Wednesday 20 November 2019

Paul Kimmage: Who should we cheer - the guy who never wavered on doping or the guy who can't make up his mind?

This season's two outstanding riders have followed different formulas in their careers

Alejandro Valderde in action during last year’s Tour de France. Photo: Getty Images
Alejandro Valderde in action during last year’s Tour de France. Photo: Getty Images
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Whenever anyone asked Jericho why he was a mathematician - some friend of his mother, perhaps, or an inquisitive colleague with no interest in science - he would shake his head and smile and claim he had no idea. If they persisted, he might, with some diffidence, direct them to the definition offered by G. H. Hardy in his famous 'Apology': 'a mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns'.

Robert Harris 'Enigma'

Here's how the penny dropped: It was the summer of 1981 and I had just been picked on an Irish cycling team for the Tour of Scotland. It was my first international stage race and a baptism of so much fire that I crawled to bed each night dreading what the morning would bring.

A crack team from Czechoslovakia - the World Championship TTT bronze medallists - were blitzing us in the crosswinds, and by the penultimate stage I literally didn't know where I was.

It was hammering down with rain and we had been under the cosh since the gun and I remember turning to Steve Joughin, a top British rider: "How far to go, Steve?"

And being surprised when he looked at his watch.

The formula for working out where the peloton has to start it’s chase in order to catch a breakaway.
The formula for working out where the peloton has to start it’s chase in order to catch a breakaway.

I had always relied on geography and the names of towns and villages when calculating distance in races (A-B=C) but that was harder in a foreign country when your back was to the wall. Steve was using time to do the math: an 85-mile stage . . . a midday start . . . two hours of racing . . . a pretty fast (28/29 mph) average . . .

"About 28 miles," he said.

I thought he was Einstein.

There was so much we didn't know in those days: no protein shakes or power gels or on-board gadgets to deliver your speed and distance and cadence; the metres you had climbed, or the calories you had burned. Racers were driven by cunning and instinct . . .

"I've changed down - he's changed up!"

"I feel good."

"He looks fucked."

"I'll go."

"He's gone."

. . . And got their time-checks from men with chalkboards on motorbikes or friends at the side of the road.

Today there's a number for everything:




Lung capacity.

In the build-up to the Tour de France last year, Cyclingnews reported that Hendrik van Maldeghem, a math professor at Ghent University, had created a formula to calculate the distance at which the peloton has to start its chase in order to catch a breakaway.

X =Ap {3(p-x) + 6pAc+9 (p-v)2

X = distance at which the peloton should start chasing in kilometres

A = time gap between the breakaway group and the peloton in hours

P = speed of the peloton in kilometres per hour

C = 10-a

a = number of riders in the breakaway group

And you can laugh, but it obviously works. How often do we see breakaways in the major Tours reeled in in the final kilometres? Or a bag-of-bones in the yellow jersey, driving his team in the mountains towards a number on a power meter that only he can sustain? The racers are robots. The racing is formulaic. Theme music by Kraftwerk. Tactics by PlayStation.

But for all the science and the technology and the progress, there are some patterns that remain a mystery; one code we've been unable to break.

Twelve years ago in Nantes, after a somewhat frosty exchange with Lance Armstrong on the eve of the 2005 Tour de France, I was directed towards a 23-year-old Belgian from Veviers who was making his debut in the race. Philippe Gilbert had won a stack of impressive races in his three years as a professional, and possessed all the attributes to win the Tour some day. But that wasn't what made him interesting.

Two weeks previously, on his return from a modest performance at the Criterium du Dauphine - the traditional pre-Tour warm-up race in France - Gilbert had taken a call from a Belgian journalist, Philippe van Holle, inquiring about his ambitions for the Tour. "Will you be travelling to the start in hope or expectation?" asked Van Holle.

"With hope, certainly," Gilbert replied, "but I also know, given the appetiser I've just had at the Dauphine, that I'm going to really suffer as well. Mentally, I'm preparing myself for a very hard time. I'll just do what I can, when I can."

The journalist suggested that all was not lost: "At least now you have an idea of the gap separating you from the summit and the work you need to do to compete against the best."

The kid wasn't buying. "I can tell you now," Gilbert said, "that I will never reach the level I saw at the Dauphine. It doesn't matter how hard I train; I'm never going to get there. I understand now that I am never going to win the Tour de France - maybe I will shine for a day or two, but that's it."

Surprised at his response, Van Holle asked whether Gilbert was implying what he thought he was implying - that the cancer of doping was still prevalent in the sport. Gilbert affirmed that he was. And three weeks later, when the Tour finished in Paris, Gilbert was 70th - two hours and 24 minutes behind the winner, Lance Armstrong.

He has raced the Tour on six subsequent occasions but never come close to winning (110th, DNF, 112th, 38th, 46th, 62nd) fulfilling the prophesy he made to Van Holle. He has also become one of the greatest single-day racers the sport has ever seen: Paris-Tours (2008, 2009), Tour of Lombardy (2009, 2010), San Sebastian (2011), Fleche-Wallone (2011), Liege-Bastogne-Liege (2011), World Champion (2012), Amstel Gold Race (2010, 2011, 2014, 2017), Tour of Flanders (2017).

There's just one blemish on the pattern. In the autumn of 2012, at a farewell race in Monaco for Alexandre Vinokourov, a Prince of Doping in the sport, Gilbert took to his Twitter feed to express his support: "The last race of Vino yesterday. Great Champion." It begged the question: Why would Gilbert, a committed anti-doper, do such a thing?

Gilbert wasn't the only talented debutant to make headlines at the 2005 Tour. On July 10, a 25-year-old Spaniard from Murcia called Alejandro Valverde, outsprinted Lance Armstrong to take the first mountain stage in Courcheval. The Spaniard was a man of few words. None were about doping.

"I would like to find a word to express what I'm feeling inside, but it's just impossible," he said. "It's just the greatest feeling in my life."

For Valverde, there would be many days like this: The Tour of Spain (2009), Liege-Bastogne-Liege (2006, 2008, 2015), San Sebastian (2008, 2014), Fleche-Wallone (2006, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017). There would also be a two-year suspension for doping.

Valverde will celebrate his 37th birthday on Tuesday; Gilbert will be 35 in July. Twelve years after their debut in the Tour, they have been the two outstanding riders in the season so far. But who should we cheer? The guy who never wavered in his stance on doping or the guy who can't make up his mind?

That is our enigma.

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