the gold gone to Cavendish came the next day when the women’s silver medal was claimed by Lizzie Armistead, an iron-strong Yorkshire lady from the same cycling club as the late Beryl Burton, who was probably England’s greatest-ever cycling champion. As the home country’s first medalist of these Games, Armistead’s photo graced page one of every national newspaper in Britain, with the most spectacular one being a double-page shot of the finish appearing in The Times—the iconic 227-year-old newspaper affectionately known as The Thunderer.
The Times headline read “Elizabeth the Second”—an allusion to Queen Elizabeth II, whose palace was the backdrop to the road-race finish, and to the fact that Armistead placed second. Not much play was given to winner Marianne Vos, the Eddy Merckx of women’s cycling. The Dutch woman’s victory salute was cleverly hidden on the back of the wraparound cover, with Armistead on the front page, smiling through the rain as she crossed the line. On this occasion, the British media and public came through for women cyclists; but the racers’ oft-heard cries of being treated like second-class citizens were borne out by the coverage in mainstream Europe. The Continent’s leading sports daily, L’Équipe of Paris, didn’t even report the women’s Olympic road race. It just printed the result in small type, deep inside the broadsheet’s cavernous pages.
But the women did get an unprecedented chance to show the quality and excitement of their racing in hours of live television around the world. And, after a slow start, they put on a great show of aggressive racing, particularly Vos, Armistead and sprinter Shelley Olds—whose ill-timed puncture when in the winning break robbed her of the chance to become the first American woman to medal in an Olympic road race since Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg placed 1-2 in the 1984 inaugural women’s event. Perhaps, almost three decades later, the excellence of the women’s racing at the 2012 Olympics will help them take a major step in their quest for equality.
We’ve heard a lot in the past year about the lack of parity between the men’s and women’s branches of professional cycling. Female racers have expressed their frustration that while, relatively speaking, money pours into the men’s side through multi-million-dollar sponsorships of teams and events (albeit with exceptions in austerity-ravaged economies such as Spain’s), women’s racing has stagnated, with even the top teams existing on shoestring budgets.
At the center of the parity storm is the world’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, even though the UCI willingly acceded to IOC demands that there be the same number of events for men and women cyclists at the London Olympics.
When UCI president Pat McQuaid was asked at last October’s road worlds whether there were plans to legislate a minimum wage for women racers, he said, “We have an agreement in men’s sport, but women’s cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet.” When his words were shared with the top three finishers in the women’s road race in Copenhagen, world champ Georgia Bronzini politely disagreed. Runner-up Vos said, “Of course, it’s a younger sport than the men’s sport but…with a minimum salary it can only be more professional.” And bronze medalist Ina Teutenberg added, “I don’t know why guys would deserve a minimum salary and women don’t.”
The debate heated up this past weekend, when Armistead, Britain’s brand-new Olympic silver medalist, said the things that bugged her about the inequality of the sexes were salary and media coverage, “but certainly I think we could get more help from the top—which is the UCI.” For now, let’s just hope that the dignified and delightful performances by Armistead, Vos and company in London makes the world of cycling, especially the media and the UCI, pay far more attention to women’s racing. At least, for the million or so Brits who stood in the rain last Sunday, the women’s race was just as much a spectacle as the men’s. And that can only turn up the volume in the women pro cyclists’ call for a minimum salary.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
If the Tour de France were raced on ergometers then Brad Wiggins would already have done enough to be declared the winner. His stage victory on Monday in the Besançon time trial over his own Sky teammate Chris Froome, with defending champion Cadel Evans 1:43 adrift, was so dominant that a power expert would tell you it’s mathematically impossible for Wiggins to lose this Tour. If he repeats the pace he rode on Monday at the second long time trial awaiting them on the final weekend, he could gain another two minutes on Evans, which means the BMC racing leader has to gain some four minutes on the remaining mountain stages, not just two minutes as has been written. And given the fact that Evans gained no time on Wiggins in the two climbing stage so far, his current handicap is impossible to overcome. On paper, at least.
Thankfully, much of the Tour is raced on French back roads over terrain that can throw out unexpected obstacles, and in weather that can suddenly change from benign to belligerent. When Spanish rider Luis Ocaña jumped to a GC lead of 9:46 in the Alps over the great Eddy Merckx midway through the 1971 Tour, nearly everyone said the race was over. But Merckx fought like crazy, took back almost two minutes on a marathon 250-kilometer-long breakaway with his teammates on a flat stage to Marseille, and then beat Ocaña by 11 seconds in a subsequent time trial at Albi.
Merckx went into the Pyrénées still 7:23 behind his Spanish rival and knew he had to attack on every mountain stage if he were to catch Ocaña. On the first of those stages, the Cannibal descended the steep and winding Col de Menté like a hand-guided missile in a dramatic thunderstorm on road awash with gravel. Ocaña slid out on a switchback and as he stood up, another rider banged into him and sent him flying. Ocaña was airlifted to the hospital, and Merckx cruised the remaining week to his third consecutive yellow-jersey victory.
With a week to go in the 1987 Tour, strong French time trialist Jean-François Bernard won the uphill TT to the summit of Mont Ventoux and took a 2:34 overall lead over runner-up Stephen Roche (that gap compares with the 1:53 that Wiggins holds over Evans today). People, particularly the French, said the Tour was over and Bernard would win. But the next day, teams with leaders immediately behind Bernard on GC used brilliant tactics to make a joint attack on a semi-mountain stage. Bernard and his teammates chased for a couple of hours, holding a one-minute gap before cracking under the pressure. Bernard lost 4:18 that day and never wore yellow again.
I’m not saying Wiggins and his Team Sky henchman will crack or crash and that Evans will win this Tour, because things may well go another way. We all remember 1992. Even Wiggins. The Brit was then age 12, already bike crazy, and watching the Tour on TV. Talking after Monday’s time-trial win, the first Tour stage victory of his career, Wiggins said, “I remember seeing Induráin do this in Luxembourg in 1992. And I just did something like that.”
Yes, on stage 9 of the 1992 Tour (Wiggins’s win on Monday was also on stage 9), in a 65-kilometer circuit time trial at Luxembourg, Miguel Induráin beat his nearest rivals by more than three minutes. And though he was challenged in a monster break through the Alps by Claudio Chiappucci, the Spaniard cruised in the Pyrénées to finish in Paris 4:35 ahead of Chiappucci. Maybe Wiggins will do something similar. But it’s far from guaranteed.
In a response to a question about defending the yellow jersey through to Paris, Wiggins said Monday, “I’m only human, not a monster, and I might have a bad day … and Cadel is not going to give up.” Merckx didn’t give up in 1971. Roche didn’t give up in ’87. And Evans won’t give up in ’12.
For more of John’s work covering the Tour, drop by pelotonmagazine.com.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
I hadn’t planned on doing a second review of Rapha products right on the heels of my first, and it might not be fair to insert them into the current controversy with Lance Armstrong, but I suspect everyone knows which line of the sand they’re on.
If you be hatin’ on Tour winners who doped, hit the “back” button now.
If you’re over that and dig cool designs that draw their inspiration from the five most successful of the Tour de France champions, you gotta check these shirts out.
The creators-that-be at Rapha noticed a little something one day in discussing previous Tour champions. For each of the last five decades the rider who won the race in a year ending in the number two went on to win the race four other times … at least. Armstrong was the victor in ’02. Miguel Indurain was the man in ’92. Bernard Hinault takes the honors for ’82. In ’72 it was Eddy Merckx, of course, And ’62? That was the great Jacques Anquetil. The shirts, then, are dubbed the Cinq Decennies de Champions—the five decades of champions.
So will this year’s victor enjoy a similar streak? Who knows? We’re not going to settle that this month … or even this year.
The world is full of crappy T-shirts with barely more thought afforded to their design than the garden-variety reality show. These shirts are the West Wing of T-shirts. Witty, smart, insider and aimed at those invested in the whole series, each of the creations speaks to the history of the rider. The shirt colors evoke the designs of their best-recalled teams. Better yet, at the top of the back of each shirt, a small icon appears. The The icons recall details like Indurain’s legendarily low resting heart rate or, in the case of Merckx, a variation on the skull and crossbones to recall his nickname, the Cannibal. And in another stroke meant to speak to the cycling roots behind these designs, the shirts sport a pocket, only it’s not a breast pocket; it’s in back, practically on the hip.
Rapha claims that the shirts are constructed of an ultra-wicking cotton. I can’t really speak to how well it wicks as I never wore it in a sauna (or outside when I went back to Memphis). What I can tell you is that they travel well. I’m not wild about pulling a shirt from a suitcase only to realize it’s too wrinkled to wear. Even after a there-and-back I noticed the Merckx shirt was prêt á porter.
At $60 a pop, these are the most expensive T-shirts I’ve ever encountered. Kinda no other way to slice it, huh? The flip side of this is calling these shirts T-shirts is something of an insult. Never in my life have I owned a T-shirt made from such a fine cotton. And if I could source a shirt this nice for the RKP designs, believe me, I’d consider it. These things are likely to become heirlooms in my family.
Should you wish to go in for the full collection, there’s good news. You can get all five shirts plus a stylish (like it would be anything else) musette bag for the price of four shirts—$240.
I’ve always liked the passion behind Rapha products, but these shirts may be the best marriage of their passion, design work and concept of quality I’ve seen.
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti