Paul Kimmage: First cut is the deepest
Published 30/06/2013 | 14:00
All tour winners from now on will be asked the same questions.
Oprah Winfrey: "Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?"
Lance Armstrong: "Yes"
"Was one of those banned substances EPO?"
"Did you ever blood-dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?"
"Did you ever use other banned substances, such as testosterone, cortisone or human growth hormone?"
"In all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you ever take banned blood substances or blood-dope?"
In the summer of 2003, as Lance Armstrong was doping his way to Paris and a third Tour win, a 54-year-old Corsican called Antoine Marchetti was driving to a clothing store called Leader in Porto-Vecchio. July was his busiest month of the year at the store and it was lunchtime before he got a chance to open his daily newspaper and was drawn to the photo of the woman sitting by a pool.
She was beautiful, no mistake, but it was the caption that quickened his pulse: "Sophie Anquetil, daughter of the celebrated champion cyclist, Jacques Anquetil, outside her newly furbished hotel in Calenzana". He put the paper down and immediately phoned his wife: "When can we drive to Calenzana?"
Four months later, they checked into the hotel and had just reserved a table for dinner when the proprietor noticed his interest in some framed cycling photographs mounted on a wall.
"That's my father," she explained.
"I know," Marchetti replied. "He was my idol as a boy."
"Okay, let's see how good you are. What's this?" she inquired, pointing to a frame.
"That's his first Grand Prix des Nations win in 1953."
"That's him climbing the Col du Tourmalet in 1963."
"That's the Puy de Dome with Poulidor," he laughed. "Everyone remembers that."
There were ten frames on the wall. He got it right every time.
"Would you mind if I join you for dinner?" she smiled.
* * * * *
It's a sunny Thursday afternoon in Porto-Vecchio. Antoine Marchetti is standing outside his store in the mall on Avenue Bastia, observing the gaze of a curious journalist, staring at his shop window. The Tour de France is in town, and Marchetti has marked the occasion by dressing the window with replicas of Anquetil's jerseys and 19 books dedicated to the champion's life.
"Did you know Anquetil had an Irish team-mate," I observe.
"See-mus Elliot, un tres bon coureur," he replies. "He finished second at the World Championships in Salo in 1962 . . . should have won, was beaten by Jean Stablinski."
I cast him a look of shock and awe.
"Ask me anything you want about that period," he smiles. "I'm unbeatable."
He can pinpoint exactly when Anquetil entered his life. The year was 1957, he was eight years old and the young, gifted Normand with film star looks had just secured his first Tour in Paris. Four years would pass before he would win it again in 1961 and he would remain unbeaten for the next three years.
"Cycling was a huge sport back then," he recalls. "We had no TV – the only way to follow it was through the newspapers and specialist magazines – but everybody talked about the Tour de France in July. There was a famous rivalry between Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor and it divided France in two. You were either Anquetil or Poulidor. I was Anquetil."
In March of 1964, four months before his fifth and final Tour win, Anquetil travelled to Corsica for a stage of Paris-Nice – one of only two trips he would make to the island to race. Marchetti found a space outside the church, close to the finish in Porto-Vecchio and watched Poulidor race up the hill to win the stage. But the thrill was spotting Anquetil. "It was the only time I ever saw him," he explains.
That night he went home to Trinite – a small village on the outskirts of the city – and took a pen knife down to the giant Eucalyptus tree. "It was a tradition to carve your girlfriend's name in the bark," he says. "But I carved 'Jacques Anquetil'."
"It sounds like love," I observe.
"Yes," he smiles. "It was like falling in love with a woman . . . but don't ask me to explain it."
The thought lingers for the rest of the day.
What happened to the love?
* * * * *
Last May, a few days after Vincenzo Nibali's emphatic triumph at the Giro d'Italia, the American website Velonews published an unusual and quite brilliant review of the race. It was remarkable for several reasons:
The headline: 'Nibali's Giro win represents quandary of 'new' cycling'.' Why? Because it's nail meets head. And this was not a piece the website would ever have considered before the fall of Lance Armstrong, so lessons have been learned.
The photograph: A portrait of Nibali with the trophy on the podium flanked by smiling team-mates and the Astana general manager Alexandre Vinokourov. Why? Because it was shocking to be reminded that while Lance Armstrong has "no place in cycling" serial cheats like Vinokourov are feted and paraded like gods.
