There’s been talk that an amnesty for past doping offenders is the path to a new era in clean cycling. But it’s not that easy to disperse years of pollution from a sport that is, more than ever, haunted by ghosts of doping past. An amnesty may be one step toward the goal of putting the dirty decades behind us, but it’s going to be far more difficult to purge professional cycling of its systemic sins.
We hope that the latest round of riders coming out or being outed is the start of a final phase in the cleansing process; but for it to be a truly effective process it has to be extended to the other tainted players, including team owners, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, coaches, team doctors, rider agents, event promoters, the sport’s administrators, race officials and, yes, journalists.
When I first became immersed in the European racing scene almost 50 years ago, there were no rules against using drugs in cycling (or any other sport). I raced for an amateur team in France and was aware that some teammates popped amphetamines to help them win lap primes in circuit races. I was offered the same drugs but knew that no amount of performance-enhancement would turn me into a Tour de France rider. I also knew that ex-pros with a dicey reputation worked as a mini-mafia in the same amateur races I competed in, and that top British riders I trained with were reluctant to sign for continental pro teams because of those teams’ doping cultures.
The cycling authorities didn’t legislate against performance-enhancing drugs until 1965. The very first tests were carried out at the amateurs-only Tour of Britain Milk Race, and the country was shocked when it was announced before the final stage that race leader Luis Santamarina of Spain and two others had tested positive for amphetamines and were being thrown out of the race. That shock was somewhat tempered when Britain’s Les West won the last stage by a couple of minutes and took the overall title. The fight against doping had begun….
The British public was even more shocked two years later when their former Sportsman of the Year, Tom Simpson, died at the Tour de France on the climb of Mont Ventoux. The coroner said that the amphetamine pills discovered in his racing jersey pockets were only part of the reason he died from heat exhaustion. Simpson was my cycling hero. I met him and saw him race many times, including at the foot of the Ventoux on that tragic day at the 1967 Tour. It was hard to accept that he’d doped and died.
Simpson’s death forced the Tour organizers to introduce daily drug tests, and the 1968 edition was dubbed the “Good Health Tour” by J.B. Wadley, my editor at International Cycle Sport, the magazine where I began my first full-time journalism job. Everyone was hoping that the new testing program would end doping practices, but all it did was make the riders and their teams more secretive as they found ways to elude positive tests. That was confirmed a decade later when Tour leader Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the 1978 race at L’Alpe d’Huez. The anti-doping inspector discovered under Pollentier’s shorts a rubber bulb containing clean urine, with which he’d intended to fill the test tubes at the post-stage medical control.
I was one of a half-dozen journalists who visited with Pollentier the next morning on the balcony of his hotel room. We learned that his actions weren’t much different from what many (most?) riders had been doing for years to avoid testing positive. That candid conversation on doping with the disgraced yellow jersey was the basis of a 2,000-word news story I wrote that week in 1978 for The Sunday Times of London, one of the first mainstream articles to look at the underbelly of pro cycling.
Pollentier’s transgression led to more stringent anti-doping rules, but another 10 years on, at the 1988 Tour, another race leader, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. He wasn’t sanctioned because the incriminating product (already banned by the International Olympic Committee) had yet to be added to the UCI’s list of proscribed drugs. We again wrote our stories about the hidden depth of cycling’s drugs problems—but when no one would talk to the press about what was actually going on inside the peloton, it was impossible to give details or to know the full extent of doping in cycling.
Yellow jersey Delgado’s escape from disqualification was the highest-profile “doping” incident in the ’80s, when the punishment for testing positive at the Tour was a cash fine plus a 10-minute time penalty. As a result, not much was made of the slap-on-the-wrists doping violations of top Dutch pros Steven Rooks, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Johan Van der Velde and Joop Zoetemelk. It was only years later that they and other Tour riders admitted to their abuse of amphetamines, steroids or testosterone.
