What now passes for the “they” and “them” that comprises the broad opinion of the world—that indeterminate body of the Interwebs and blogosphere—has belched up a new opinion about pro cycling: A Truth and Reconciliation Commission will never happen, that it’s not possible.
Let’s unbox that one a bit: The truth is not possible.
This opinion has been presented by cynical friends, by an occasional contributor to RKP, even by none other than Lance Armstrong. The popular reason has usually been that Pat McQuaid stood in the way, like nuclear waste.
Nah, dude, I don’t need it that bad.
Oh, but that may no longer be the problem it once was. Thanks to a not “vocal minority” that showed up to Cycling Ireland’s recent Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM), Pat McQuaid has failed to secure a third nomination to the office of president of the UCI. It’s little wonder that McQuaid thought he had the nomination sewn up initially. While the vote (91 against vs. 74 for) seems on the surface to be fairly close, what emerged in the aftermath of the meeting is that Cycling Ireland’s board members (almost uniformly cronies of McQuaid) had the ability to exercise two votes each. That’s as shitty an old-b0y network as I’ve encountered.
There’s no telling if this outcome will domino his potential nomination by the Swiss federation, but in a truly democratic process he wouldn’t have such an opportunity. Hopefully, the Swiss will heed the cry of the outraged mob and will distance themselves from the real blight behind our doping problem.
The irony here is that just as it seems like we may have the chance to throw off the McShackles, the new scenario proffered by the naysayers is the threat of prosecution for any rider who confesses. Neverminding the fact that Spanish cyclists have hitherto been lionized for winning, no matter the method, pointing out the reasons why a TRC can’t work is a bit like peeing on your own feet before walking in a New York subway restroom, which as a category are some of the foulest places I’ve ever been, but that’s no reason to decide that urine-soaked feet are so inevitable that you take matters in your own hands.
As cyclists who profess to love this sport I think we—each of us—have an obligation to spread good ideas when we hear them. I believe that Pat McQuaid would have cruised to a third nomination were it not for the worldwide outcry against his leadership. The Irish (God bless their souls) heard us and joined the chorus. One CI board member noted that the vote was largely split along generational lines, with younger cyclists voicing their opposition against McQuaid. It should be little wonder then that Stephen Roche came out in favor of the current UCI pressdent. Lest we forget, Roche was one of Paul Kimmage’s most vocal critics when Rough Ride was first published. Kimmage was frequently called a traitor to the sport. History has finally proven that it was Roche, not Kimmage, who betrayed the ideals that the public had been led to believe were how their favorite pros lived and trained. Let’s not forget two things about Roche’s past: He threatened to sue Kimmage (though he never did) and he was proven by Italian courts to have taken EPO while working with Francesco Conconi.
So while we may manage to remove McQuaid from his office in Aigle, we are unlikely to be completely rid of him; he’s likely to return to race promotion. If we get lucky, potential sponsors may shy from him they way they shy from some teams currently. It would be a fitting outcome.
Brian Cookson may provide a fresh direction for the UCI, should he be elected as the next president. However, it would be somewhat ironic to have him run unopposed if the Swiss federation pass on nominating McQuaid. It would be helpful to have an actual election in which at least two candidates face off for the simple reason that the competition would force each candidate to sharpen their thoughts. I’ve heard plenty of snarky responses in response to the interview we ran with Cookson. I’ll defend the interview in as much as I think we needed to start to get to know Cookson, and find out about his background. I wasn’t terribly surprised that most of his answers were somewhat canned; I suspect we’ll hear greater depth once he has finished composing his manifesto. I think he would do well to note the snarks out there; the cycling world is too angry about how things have gone to simply rubber stamp him into the next presidency.
No matter what happens with the election, we will need to make our voices heard about what we expect for the depth and pace of reform.
While the prosecutorial and jurisdictional concerns make it seem like a TRC is unworkable, the fact is that WADA could conceivably cut agreements with agencies in the largest cycling countries. Honestly, there aren’t that many governments at stake. Agreements with just a dozen countries—France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, the U.K., the U.S., Australia and Canada—would cover more than 95% of the current road pros. Immunity from prosecution isn’t the biggest hurdle we face. The bigger problem is backlash from sponsors and fans. Even if team management negotiated contract clauses that excepted riders from confessions made as part of a TRC, that’s not to say the sponsor couldn’t just not renew the contract once it expires. And the fans. The fans.
Recent history has shown that cycling fans (cue the Jack Nicholson clip) “can’t handle the truth.” Prior to the nosing around of Jeff Novitzky and Travis Tygart, George Hincapie was one of the most beloved American riders there was. Even as Lance Armstrong’s star began to fall, the cycling public continued to dote on Hincapie. Most of us were still able to main an uneasy fandom even as the allegations surfaced. What’s been most interesting to my eye is the backlash that ensued against Hincapie and his co-confessors, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie and Tom Danielson. Two years ago these riders were beloved, even if Hincapie’s Pla d’Adet development in suburban Greenville hadn’t panned out. If you doubt that, all you need to do is check out a Youtube clip of Hincapie from relatively recent history, such as this one (just fast foward to about 7:45 for the desired effect). Given the backlash against his revelation, one wonders how his B&B will fare.
The message we’re sending is pretty clear: Don’t confess so we can still pretend you’re clean so we can still like you. The term for this is dysfunction. Such pretending is going to be much harder in the wake of a report just issued by the Dutch Anti-Doping Commission. The commission interviewed a number of riders active during the period the Armstrong dominated the Tour de France. Their conclusion was that a conservative estimate suggests 80 percent of all Dutch cyclists were using EPO, though it’s possible that percentage was as high as 95 percent.
What this points to is an overall cognitive dissonance I think we, as a subculture, have yet to reconcile. The report suggests that the odds are every cyclist who won a stage race from 1996 to 2005 was on EPO and/or blood transfusions. It’s a safe bet it’s true for most of the one-day races as well. If only 20 percent of the peloton was on EPO, the laws of probability hold that some clean cyclists win. But the advantage of oxygen vector doping is so great that if 80 percent of the peloton (and that seems a reasonable, as in not overboard, number) was using, the chances that a clean rider might win a race fall between mince et non.
These revelations have come at a price for at least some of us. On Sunday’s ride, a friend said that he was less excited by the prospect of the looming Tour de France than any in memory. I told him I was relieved to hear that because I have to admit, I just don’t care the way I normally do. I credit Pat McQuaid, not the doped cyclists, with my disillusion.
Writing off all the dopers and ex-dopers is more difficult than it seems; it ignores the complicated past of cycling. It’s hard to rail against a guy like Hincapie while we still wear T-shirts glorifying Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi. The only difference between those two giants of the road is that Coppi admitted to doping. Can we maintain a double standard for pros as if we collectively agreed to some sort of grandfather clause regarding all wins prior to 1996, rather than to simply make our peace with what happened and move on? Coppi may not be a fair example; he hails from a time so long ago it’s hard to get upset about anything he did because it took place before a great many of us were born. But what of Miguel Indurain? Are we really going to draw and quarter Armstrong and yet give a pass to a guy who was 6′ 2″, weighed 176 pounds and could chase Marco Pantani up the Col du Galibier?
Yeah, that’s naturally occurring.
My point here is that in giving a bye to certain riders, we demonstrate our uneasy relationship with the truth. We are probably more comfortable not having the full truth, but that doesn’t eliminate the good that could be gained were the UCI and WADA to have the benefit of in-depth interviews with riders who have doped. The bottom line is that you, I and the rest of cycling fandom want the sport cleaned up. To get there requires finding the button for Pat McQuaid’s ejector seat, as well as learning how to prevent doping in the future. Detailed, sealed testimony is the best path to that. It may be that some cyclists will choose to make their testimony public. If so, God help them—I mean, great. Either way, we need to give our vocal support to the idea that the UCI and WADA need as full an accounting of the past as they may achieve. A truth and reconciliation commission remains an indispensable tool in moving forward.
Working as a full-time writer and editor in cycling for more than 40 years, and having raced and trained with elite athletes in Europe before that, I was always aware of the sport’s netherworld. The place where riders decided to cut corners, imitate their peers, or accede to the desires of their team directors; the place where soigneurs, sports doctors and charlatans made it possible for those riders to use performance-enhancing drugs or methods. None of them, especially the riders, was willing to talk about that netherworld because they feared reprisals from their peers, penalties from the authorities, or loss of respect from the public.
And without true details, other than rumors or circumstantial evidence, it was impossible for journalists to write accurately on that netherworld. Like others, I did write what was possible. Over the past two editions of this column, I’ve mentioned some of the many stories I wrote about doping in cycling at a time when very little was known about the subject outside of Europe, including lengthy pieces I did for The Sunday Times of London.
I’d become that newspaper’s first ever cycling correspondent (and its sister daily, The Times) in the mid-1970s, but only after writing long and persistent query letters to the editors to plead my case. That led to those once-stodgy British publications taking cycling as a serious sport, and I began contributing daily reports from the major events (including road, track and cyclo-cross races), which heightened the editors’ and the readers’ interest in our sport.
Because I developed a good relationship with the newspapers’ sports editors, they put their trust in me to write that first long piece on the Tour de France doping scandal of 1978 (when race leader Michel Pollentier was thrown out of the race after trying to cheat the anti-doping control). That article was among the first in the English language to (slightly) lift the curtain on modern cycling’s doping culture.
As with the decade before that Tour and for five years more after it, I followed the race alone, taking lifts with journalists from Belgium, France and Spain. That experience allowed me to get their different perspectives on cycling and to learn about their general reluctance to say much about doping. From 1984 onward, I traveled in cars whose expenses were paid for by the magazines that I edited: Winning for three years, Inside Cycling for a year and VeloNews for more than two decades.
Through the years, I traveled with a lot of different sportswriters. One was Irish journalist David Walsh who first came to the race in the mid-1980s. We often shared interview opportunities, like with Sean Kelly on the evening of a stage, when the three of us sat on the curb outside Kelly’s hotel, chatting about the race. David was with Irish newspapers at first, and beside his reporting work he wrote books about Kelly (published in 1986) and the other Irish star, Stephen Roche (1988).
While driving Tour stages, we had lively discussions about developments in the race and problems in the sport. Those discussions increasingly turned to doping after David’s pro cyclist friend Paul Kimmage retired from the sport and wrote his book “Rough Ride” about his four years in the European peloton, detailing the widespread use of drugs. Not a cyclist himself, David grew more skeptical about the sport, but that didn’t stop him writing “Inside the Tour de France,” his 1994 book of interviews that included a chapter on Tour rookie Lance Armstrong.
During our Tour discussions, I was often in the minority when David and VN colleague Charles Pelkey were in the car, talking about our suspicions on which riders were or weren’t doping. I liked to give riders the benefit of the doubt, but I always listened to their arguments, and their views inevitably influenced what I’d write—especially after the disastrous “Festina Affair” Tour of 1998. By then, David was a full-time reporter for The Sunday Times covering several sports including cycling. As a result, my lengthy piece on that doping scandal was one of the last I wrote for The Sunday Times after more than 20 years as its cycling correspondent.
Like many other longtime cycling journalists, I’ve been accused of being too close to the athletes and the teams to write with detachment about doping, and as such I’ve been complicit in cycling’s doping problems. That’s a subject I want to address in a future column. For now, I want to add that we always suspected that Tour contenders and champions in the 1990s, including Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Bjarne Riis, Tony Rominger and Jan Ullrich, were using EPO.
But there was never any evidence of that possibility until a trunkload of EPO (and other banned drugs) was discovered by the French police in Festina soigneur Willy Voet’s team station wagon on his way to the Tour in ’98. That opened everyone’s eyes to how cycling’s doping problems had escalated in the EPO era when use of the blood-boosting drug was so prevalent because it was not only very effective but also remained undetectable in lab tests for more than a decade.
I’ll continue my thoughts on doping in my next RKP column, focusing on the years when more truths started to emerge from cycling’s netherworld.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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.”
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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
Bradley Wiggins is remaking the Tour de France in his own image. He has illustrated that there’s no such thing as an incumbent at the Tour de France, and all who hope to pull on the Golden Fleece must make their well-timed move with confidence, and after considerable preparation.
There can be little doubt about Wiggins’ preparation. In early March he won Paris-Nice, wearing the leader’s jersey for all but the prologue and opening stage, and taking out the final time trial—a mere 9.6km, but battled uphill. Next, at the end of April, he scored a win in the opening road stage of the Tour of Romandie, which allowed him to take the leader’s jersey once again. Luis Leon Sanchez did take the jersey off the Brit’s shoulders for a day, but in the final time trial Wiggins trounced Sanchez, taking back the yellow jersey and becoming only the second rider in 20 years to win Paris-Nice and Romandie in the same season.
Wiggins then confirmed that he was no spring champion with his performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Wiggins won the Dauphiné last year before crashing out of the Tour. Wiggins finished a single second down on Luke Durbridge in the brief prologue. Again, Wiggins took the leader’s yellow jersey following the opening road stage and held his one-second lead over Cadel Evans until the time trial. Of course, Wiggins killed it in the time trial; so great was his speed that he warped the space-time continuum to the point that he finished before Evans even started. Okay, not quite.
That time trial performance deserves a bit more scrutiny; we’ll get to it in a minute. Naturally, Wiggins went on to win the Critérium du Dauphiné and in so doing became the first rider in history to win Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné in the same season. Statistically, that makes him a pretty serious outlier, a less-than-1-percenter. As it is, only two riders have won both the Tour of Romandie and the Tour de France in the same season: Stephen Roche did (in 1987, natch) and Cadel Evans did it last year.
Here’s where a discussion of peak form comes into play. For Paris-Nice, Wiggins’ stiffest competition came from Lieuwe Westra, the Dutchman riding for Vacansoleil. The closest competition Wiggins had from a certified Tour de France GC contender was Andreas Klöden in 18th place, more than six minutes down.
At Romandie the Brit faced guys like Sanchez, Andrew Talansky and Rui Costa. Real Tour GC guys like Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger were showing up in the top 10, but were nearly a minute down.
At the Dauphiné Wiggins faced serious competition from guys like Michael Rogers and Cadel Evans, guys tuning up for the Tour de France. Despite giving up a few seconds to Rogers and 10 seconds to Evans on the final stage, Wiggins took the Dauphiné by 1:17, his largest margin to that point in the season. It’s possible that Wiggins wasn’t on peak form in March at Paris-Nice, but there is no doubt he was on better form than other riders with Tour aspirations. It’s hard to say he wasn’t on something approaching peak form at Romandie: he was definitely revved higher than his peers. But the Dauphiné? Few guys ever get the opportunity to show the kind of form at the Dauphiné that Wiggins displayed. How could that not be peak?
Here’s what leaves me scratching my head: The Dauphiné TT was 53km. Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans. In yesterday’s stage 9 TT, Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans, but the length of the event was only 41.5km. It shows that he is on even better form now than he was at the Dauphiné.
I’ve been thinking that Wiggins has been riding a wave of peak form dating to Romandie, the last week of April. That puts him in his 10th week of peak form. I’ve been telling people Wiggins will flame out, pointing out how no one in history has ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
That bears repeating: No one, not even the insatiable Cannibal himself, ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
Clearly, he’s not days from flaming out based on his ride in stage 9. But his form is too amazing to ignore, and by that I mean his form has been so good for so long that people are taking notice of more than just him winning. His form has crossed that threshold into being conspicuous. People are wondering if he might be doping.
It’s a shame, really. Everything we know about Sky is that the program has been, like Garmin-Sharp, at the very vanguard of clean cycling. Much of the brouhaha surrounds accusations by l’Equipe, the French sports daily known for having sourced information on positive EPO tests by Lance Armstrong. The Texan’s methods notwithstanding, l’Equipe has been just partisan enough in their reporting that it’s fair to wonder if they wouldn’t chase after any cyclist whose first language is English.
But the trajectory Wiggins is on is just the sort of physical miracle that draws attention. To use a literary term, his form has bumped up against our suspension of disbelief. And here’s a corollary to l’Equipe‘s susicion: at Romandie, Sky teammate Chris Froome finished the TT 39th, 1:45 down on Wiggins. At the Dauphiné Froome was sixth, 1:33 behind, and only 10 seconds faster than Evans. However, in stage 9 of the Tour, Froome was a stunning second, 35 seconds behind his team leader and 1:08 faster than the Tour’s defending champion.
Wiggins needs to understand that rides of that caliber don’t just suggest questions, they beg them. For my part, I sincerely hope he’s clean, because as long as he keeps winning the questions will keep coming and the quotes will be unpublishable in most locations. Hilarious, but unpublishable. His could be an unhappy tenure at the top.
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.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
The first accounts I ever read of Stephen Roche’s win at the ’87 Giro d’Italia painted him as a champion unjustly marginalized by his team, a stallion who triumphed despite an effort to cage him. Bill McGann’s account of the ’87 Giro, I think, corrects what has been a misperception regarding the first win by an English-speaking rider at Italy’s national tour. The quote, “History is written by the victors”, often credited to Winston Churchill, seems to resonate with Roche’s victory. It seems a noble quote until you understand that Macchiavelli wrote it nearly 500 years before Churchill came to power. Here is the tale of Roche’s mutiny, properly told.—Padraig
Before the 1987 Giro started it was thought that this edition was going to be a battle between Roberto Visentini and Giambattista Baronchelli. This Giro was in fact contested by Visentini, the 1986 Giro champion, and Stephen Roche, both members of Boifava’s Carrera team. It is strange that such a vicious intra-team rivalry was allowed to occur just after the 1985–1986 La Vie Claire bloodletting between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault that made those Tours de France such soap operas.
Roche had suffered his ups and downs. In 1981, not long after winning Paris–Nice, a blood disorder stalled his career. As he was starting to hit his stride, he crashed in the 1985 Paris Six-Day, badly injuring his knee. His 1986 was forgettable (probably not to the people paying his salary), prompting him to have knee surgery. The repaired Stephen Roche was a new man. In early 1987 he showed good form with firsts in the Tours of Valencia and Romandie and seconds in Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Critérium International.
Visentini was the returning Giro champion but had attained no notable successes that spring. Writer Beppe Conti observed that the two riders were much alike, terrific in time trials and on the climbs and both difficult to manage. Roche in particular didn’t get along with his directors and he didn’t get along with Visentini. Visentini reciprocated the Irishman’s dislike.
The official line from the team was that Carrera had two leaders and that team support would go to the rider most worthy of help. As far as Visentini was concerned, the team had only one leader and that was Roberto. Roche was resentful of what he saw as a loaded deck of cards. He was supposed to be available to support Visentini, but during that spring, Visentini had never turned a pedal to help Roche. Roche felt this arrangement was unfair because he was riding wonderfully well, bringing in high-value wins and placings for Carrera while Visentini so far had nothing to show for the season.
Visentini argued that Roche was focusing on the Tour and that he would be happy to help Roche win in France in July. But…Visentini had already booked a July vacation and Roche knew it. Roche had no plans to sacrifice his own chances to help a man who refused to reciprocate. Furthermore, Visentini hated riding the Tour.
The air was poisonous even before the race began. Visentini let it be known that if necessary to win the Giro, he would attack Roche. Now let’s be fair. Visentini was the reigning Giro champion returning to defend his title and fully expected to have a unified team help him. He certainly had every right to that expectation. The failing was Carrera’s in creating this dilemma.
Roche was almost completely isolated on the team, having his dedicated Belgian friend and gregario Eddy Schepers and mechanic Patrick Valcke as his only trustworthy support.
Visentini drew the first blood by winning the 4-kilometer prologue in San Remo. The next day Erik Breukink won the 31-kilometer half-stage, a ride from San Remo up to San Romolo, beating the pack by 19 seconds. Breukink was now in pink. That afternoon Roche won the 8-kilometer downhill San Remo time trial, beating Breukink by 6 seconds and Visentini by 7. Breukink remained the leader with a 14-second lead over Roche.
The Giro headed south via the Ligurian coast. At Lido di Camaiore, the Carrera team showed that they had the most horsepower when they won the 43-kilometer team time trial, beating second-place Del Tongo by 54 seconds. Baronchelli crashed near the end of the event, finishing well after his team, putting him out of contention.
After stage three the General Classification stood thus:
1. Stephen Roche
2. Roberto Visentini @ 15 seconds
3. Davide Cassani @ 52 seconds
4. Erik Breukink @ 53 seconds
The race continued its southward march with Roche in the lead. According to Roche, rather than acting as a loyal teammate, Visentini just rode on Roche’s wheel, highlighting the adversarial relationship. In the rush to Montalcino in Tuscany, the Irishman was able to pad his lead a little, to 32 seconds.
By stage nine, the race had reached its southernmost point, Bari, and still it was Roche in the lead with Visentini at 32 seconds. Scottish climbing ace Robert Millar, riding for Panasonic, with Breukink and Phil Anderson for teammates, had been first over the majority of the rated climbs, earning him the green climber’s jersey.
In three leaps the race made it to Rimini on the Adriatic coast for the first big event in the drama, an individual time trial up Monte Titano to San Marino. Visentini won the 46-kilometer event and took the lead. Roche’s ride was dreadful. Blaming race jitters and a crash three days before, he came in twelfth, losing 2 minutes 47 seconds.
The new General Classification:
1. Roberto Visentini
2. Stephen Roche @ 2 minutes 42 seconds
3. Tony Rominger @ 3 minutes 12 seconds
4. Erik Breukink @ 3 minutes 30 seconds
5. Robert Millar @ 4 minutes 55 seconds
At this point everyone except Roche and Eddy Schepers thought the Carrera family fight, if not the Giro itself, was over. Visentini again announced that he would work for Roche in the Tour de France.
Roche, an intensely driven man, was burning with indignation and ambition and with Schepers he planned his revolt. They picked stage fifteen to put their plan into action, the first mountain stage with its three major ascents: Monte Rest, Sella Valcalda and a finish at the top of the Cima Sappada.
The story of the Sappada stage is one of the most famous in the modern history of the Giro. An aggressive descent of Monte Rest allowed Roche to separate himself from the pack, taking along Ennio Salvador and Jean-Claude Bagot (whose loyalty had been purchased earlier when Schepers helped him win a stage). Boifava knew immediately what Roche was up to and was having none of it. He drove alongside the fleeing Irishman and told him to stop the attack. Roche refused, telling Boifava that if the other teams didn’t mount a chase, he would win the stage by ten minutes and Carrera would win the Giro. Boifava was unmoved and ordered the Carrera team to bridge up to Roche. The Carrera squad buried itself working to close the gap and Visentini, a high-strung rider, seemed to be having an off-day and suffered badly during the pursuit.
The team chased like fiends, and finally, exhausted, they dropped out of the chase while Roche kept his escape going, leaving Visentini alone to try to salvage his jersey. Eventually a small group caught Roche, but Visentini was not among them. Phil Anderson and Jean-François Bernard were among those who did make the connection, then unsuccessfully tried to get away.
Johan Van der Velde won the stage with Roche in the second chase group, 46 seconds behind. A broken Visentini came in 58th, 6 minutes 50 seconds after Van der Velde. Roche now had a slender 5-second lead over neo-pro Tony Rominger while Visentini was sitting in seventh place, 3 minutes 12 seconds down.
All Italy erupted with fury. The Italian papers blared what they believed was Roche’s betrayal of a teammate who was in pink and who had deserved the unstinting support of all members of the Carrera team. Moreover, Roche had been insubordinate. He had been given a direct order by his director to stop the break and Roche had refused. Carrera management was furious and threatened to keep Roche out of the Tour if he insisted upon winning the Giro. That evening team director Boifava, beside himself with anger over Roche’s buccaneering, reminded Roche that before the stage, Carrera had a five-minute lead on Rominger, now they had only five seconds (thanks in no small part to Boifava’s chasing the Roche break).
Visentini told the papers that someone (meaning Roche) was going home that evening and Boifava ordered Roche not to speak to the press. Roche ignored the command, feeling that if he didn’t speak, no one else would present his case.
Roche’s taking the Pink Jersey so enraged the tifosi that Roche was given police protection. He even went on television to plead for sanity. He later wrote that he was frightened as the fans spit on him and even hit him. Because of the inflamed passions, that day after the Sappada stage is called the “Marmolada Massacre”. It had five big climbs, the final one being the Marmolada, also called the Passo Fedaia. Visentini tried to get away, but Roche marked his every move. While Roche was obviously protecting his lead, another day of what appeared to the Italians of riding against his teammate cost Roche dearly in the eyes of the Italian fans. Second place Rominger lost time that day, but there was no other serious change to the standings.
On the big climbs that followed the Sappada stage, Millar stayed with Roche, riding at his side to protect him from assault while Eddy Schepers did the same. Visentini tried to make Schepers crash, even boasting about his attempted mayhem. The feelings on both sides were raw.
