Sporting Controversies: Breaking the chain at Le Tour de Farce en l’Irlande
Spectacular Festina affair revealed the culture of widespread doping in cycling
The main peleton of the Tour de France heads up the Wicklow Gap in July 1988. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
There were two or three days left on my temporary work placement in the sports department when the idea first took hold. Desperation is sometimes wondrous inspiration, so I called up an old neighbour and asked him if he fancied riding two stages of the Tour de France.
“In Ireland, obviously.”
It was the beginning of July, the country under a mini heatwave, mildly distracted by the knock-out stages of the World Cup, and the week before the arrival of the 1998 Tour de France for its Grand Départ – or the three opening stages of what was also known as Le Tour en l’Irlande.
After a prologue time trial around Dublin city centre on Saturday July 11th, Stage 1 proper on the Sunday would take in a sweeping 180km around south Dublin and the Wicklow mountains, including the Wicklow Gap, before Stage 2 on the Monday started in Enniscorthy and rode its way down the 205km into Cork, via Carrick-on-Suir and Dungarvan.
“Why not?” he promptly agreed.
The plan was to write a couple of preview articles and impress the Sports Editor into offering me something more permanent. My neighbour had a proper racing bike and I was on my beat-up old Trek hybrid, recently shipped home after six years in America, and without thinking twice about it we set off the next day on Stage 1.
In between the frequent coffee and banana stops – Avoca, Laragh, Hollywood and Blessington – we joked about the pros riding on something a little stronger. Wink, wink! That Stage took us 10 hours. On the final approach to Cork on the second day we laughed out loud about needing an injection of amphetamines to see us home. Ha, ha! That Stage took us 11 hours.
Anyone with even a passing interest in cycling knew it had a doping problem: only few people within the inner ring of the sport dared to admit it. My interest began with a college dissertation in 1994, not long after the realisation that the discovery of the new and entirely undetectable blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin, soon to become better known as EPO, was fast moving from the pharmacy shelf into professional sport.
Indeed by the early 1990s, EPO had already became the drug of choice in the peloton, tales emerging of cyclists walking through hotel corridors in the middle of the night or spinning on stationary bikes in order to get their blood circulating to prevent clotting – or worse – such was their suddenly dangerous abundance of red blood cells. A short list of them never woke up, dying in their sleep, with or without alleged links to EPO use.
Anyway, L’Équipe also picked up the preview articles and the sports editor marked me down to cover some of the Grand Départ, beginning on the Wednesday, July 8th, as the 21 teams and their large entourages began arriving into Dublin on the StenaLine ferry – and which happened to be the same day that Willy Voet, the Festina team soigneur, or masseur, set out from Brussels on the back roads towards Calais, to take another ferry to Ireland for the start of the race that Saturday.
The original idea for Le Tour en l’Irlande belonged to Pat McQuaid, the then president of the Federation of Irish Cyclists (before that morphed into Cycling Ireland), and who from 2005 served two terms as president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI, the governing body of world cycling).
In 1993, McQuaid was part of an ad-hoc committee set up by then lord mayor of Dublin Gay Mitchell TD to help bring some major sporting events in Ireland (should we mention the Olympics?). McQuaid was already working on bringing the Tour de France to the UK for three opening stages, in 1994, and a close colleague of then Tour organiser Jean Marie Leblamc; he knew exactly how to set the wheels in motion.
Even before it started Le Tour en l’Irlande wasn’t without its critics – and not just from those who suspected the widespread doping. Then minister for trade and tourism Enda Kenny had to defend spending 2 million of our deal old punts to bring the race here in the first place, and additional costs and local authority expenditure soon trebled that amount.
The late Noel Carroll of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce wasn’t happy about the road closures in the city for the opening prologue, and the tourist industry wasn’t impressed either when Eurosport announced they’d only be covering parts of the stages live, and not the entirety as was originally envisaged.
With no Irish professionals in the peloton at the time, the team presentation in Dublin Castle on the Friday evening was fairly muted, not helped by the fact 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly, who rode in 14 Tours, was a stage winner five times, and set the record of four green jerseys as winner of the points classification, weren’t exactly on speaking terms – Kelly perhaps correctly perceiving Roche would get more of the pre-race spotlight.
There was some fuss around the appearance of the Italian rider Marco Pantani, of the Mercatone Uno-Bianchi team, who had won the Giro d’Italia that May, and was attempting the Grand Tour double. He wasn’t down to ride the Tour until Luciano Pezzi, his closest confidant at Mercatone Uno, died suddenly in late June, inspiring Pantani to race in his honour, despite claiming to have done very little training beforehand.
Also loosely championed on the stage was Jan Ullrich from the German Team Telekom, who had won the 1997 Tour by over nine minutes, and several riders from Festina, the French-based team still sponsored by Spanish watch manufacturers, including specialist climber Richard Virenque from France and their latest arrival Alex Zülle from Switzerland.
At that point few people, from within the Festina team or otherwise, were aware that Voet, their Belgian-born team soigneur, was still held up in a French police cell. He’d been stopped by French police as he tried to cross the French-Belgian border on a back road somewhere close to Neuville-en-Ferrain, near Lille in northern France, 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 82 vials of Saizen (somatropin, or human growth hormone), 160 capsules of Pantestone (epitestosterone, or high-potent testosterone), 248 vials of physiological serum, eight pre-filled syringes containing hepatitis-A vaccine, two boxes of 30 Hyperlipen tablets (to lower the amount of fat in the blood), four further doses of somatropin, four ampoules of Synacthene (to increase the rate at which corticoid hormones are secreted by the adrenal gland) and two vials of amphetamine – as well as 234 doses of recombinant human erythropoietin, better known now as rEPO, and 60 pills of Asaflow, a sort of high-dose aspirin.