For the few English-speaking cycling journalists who traveled to Europe in the ’80s, those were heady times. We wrote about the break-through successes of Sean Kelly, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson in the classics, Greg LeMond’s and Stephen Roche’s victories at the worlds and Tour, and Roche’s and Andy Hampsten’s wins at the Giro d’Italia. Some skeptics said they couldn’t have achieved those successes without doping, but we never saw anything suspicious in that pre-team-bus era, even though we’d chat with the riders in the showers at Paris-Roubaix, interview them during massage sessions at the Tour, and do extensive one-on-ones at their homes.
The amazing performances of Kelly and Roche in that period made them Ireland’s biggest sporting stars, a fact that encouraged Irish sportswriter David Walsh to move to Paris with his young family to cover their stories. We became friends and followed many Tours together over the following decade or so. Walsh also made friends with journeyman Irish pro Paul Kimmage, who was then racing for a French team and shared some of the doping stories with Walsh that became the basis of Kimmage’s 1990 book, “Rough Ride.”
After that whistle-blowing book was published, Kimmage became a pariah in the European peloton, which remained highly secretive about its use of drugs. But it was clear that athletes and sports doctors had moved on from the haphazard use of amphetamines and other stimulants. I wrote an editorial in VeloNews in 1989 titled “EPO: The scourge of the 1990s?” that pointed out the dangers of the new blood-boosting hormone, which had just been approved for use with cancer patients by the Food and Drug Administration.
The speculation, unfortunately, became a fact. An early, but unconfirmed, indication of EPO use came at the 1991 Tour when, one by one, the high-profile PDM team fell sick and dropped out. The last man standing was Kelly, who a few of us, including Aussie colleague Rupert Guinness, chatted with the morning before stage 11 when he and the rest of the team flew home. Kelly said that they’d all been sick, as if they had food poisoning, though it was later confirmed it was due to injections of a badly stored nutritional supplement, Intralipid, used for recovery … though doping was still suspected.
The wheels started to come off the EPO wagon in 1998, when Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught with a station wagon packed with EPO, human growth hormone, artificial testosterone and amphetamines that was destined for the world No 1-ranked Festina team at the Tour. The race took a back seat as revelation after revelation emerged from the Festina camp, and when the French police intervened to arrest team officials, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc held his infamous late-night press conference in Brive to exclude the whole Festina team from the Tour.
I sat up all night to write another doping story for The Sunday Times, this one based around Festina’s Aussie team member Neil Stephens, after he spoke with companion Rupert Guinness about his criminal-like treatment at an overnight questioning session in a French jail. The subsequent riders’ strike, further police raids and a second strike, followed by mass team withdrawals almost ended the Tour—and drowned out a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich.
The Festina Affair began a new wave on the battle against doping, a story that I’ll continue next Tuesday.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Hailstones, snowstorms and survivors
I was taken aback last week when I heard about a field of pro racers coming to a halt during the opening stage of Argentina’s Tour de San Luis. It wasn’t because they had to stop for a train rumbling through a rail crossing; no, they stopped to seek shelter from a storm, one of heavy rain and hail.
Wait, I thought, aren’t bike racers supposed to carry on whatever the conditions, rain or shine? Next, they’ll be stopping because it’s too hot, or too cold, or maybe too windy! It wasn’t always so….
In my first multi-day race, the Easter Three-day on the Isle of Wight in southern England, we raced through a violent hailstorm. Within 10 minutes of hailstones hitting our bare arms, legs and heads (we didn’t wear helmets back then), the intact pack was reduced to about a dozen. That was perhaps the most unusual way I’ve ever gotten into a breakaway!
A couple of years after that, I took my bike to Italy to report the Tour of Sardinia, an early-season race that Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil, Lucien Aimar and Jan Janssen were riding. They would all survive a true winter tempest of lightning, rain, hail and snow on a mountainside of that sparsely beautiful Mediterranean island. British rider Derek Harrison told me the peloton was slowed when an intense part of the storm covered the road an inch deep in golf-ball-sized hailstones, and Tour winner Janssen stopped several times to wipe his glasses clean and another time to scrounge a pair of woolen gloves.
