The Tour de France’s tortured drugs history
Lance Armstrong blighted the start of this year’s Tour de France cycling epic with his statement that it would have been impossible to win the race in his era without taking drugs.
Armstrong, who won the race seven times, confessed last year he’d cheated his way to victory, having denied such charges for years.
His latest effort seemed to be an attempt to reclaim some moral high ground. He said he still considered himself a seven-time tour winner.
By the same logic, drugs cheats Ben Johnson and Marion Jones could consider themselves the 1988 and 2000 Olympic sprint champions.
Armstrong has, however, not been treated well by history. Perhaps it’s because he was so unrelentingly vicious and fierce in his denials, even taking legal action those who suggested he was a doper. The race was being consistently won by cheats long before the American was born. From the 1950s, conservative estimates were that more than 75 per cent of the riders took performanceenhancing drugs, a practice that was banned from 1965.
The race, one of the great events on the world sports calendar, began in 1903, organised by the newspaper L’Auto. There were 60 starters that year. This year – the 100th edition of the race – there are 219.
Drugs were used from the start. Initially, alcohol and ether were taken to deaden cyclists’ pain and nitroglycerine to stimulate the heart.
In 1924 French brothers Henri and Francis Pelissier admitted using cocaine, chloroform and other pills. Francis said: ‘‘We keep going on dynamite.’’
The expression ‘‘No dope, no hope’’ became common on the tour, until the death of English rider Tommy Simpson in 1967 caused a rethink of health issues relating to drugs.
However, leading riders continued cheating with alacrity, and officials didn’t care. Eddy Merckx, the Belgian legend, and Frenchman Jacques Anquetil won five times. Another French hero, Bernard Thevenet won twice. All admitted cheating. Since 1990, only three riders, Carlos Sastre of Spain (2008), Cadel Evans of Australia (2011) and Bradley Wiggins of England (2012), have won the tour and not had a drugs asterisk beside their names.
Even Wiggins is now under a cloud. He has not entered this year’s event, which has caused muttering among the conspiracy theorists.
Besides Armstrong, modern superstars such as Marco Pantani, Bjarne Riis, Miguel Indurain, Tyler Hamilton, Alexandre Vinokourov, Alberto Contador, Jan Ullrich, Floyd Landis and Frank Schleck have all cheated.
In 1998 there was the infamous Festina scandal when an entire team was kicked out after police raids on hotels revealed widespread drugs use, mainly EPO.
Armstrong’s US Postal team ran a highly organised drugs programme, so all his team-mates have had their reputations blighted. Some say the same about today’s Sky team, headed by pre-race favourite Chris Froome of England.
There’s much to admire about the race. The scenery is fantastic, the courage of the riders is awesome, and the tradition, with the 3400km event finishing on the Champs Elysees (on July 21 this year), is revered.
But there have been just too many drugs stories.
Can a ‘‘clean’’ rider win? Who can say? Certainly whoever wins immediately has the finger of suspicion pointed at him.
My suggestion is to enjoy the race for what it is, but maintain a healthy cynicism, rather like watching the America’s Cup, which provides great boat racing despite the involvement of lawyers. Silver star: Pukerua Bay’s Anya Down, 7, finished second out of 53 young gymnasts at a lower North Island competition in Palmerston North on June 9. Mother Emily said the flexible youngster stood out for her good form and pointed toes. As well as getting a silver medal overall, Anya came second in beam and third in her floor routine. A year 3 pupil at Pukerua Bay School, Anya began gymnastics aged 3 and spends four hours a week practising with her step- 2 team at Kapiti Gym Sports.
Anya is also heavily involved in dancing at Porirua Dance Plus Performance Studio.
She hopes to combine her two interests and pursue rhythmic gymnastics at Olympic level one day. Photo: ANDREA
Still talking: Lance Armstrong has made a belated attempt to reclaim some moral high ground after years of cheating.