Stage seventeen was the last day in the Dolomites and again, the situation was unchanged. Heading to the Alps and the final time trial, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Stephen Roche
2. Erik Breukink @ 33 seconds
3. Robert Millar @ 2 minutes 8 seconds
4. Flavio Giupponi @ 2 minutes 45 seconds
5. Marco Giovannetti @ 3 minutes 8 seconds
6. Marino Lejarreta @ 3 minutes 12 seconds
7. Roberto Visentini @ 3 minutes 24 seconds
During this Carrera family fight, Torriani and the Giro management were reasonably impartial. Roche said the Giro boss whispered encouragement to him when they would meet. In any case, the incredible drama was selling papers and riveting everyone’s attention to his race. Torriani probably couldn’t believe his good fortune.
The equilibrium remained over the Alpine climbs of stage nineteen and Roche’s slim lead held. It was the twenty-first stage to Pila that Roche showed he was deserving of the maglia rosa when he, Robert Millar and Marino Lejarreta broke clear and arrived in Pila over two minutes ahead of the first group of chasers. This moved Millar into second place. Visentini, suffering a terrible loss of morale, lost another six minutes.
The 1987 Giro ended with a 32-kilometer time trial. Visentini didn’t start, having broken his wrist in a fall in the penultimate stage. Roche won it, cementing his ownership of the lead. While his Carrera team had been deeply divided, especially after Roche’s attack on the Sappada stage, the squad slowly came around to the fact that he would probably win the Giro and therefore yield a good payday for all of them. Roche says that in the final stages he had plenty of support from the team.
But he didn’t get it from the tifosi. To this day the Italians speak bitterly of Roche’s betrayal of Visentini.
Final 1987 Giro d’Italia General Classification:
1. Stephen Roche (Carrera) 105 hours 39 minutes 40 seconds
2. Robert Millar (Panasonic) @ 3 minutes 40 seconds
3. Erik Breukink (Panasonic) @ 4 minutes 17 seconds
4. Marino Lejarreta (Orbea-Caja Rural) @ 5 minutes 11 seconds
5. Flavio Giupponi (Del Tongo-Colnago) @ 7 minutes 42 seconds
1. Robert Millar: (Panasonic) 97 points
2. Jean-Claude Bagot (Fagor): 53
3. Johan Van der Velde (Gis Gelati): 32
1. Johan Van der Velde (Gis Gelati): 175 points
2. Paolo Rosola (Gewiss-Bianchi): 171
3. Stephen Roche (Carrera): 153
Visentini began his racing career by going from one triumph to another, including being Amateur Italian Road Champion and Amateur World Time Trial Champion, his promise being fulfilled with his 1986 Giro win. After the Sappada stage he never again won an important race. He retired to run the family funeral home in 1990 and has had little contact with the cycling world ever since.
Roche, on the other hand, had a brilliant 1987. For all of his trouble with Carrera, Roche, with grudging and equivocal support from his team, was the leader of their Tour de France contingent and raced to a brilliant win. He capped the Giro/Tour double with victory at the World Championships. He joined Merckx as the second rider in cycling history to win the Giro, Tour and World Championship in the same year.
Early the next year he re-injured his knee and from that point he was never a contender for overall victory in Grand Tours. He won several important shorter stage races before retiring in 1993.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
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.
* * *
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.”
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Stage-race organizers love a suspenseful final day. If that finale also incorporates a spectacular location amid beautiful scenery, so much the better. And should it happen to be a time trial, then that’s best of all.
A finish incorporating all three of those elements has been chosen by French race promoter Christian Prudhomme of ASO to end Paris-Nice this coming Sunday. The once iconic time trial up the Col d’Eze — a 9.6km climb on the spectacular Haute Corniche road from the villas of Nice to a 1,644-foot summit high above the Mediterranean — was last used to conclude the race in 1995. So perhaps this revival can return Paris-Nice to the glories it enjoyed in the winning years of stars such as Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche.
The Col d’Eze was first used for a Paris-Nice time trial in 1969 when the race was organized by longtime French cycling journalist, Jean Leulliot, who wanted a more suspenseful finish than a field sprint down by the beach. The uphill-time-trial experiment was a gift to Merckx, who won this final stage and the overall title three consecutive times.
The Cannibal was expected to win again in 1972. And going into the final stage, Merckx led second-placed Poulidor by 16 seconds. Everyone expected an easy win for the Belgian superstar, probably with a ride that bettered his Col d’Eze record of 20:14, set two years before. Some French reporters had even written their final race stories and taken an early train home.