The analysis by Andrew Hood. Why? Well, try the introduction and judge for yourself:
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) made his pursuit of pink look easy en route to winning the 96th Giro d'Italia on Sunday. But it is that ease that has many observers questioning the methods the 28-year-old Sicilian used to land his second grand tour title in superb fashion.
Nibali rode an impeccable Giro from start to finish. The "Shark of Messina" barely made a mistake during a weather-marred corsa rosa, and confirmed himself as Italy's newest grand tour champion. But just as Bradley Wiggins (Sky) discovered last year after winning the Tour de France in equally impeccable fashion, victory in today's scandal-weary peloton brings inevitable doubts. Following Nibali's smooth domination of the Giro, can and should we believe his victory was clean?
In light of what everyone now knows about the depths of depravity during the EPO era, can any reasonable observer honestly believe that today's stars are racing clean? These are fair questions to ask.
Hood kicks on and fires the questions that will be served on the Tour de France winner and to the winner of every major race from now on:
Where have they come from?
When did they enter the sport?
How much power (watts) are they producing?
What TUE's (therapeutic exemptions) do they have?
What doctors/managers/teams are they associated with?
What doctors/managers/teams have they been associated with in the past?
How did they perform in their first grand tour?
He signs off with the following conclusion:
It's hard to imagine that Nibali or Astana would risk everything, knowing the stakes involved not only for themselves, but also for the larger sport as a whole. However, given the events of the last 24 months on the doping front a pledge of this nature lacks the weight it held following the Festina Affaire or even Operation Puerto. Is it a sucker's bet to believe that Nibali might have won the Giro clean? No one wants to be caught with pie on their face again, but until we hear otherwise, Nibali deserves the benefit of the doubt.
These are the facts: From 2000 to 2012, eight of the last 13 editions of the Tour of Spain have been won by riders who have tested positive or been implicated in a doping affair. The Giro d'Italia and Tour de France are worse – ten of 13.
From 1999 to 2006, 20 of the 21 riders who stood on the podium with Lance Armstrong on the Champs Elysees were dopers or associated with doping. From 1996 to 2010, the number is 36 out of 45. "And they're only the ones we know about," as a good friend recently observed.
Walk into any bookshop here and the hottest items on the shelves are Fin de Cycle: Autopsy of a corrupt system by Pierre Ballester, Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race and Tous Dopes? by Antoine Veyer.
This is the curse of professional cycling and the quandary of modern sport: How do we tell the dancer from the dance? Will we ever long to carve our heroes' names again?
* * * * *
Antoine Marchetti has never seen the Tour de France. This is the first time since 1903 that the race has come to Corsica, but it feels very different to the Tour of his youth. He tells me about a book he has not placed in his shop window: Tour de France: 33 Vainqueurs Face Au Dopage (33 winners examined for doping) by Jean-Pierre de Mondenard.
"The only people to emerge with any credit," he says, "are Anquetil and Fausto Coppi. Did they dope? Yes they did, but they never tried to hide it. The rest are either liars or hypocrites."
"What about Armstrong," I inquire. "Is he really much different?"
"It's a good question," he says. "And you're right – doping has always been there but I think, over the years, the products became more powerful and more dangerous. Okay, so Anquetil and Coppi and (Eddy) Merckx doped but they also had exceptional ability.
"For me, Armstrong never had the necessary attributes to win the Tour – he couldn't time trial and he couldn't climb – but he comes back from cancer and suddenly he's flying! It was the greatest fraud in the history of sport."
"You believe that?"
"I do, and let me explain why. I fell out with a good friend because of Armstrong. You see, I've always been of the opinion that you see the real champions straight away. I asked my friend: 'Do you know where Coppi finished in his first Tour de France?' He said 'No.' I said 'Let me tell you – he finished first.'
"Where did Anquetil finish in his first Tour? First. Where did Merckx finish in his first Tour? First. Then I said, 'Okay Mister Armstrong-fan. Where did Lance Armstrong finish in his first Tour de France?' He said: 'I don't know.' I said 'Let me tell you – 56th!' So don't try to tell me you can suddenly become a great at the age of 27."
"Has he left a stain?" I ask. "Has he damaged the race?"
"No question, yes. I've said as much to my friend – 'Your hero broke my favourite toy'."
"How do you feel about the race being in Corsica," I ask.
"Well, I'd be lying if I said it didn't give me pleasure and I think for Corsica it's great – the whole world will get to see our beautiful island. And it's great for cycling fans. But I wish it had come when Anquetil was racing in the '60s. Now, that really would have been great."
Irish IndependentFollow @IndoSport