That day, I climbed just ahead of the race to the 4,000-foot summit of the Arcu Correboi pass, where a well-muffled spectator gave me two swigs from a flask of Cognac before the riders arrived. As the hail turned to snow, a white blanket covered the bumpy road. And after the peloton passed, I began the steep descent, where the wind-blown snow stung my face. In order to see, I had to close one eye, leave the other half open and screw my head around at an angle.
My feet, hands and face were slowly freezing when suddenly a great booming sound came from behind, and a high wall of metal loomed into my peripheral vision. It was a snowplow. The driver waved me over, stopped, put my bike in the back of his truck and helped me into the heated cab. He dropped me off 10 miles later in the remote mountain town of Fonni, where a group of villagers crowded around this still-shivering stranger, and one of them took me and my bike into a bar to treat me to another tot of brandy!
I had a more frightening snowstorm experience in the mid-1980s after reporting the Étoile de Bessèges, a February stage race in southern France — where rookie American pro Thurlow Rogers from Southern California was shocked one day when the water in his bottles turned to ice. I covered the race by bike. The next day, I headed east on a back road through the Cévennes. As I gained elevation, the light snow grew in intensity, and fell so deep on the road that I had to dismount and push my luggage-laden bike as best I could; I’d gone too far to turn back.
There were no houses on that desolate plateau, and I hadn’t seen any vehicles since early in the day. I was having trouble navigating in the whiteout, and I was getting colder and colder, despite putting on all the extra clothing I could find in my panniers. What should have been a pleasant two-hour ride was turning into a never-ending trudge … perhaps I wouldn’t even make it.
The snow kept falling. And when the road began dropping toward a far valley, I hopped onto one pedal, scooting the bike, in the hope of getting to a village before I collapsed with hypothermia—well, that’s what was going through my mind after all those hours of plodding alone in that bleak, silent, snow-covered landscape.
Just as I was despairing of ever reaching civilization I spotted a truck moving in the far distance. It didn’t come my way, but when I reached where it had been, I found the road had been partially plowed. I was able to start riding (very slowly) again … and I did reach a village, where I stuffed myself with cookies and hot tea before continuing to a real town. I checked into a small inn and soaked in a hot, deep bathtub. Bliss.
As for the most memorable day of bad-weather bike racing I’ve witnessed, that came in 1988 at the Giro d’Italia — and I don’t think anyone told the peloton to stop racing when heavy rain turned to snow on the Passo di Gavia. I know how cold it was because the French journalist I was traveling with stopped his car on the 8,600-foot summit. We stood in snow being driven horizontally by fierce crosswinds and watched the racers climbing laboriously, one by one, through the blizzard.
I’ve written about that (truly) epic day many times: how first-man-to-the-top Johan Van der Velde was so cold he stopped and climbed into his team car, and stayed there for many long minutes, warming up and changing into dry clothes before continuing; how second-man-to-the-summit Andy Hampsten donned ski gloves and a balaclava before tracking a solo path through snow and fog on the treacherous, dirt-road descent, risking frostbite, before claiming the leader’s maglia rosa in the valley; how several riders went hypothermic; and how only a handful actually quit the race.
Bob Roll, who was one of the survivors, wrote a piece titled “The Day the Big Men Cried” for one of his books. Those big men weren’t stopped by a little hailstorm — as their counterparts were last week in Argentina.
That’s a somewhat harsh verdict on today’s peloton, so I was pleased to see a couple of tweets this past Sunday from pros training on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Former U.S national champion Ben King of RadioShack-Nissan wrote: “Miserable training! 4 degrees C, windy, pouring rain and hail, 2 hrs was the max that [we] could face … and I’m still numb.” World champ Mark Cavendish of Team Sky added: “My cheeks are red and stinging from a hail storm….” Yes. But better that than red from embarrassment.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson