Is this the cleanest Tour de France . . . ever? Fingers crossed
Our belief in the riders is returning, but the next doping scandal may be around the corner
Cyclists ride on a square of Arbois, eastern France, during the seventh stage of the Tour de France, between Belfort and Chalon-sur-Saône, on Friday. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images
I was riding towards the Sally Gap on Thursday evening when some dude in a passing car rolled down the window and yelled: “Keep taking the drugs!” At least I think that’s what I heard him yell.
My old CSC jersey may have been the fatal attention but are things really that bad? That everyone who even acts like they’re into cycling over the mountains must be juiced up, doped to the gills, still taking the Smarties? I was a little wired on caffeine and maybe even high on CBD oil – but nothing even approaching a marginal gain.
It was watching Stage 6 of the Tour de France that inspired me to get out in the first place – and the properly savage finish on the gravel summit of La Planche des Belles Filles. Some riders wobbling over the line, collapsing into the crash barriers, others reduced to a walk with their bike hung on their shoulders – it couldn’t have been all about the needle and the damage done, could it?
There was also that proper shake-up in the general classification, Dylan Teuns from Belgium taking the stage ahead of Tour rookie Giulio Ciccone from Italy (who appeared to be shaking his head with that f***-me look of exhaustion), only for Ciccone to still wrestle the leader’s yellow jersey from Julian Alaphilippe by a mere six seconds.
Alaphilippe took over the lead with a late attack through the gorgeous Champagne country into Épernay on Monday, becoming the first Frenchman to wear the maillot jaune since Tony Gallopin in 2014. The 27-year-old former junior cyclo-cross champion already stands out for being widely popular within both the French press and the wider peloton, a L’Équipe headline declaring him “The Saviour” after his second mountain stage win in last year’s Tour.
La Planche des Belles Filles also saw Geraint Thomas show his hand, or rather his legs, and the defending champion from the artists formerly known as Team Sky may well have the ultimate say on how the 2019 Tour will be judged. Thibaut Pinot didn’t look too comfortable despite all the support written on the road in his home region, the other Frenchman and my pre-Tour favourite Romain Bardet coming to an absolute dead stop at the finish, just under three minutes back. For one stage at least, things looked a little more human, a levelling off or indeed levelling out, even if the only hope is that this might be the cleanest Tour since last year.
It seems a little easier to buy into some of the riders too, such as the Canadian Michael Woods, the 32-year-old from team EF Education First with some proper human interest, for sure the only rider in Tour history who has also run a sub-four-minute mile, his 3:57.48 at age 18. Friday’s chaotic sprint into Chalon-sur-Saône was won by Dutch rider Dylan Groenewegen, just denying Peter Sagan his second Stage win, and nothing too abnormal about that.
Armstrong came along after what is still considered the dirtiest Tour ever, after which things could only get cleaner
Still, every Tour might be just one stage away from another Ricardo Riccò or Floyd Landis, and it doesn’t help when some riders with a shady doping past are still prominent among the TV commentary teams. Lance Armstrong also popped up on the NBC Sports Network’s live Tour broadcasts earlier this week, offering up some expert analysis to regular co-hosts Bob Roll and Phil Liggett, but that didn’t sit very well with most viewers, and NBC have since announced he’s unlikely to be welcomed back. Still, it seems just because you’ve a lifetime ban from cycling and were stripped of your seven Tour victories for doping doesn’t mean you can’t have your say.
Armstrong, remember, also came along after what is still considered the dirtiest Tour ever, after which things could only get cleaner. That was 21 years ago this week, to be exact, when Ireland was under a mini heatwave and mildly distracted by the knock-out stages of the 1998 World Cup, and also welcomed the Tour for three opening stages that was originally known as Le Tour en l’Irlande but is still best remembered for L’Affaire Festina.
One must still wonder too what might have happened had Willy Voet, the Festina team soigneur, or masseur, not been intercepted after he set out from Brussels towards Calais to take the ferry to Dublin for the start of the race. He was stopped by French police on the French-Belgian border near Lille and, without being asked for any papers or identification, was told to get out of the car.
In two cooler bags behind his seat, they found 234 doses of EPO, 80 flasks of human growth hormone, 160 capsules of testosterone, and 60 pills of Asaflow, a sort of highly-potent aspirin. And later stuffed down his underpants a personal supply of Belgian pot, a mixture of amphetamines, caffeine, cocaine and/or heroin.
That definitely shook things up. Only 96 riders, just over half of the 189 starters, made it to the finish in Paris, under a dark cloud of suspicion and unquiet protest. The Dutch team TVM had three riders arrested and four from Spanish teams simply walked out. Marco Pantani went on the win the race and six years later was found dead of a drug overdose. Pantani’s name is still in the Tour record books, even though eight of the top 10 in that 1998 Tour later admitted or were implicated in the use of banned substances.
Anyway, the 1999 race was declared the Tour of Renewal and it was won by Armstrong, the first of his seven successive Tour wins, and the rest is doping history.
There’s still the sense cycling hasn’t yet completely confronted its doping past
There is, however, some evidence the Tour is cleaner since then. French website cyclisme-dopage.com produced two graphs this week, showing Tour doping statistics over each decade since the 1960s, the percentage of riders testing clean improving for the last five years – just over 80 per cent of the peloton, compared to 50 per cent in 2000, and closer to 40 per cent in 1998. The percentage of top-10 finishers testing clean this decade has been 67.78 per cent, compared to 43 per cent in the 2000s, and 21 per cent in the 1990s.
In an age when micro-dosing and marginal gains has replaced the hotel room blood bags, they are nothing more than statistics, and there’s still the sense cycling hasn’t yet completely confronted its doping past. The news this week that all those caught up in the Operación Puerto scandal – which in 2006 had cyclists, athletes and other “players” linked to blood doping – will never be named is a reminder of that.
And can cycling ever be as clean as other sports? World Rugby this week published its 2018 anti-doping programme, resulting in three four-year sanctions and one 14-month ban, from 2,236 tests: South Africa women’s sevens player Unathi Mali, Jamaican men’s sevens player Joshua Christie and Emre Bender, who represented Turkey sevens under-18s, were all done for steroids, while USA men’s sevens player Kisi Keomaka Unufe tested positive for the stimulant heptaminol.
No great problem there, it would seem, unless you consider some other statistics, Craig Russell this week confirmed as the eighth Scottish rugby player to be banned since UK Anti-Doping processes were introduced in 2010. At the end of last year UKAD had 70 violations – 25 in rugby union, 12 in rugby league, and six in cycling. Can British cycling really be that clean?