Paul Kimmage: Laughing all the way to the blood bank
"I've got a story for you," I proudly told the guy on the Star's dog shift when I rang the office a couple of hours after the stage from Epinal to Troyes . . . It was a Tuesday and, as is usual in summer, a quiet sports night. I thought I had a chance, perhaps even a page lead.
"Whatyagot?" It was the Scotsman again. With Tommy, he had become the bane of my life.
"One of the stage winners has been caught doping."
"One of those ABC boys?"
"No, an Italian sprinter called Guido Bontempi who's in the same team as Roche. And it's ANC, not ABC."
"Whatever. Has anyone else carried it?"
"Er, not really."
"Forget it then. No, hang on a minute, send us 200 words.'"
-Jeff Connor, 'Field of Fire: The Tour de France of 1987 and the Rise and Fall of ANC-Halfords'
The 104th Tour de France starts in Dusseldorf on Saturday and to mark the occasion, HBO have been flagging trailers for a new movie, Tour de Pharmacy which airs a week later when the race reaches the mountains. No, I kid you not: T-O-U-R D-E P-H-A-R-M-A-C-Y.
It's a mockumentary that lampoons the culture of doping in the sport and features a star-studded cast and some familiar lines:
Danny Glover: "I did it with my own blood, sweat and tears . . . and extra blood."
Orlando Bloom: "How do you beat a man on drugs if you're not on drugs?"
Maya Rudolph: "Nearly every rider was on drugs."
Dolph Lundgren: "Everyone was cheating . . . except for me."
Jeff Goldblum: "People dope, yeah. This is a sport with literally hundreds of dollars on the line, and dozens of fans, and stakes are . . . medium."
"Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?"
Okay, so no one has ever accused me of having a sense of humour, and I've only seen the trailers, but the whole thing just grates on me, particularly the cameo by Lance Armstrong who, not content with having dumped all over the sport, comes back to rub our noses in it. But the real problem with the film, and for the Tour, is that the truth has always been much funnier than the fiction.
Take the 16th stage of the Giro D'Italia last month, the 222km 'Queen' stage from Rovetta to Bormio. Philip Deignan - perhaps the most interesting Irishman racing today - had been in the breakaway for most of the stage, and had just slipped back with 40 kilometres to race, when the presence of Italy's Franco Pellizotti was noted at the front.
Okay, I'll confess, I was watching it on Eurosport, a channel that always sounds better with the volume on 'mute', but Rob Hatch, their new lead commentator, has been getting good reviews and I was curious to hear what the fuss was about.
Hatch clearly enjoys his work and delights in pronouncing riders' names with precision, and in their native tongue. Fernando Gaviria? Domenico Pozzovivo? Ilnur Zakarin? Bauke Mollema? Nairo Quintana? Mikel Landa? Thibaut Pinot? Steven Kruijswijk? Bring it on. But like most Eurosport commentators there are other, much simpler words, he really struggles with - a weakness cruelly exposed when Pellizotti, banned for two years for a blood passport violation, hit the front.
Franco has "had his troubles" the commentator announced. And you waited for an explanation from the expert alongside, the chief analyst Sean Kelly, and there was nothing. That was it: Pellozotti had "had his troubles". Nudge, nudge. Fnarr, fnarr. Move on.
Laugh? I nearly wet myself.
But it got better.
Twenty minutes later the chief protagonists - Quintana, Pinot, Zakarin, Pozzovivo, Vincenzo Nibali and race leader Tom Dumoulin - had just reached the slopes of the Umbrailpass, the final climb of the day, when Dumoulin stopped by the side of the road, dropped his shorts and deposited the contents of his bowel into a field.
A few days earlier, the Dutchman had waited for Quintana after the Columbian had crashed but the favour was not returned. Quintana wasn't waiting. Neither were the others. And as the Dutchman remounted and chased his uncharitable rivals down, a debate was sparked about ethics and sportsmanship.
Is cycling changing? Hatch wondered. Is professionalism taking over from the respect traditionally extended to the leader of a Grand Tour?
Later, as the debate continued to rage, Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong were cited and praised - Ulrich had waited for Armstrong in the 2003 Tour when the American was brought down by a spectator - because winning with honour has always mattered most in this sport.
Let's ignore that the two boys were doped to the gills! That's the kind of shit-show we're dealing with here.
And it was ever thus.
Thirty years ago, when Guido Bontempi tested positive for testosterone after winning the seventh stage to Troyes, the penalty was the stage (forfeit), a small fine (£500) and a one-month suspended ban. Bontempi was a member of the all-conquering Carrera squad, and a team-mate of race winner Stephen Roche, but this was 1987 - a year before the Ben Johnson affair - and there were no questions asked.
The abuse of Cortisone, a then undetectable hormone, was massive at the time; amphetamines were used for training and for races with no controls, but it was a subject rarely addressed by the leaders of the peloton: Kelly, Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault. And it wasn't until 2012, and an interview with Feargal McKay, that Roche was asked about Bontempi.
"In those days you didn't know what was going on in the room next door," he replied. "And you didn't care. There was no big king of doping in those days. I didn't know what people were doing in their corner and they didn't know what I was doing in my corner of the building. It wasn't something you spoke about."
And nothing has changed.
What's happening in the sport? Where's the new frontier on doping? What does it take to win the Tour? How are the likes of Contador and Valverde - the guys who've "had their problems" - still competitive? Why are they still lauded as heroes? What happened to Team Sky and their marginal gains?
You read the interviews and the diaries and the blogs - Chris Froome in The Guardian, Peter Sagan in Outside, 'The Secret Pro' in Cyclingtips, Nicolas Roche and Sam Bennett in the Irish Independent - and learn absolutely nothing. You listen to the analysts - Kelly on Eurosport, David Millar on ITV - and it's just piffle. And I get it, we all have to make a buck, but a terrible price has been paid.
The race has become a laughing stock. The Tour de Pharmacy is coming our way.
I hope they enjoy it.
Sunday Indo Sport