At 36, French veteran Poulidor was thought to be past his best, and he didn’t look like posing a threat when Merckx was leading by a few seconds at the first time check, on pace to beating his own course record. But as the gradient eased on the higher parts of the climb, the French veteran got a second wind, and even though he appeared to be struggling, he was moving faster than the smooth-looking Merckx.
Amazingly, Poulidor stopped the clock atop the climb at 20:04, a new course record. All eyes then turned down the hill toward Merckx, who was still looking strong, though he later said his back was hurting from a crash earlier in the week. Even so, the Belgian was close to the record, too, but he was 22 seconds slower than Poulidor and so he lost that Paris-Nice by six seconds. What a dramatic finish!
Poulidor’s course record held up for 14 years, until Sean Kelly won the fifth of his record seven consecutive victories in Paris-Nice, improving the record for the 9.5km climb to 19:45. In his phenomenal win streak, Kelly twice lost the Col d’Eze time trial, both times to his compatriot Stephen Roche — losing by one second in 1985 and 10 seconds in ’87. Neither effort was good enough for Roche to overtake Kelly on overall time, and the younger Irishman never repeated the overall Paris-Nice victory he scored in his rookie season of 1981.
No rookies will win Paris-Nice this coming Sunday, but the Col d’Eze time trial should provide a brilliant showdown between the men who’ve already emerged at the top of this stage race’s overall standings: British road champion Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky, American veteran Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step and third-year U.S. pro Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing. Shaping up to be another contender is Spain’s former world No. 1, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who should continue picking up time-bonus seconds in the uphill stage finishes before Sunday.
It will also be of great interest to see how close the protagonists come to (or by how much they beat) Kelly’s 1986 course record of 19:45. Even though this Sunday’s climb is tagged at 9.6km, it looks like the same course as the 9.5km one 26 years ago; distance measurements were usually rounded to the closest half-kilometer in the 1980s.
In 1986, Kelly raced a regular aluminum-framed Vitus road bike, which was light for its time but about 3 pounds heavier than today’s carbon creations; and Kelly didn’t use disc wheels or anything aero. So the chances are that Wiggins, Leipheimer or Van Garderen will break the Irish legend’s old course record by at least a minute, perhaps more.
More important than the record, of course, is the overall victory in Paris-Nice, the second of this year’s UCI WorldTour races. Should it be a three-way race up the hill out of Nice, then Wiggins can be seen as the Kelly of the race, Leipheimer as the Poulidor, and Van Garderen as the upstart Roche. And perhaps Valverde, should he continue to collect time bonuses, will be the wild card.
As for the climb, though much lower in elevation, the Col d’Eze is similar to the last 10km of Colorado’s Old Vail Pass, which was used for the decisive time trial in last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Van Garderen lost 51 seconds that day to stage winner Leipheimer, who took back his GC lead.
Leipheimer has also done well on other similar courses. One that comes to mind is the 2008 Vuelta a España’s last time trial up the Alto de Navacerrada, which the American won by beating overall winner Alberto Contador by 31 seconds, with a certain Valverde in third! Today, Leipheimer is 38 and as youthful as Poulidor, then 36, was in defeating Merckx on the Col d’Eze in 1972.
As for Van Garderen, his career bears similarities to that of the young Roche. The Irish prodigy won Paris-Nice in his rookie season, whereas the American, as a neo-pro in 2010, came in third at the Dauphiné, only a minute behind Contador; that demanding race in the Alps opened with a prologue time trial that featured a stiff climb, with Van Garderen placing second, only two seconds down on Contador.
Despite the two Americans’ challenges, Wiggins could be the Kelly of the 2012 Paris-Nice. We know the tall Brit is one of the sport’s top three time trialists, along with current world champion Tony Martin (who is riding for teammate Leipheimer at this race) and four-time champ Fabian Cancellara (who is competing in Tirreno-Adriatico this week). And we know that Wiggins has a steady climbing style, which he displayed in winning last year’s Dauphiné and placing third at the Vuelta a España. But will the Team Sky leader be able to put those two qualities together in an explosive time trial that lasts for some 18 minutes?
ASO race promoter Christian Prudhomme is probably asking the same question, and hoping, like his onetime predecessor Jean Leulliot did in 1969, that Paris-Nice will give him the spectacular finish he’s looking for.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International