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
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
The end of the season is well and truly here with tomorrow’s Tour of Lombardy. As the fifth and final Monument of the season, this is a PRO’s last real chance to score a win of note and either capitalize on a great season or hope to rescue a lousy one.
Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the winner of Lombardy, the race of the falling leaves, is often a man of the Grand Tours, but not in the way you think. It’s true that the roll of winners included Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly and Tony Rominger, but the majority of winners have been riders who aspired to do well at the Grand Tours, but rarely put together the form for a win. What more of them have in common is a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Indeed, in the last 20 years, only two riders have put together a Grand Tour win and success at Lombardy in the same year. Three-time winner Damiano Cunego did it back in 2004 when he won the Giro d’Italia, and sustained his form all the way from May to October. Prior to that Tony Rominger did it in ’92 following his win in the Vuelta a Espana when it was still held in April.
And while it may seem that a rider should be able to capitalize on great form from World’s, so far, only Paolo Bettini has been able to cross the finish line at Lombardy in the arc-en-ciel.
Clearly, Lombardy is not a race for Thor Hushovd, but Cadel Evans seems to be both hungry and going well. However, following his win in the Tour of the Piedmont, Philippe Gilbert seems to be on track to repeat in Lombardy. Clearly, Matti Breschel and Filippo Pozzato will have something to say about who wins.
I say Gilbert will be too heavily marked to win. I’m going with Evans.
What say you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International