And not forgetting the personal supply of Belgium pot, a mixture of amphetamines, caffeine, cocaine and heroin, which they later found stuffed down his underpants. Without yet knowing it, the lid was about to be blown off cycling’s Pandora’s Box, Le Tour en l’Irlande about to be best remembered as the Grand Départ for the Tour de Farce , and the beginning of what is still known as L’Affaire Festina.
McQuaid later recalled some details of this, how at some point on the Saturday, Leblanc had made him aware of Voet’s arrest, with the plan for everyone to keep the lid on it until the race got back to France, and which everyone more or less did.
The French police also waited until the race was back on home ground before moving in with further warrants, the story soon overtaking the glowing aftermath of France’s victory in the World Cup on the Sunday. When the StenaLine ferry arrived early on the Monday, all team vehicles were meticulously searched at customs. This time they knew exactly what they were looking for.
Voet, still holed up in that police cell in Lille, hadn’t just spat in the soup, he’d pissed in it too.
“There was no point in holding out any longer,” Voet wrote, a year later, in Breaking the Chain, translated from the French Massacre à la Chaine, his still terrifying confessional into the exact extent of doping in the peloton in 1998. “Drop by painful drop, they would have wrung the truth out of me.”
Next, they arrested the Festina team manager Bruno Roussel and team doctor Eric Rijkaert after the Wednesday’s Stage 4 into Cholet, and both men also soon caved under interrogation.
During Stage 6, both Roussel and Rijkaert confessed to systematic doping in the Festina squad. Part of Voet’s claims that EPO and HGH abuse were rampant in the peloton came with his notion the chances of being caught for taking them were zero. Not quite anymore.
With all that my old college dissertation was proving a little more useful than anything I’d learned in that one year in journalism school; by the end of the week the entire Festina team was kicked out, including Virenque and Zülle, and a lot more people were talking about EPO, and how exactly one might test for it.
At the beginning of 1997, UCI announced plans for a new “health test”, limiting the allowed hematocrit level in the blood to 50 per cent, as some way to prevent EPO abuse. After the rest day, Stage 12 was to follow a flat course between Tarascon-sur-Ariège and Cap d’Agde, and now informed of the UCI’s plans to fast-track their health test, the riders sat down on the road and initially refused to continue. Leblanc found himself negotiating with the remaining team managers and they voted 14-6 to eventually continue the stage.
Still the police raids on numerous teams continued during the course of the race. Stage 17 was cancelled and annulled as the riders held a second strike due to the apparent treatment of Festina riders still in police custody. The Dutch team TVM also had three riders arrested early on, and four of the Spanish teams simply walked out, including the Once team and their leader Laurent Jalabert.
What happened next either changed everything about professional cycling and the Tour de France or changed nothing at all, depending on who you listen to. Only 96 riders, just over half of the 189 starters, made it to the finish in Paris on August 2nd, still under a very dark cloud of suspicion and not so unquiet protest. Only Team Telekom and the US Postal Service ended with all nine riders still racing.
Pantani went on the win the race, the last rider to successfully complete a Giro-Tour double, before his slow and then sudden downfall. That began just a year later when Pantani was thrown off the Giro after failing that haematocrit test (that signal of EPO use), and ended on St Valentine’s Day 2004 when he was found dead in a hotel room in Rimini, having consumed €20,000 worth of cocaine in the last two weeks of his life. He was 34 years old.
His name is still in the record books for winning that 1998 Tour, even though eight of the top-10 in that 1998 Tour later admitted or were implicated in the use of banned substances. Ullrich is still credited for finishing second, and for years after continuously denied any links to doping until February 2012, when he was found guilty of a doping offence by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, before admitted to blood doping in 2013.
No rider actually failed a doping test in the race itself. During the Tour, 108 tests for performance-enhancing drugs were carried out by France’s main anti-doping laboratory in Châtenay-Malabry. All of them were negative. Towards the end of 1998, further tests carried out on the nine Festina riders revealed that eight riders had taken EPO, and four had taken amphetamines
A year later, the 1999 Tour de France was declared by race organisers the Tour of Renewal and it was won by Lance Armstrong, the American rider who had survived cancer, and would go on to make it five successive Tour wins before eventually being stripped of all of those titles in 2012. Zülle, formerly of Festina and now riding with the Banesto team, finished second.
Voet, meanwhile, was promptly declared a persona non grata by the Tour organisers, and given a 10-month suspended sentancein the aftermath of the L’Affaire Festina. He never returned to cycling, driving a bus for several years before retiring after suffering a stroke.
Now aged 75, he lives alone in the Hautes-Alpes in south-eastern France. Ahead of the 2018 Tour de France, just before Britain’s Chris Froome attempt to win a record-equalling fifth title, he was tracked down by Belgian news agency L’Avenir and asked specifically about Froome’s riding style, given Voet’s other claim in Breaking the Chain that he could tell whether a rider was “loaded” or not by just looking at him.
“It’s harder to say,” Voet told them, given he’s only watching on TV, but “nevertheless I see performances that leave me sceptical”. Particularly given Froome’s riding position, which he described as “assis sur une choitte”, which depending on who you listen to can translate as “sitting on the shitter”.
Or, perhaps simply “Plus ça change…” as they like to say in cycling, “plus c’est la même chose”.