Paul Kimmage: Cycling's dirty washing can no longer be rinsed clean by myth and memory powder
Chris Froome was loudly booed, jeered and catcalled yesterday evening on his first appearance in front of the French public since the threat of a possible doping ban was lifted. The investigation into the Team Sky rider, whose bid for a fifth Tour de France title starts tomorrow, was officially closed earlier this week. Although cycling's governing body (the UCI) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) insisted that he had no case to answer - after a urine sample last year showed an excess of asthma medication - sections of the French public appear to need more convincing.
The Times, Friday
Let's start with Thursday. Let's start with what happened at La Roche sur Yon when Chris Froome, perhaps the greatest endurance rider the world has ever seen, was introduced to the crowd during the opening ceremony of the 105th Tour de France. There are plenty of clips on YouTube so there's a chance you've seen or heard about it.
How did we get here? What can we say that we haven't said before?
Twelve years ago.
The 16th stage of the Tour de France from Bourg d'Oisans to La Toussuire has just finished and I'm sitting in a queue of traffic trying to get to my hotel when John Saunders from Setanta Sports calls. "Any chance you might take a call tonight?" he inquires. "I've been reading your stuff on the race and you sound pretty sceptical?"
"Well, actually, that's changed, John" I reply. "This has been the most interesting Tour for 17 years. Did you see the stage today?"
"Fantastic! Floyd Landis exploded on the final climb and lost 10 minutes! When is the last time we saw that happen to a yellow jersey in the Tour de France?"
"Okay, great," he says. "We can talk about your new-found enthusiasm."
"Yeah but I'm still not sure I believe everything," I caution.
"There's still some dopers winning stages."
"Okay, we can discuss that. But generally you're feeling positive about the race?"
"Yeah, I like what I see."
"Right," he says, "we'll call you at 20:30."
Read more here:
- Ewan MacKenna: So how is it then that you explain a freak like Chris Froome?
- Mourning the death of anti-doping
My mind starts racing in the hour that follows. I'm thinking: 'Every time I give these guys the benefit of the doubt, they kick me in the nuts.' Suddenly we're on air and I'm being prompted by John about my new, positive view on the Tour . . . except that now I'm feeling sceptical again. He asks a question. I cut him off. I'm ranting about hypocrisy and cheating and deceit.
The show ends and I feel awful: 'Jesus! What is wrong with you.'
The following afternoon Floyd Landis produces the greatest performance in the history of the race . . . and tests positive.
A year later.
A Tuesday afternoon in Pau. Fifteen stages of the 2007 Tour de France have been completed and the riders are being treated to a second and final rest day. For Jean-Claude Leclerc, a former French professional champion who works as an analyst on the race for Swiss television, that means a nice leisurely breakfast followed by a stroll to the press room after lunch.
He pulls up a chair a couple of spots from me and a fiery debate ensues. The heat is coming from me. I am raging at the headline - 'Le Courage de Vino' - on the front page of the latest edition of L'Equipe, the French sportspaper. "It's a joke," I fume. "They are trying to sell us another miracle."
"Well, we're not that far from Lourdes," Leclerc smiles.
For Vino read Alexandre Vinokourov, the 33-year-old Tour favourite from Kazakhstan, who has been showing remarkable signs of recovery after the fifth-stage crash which left him with more than 30 stitches in his knees. On Saturday, he blitzed the field in the time trial at Albi; on Monday, he won the brutally tough mountain stage to Loudenvielle.
I don't believe any of it.
"Here's the problem," I tell Leclerc. "Last week they were telling us Vinokourov was in so much pain that he could hardly stand - this week he's walking on water! It's a replay of the crap we had last year with Landis. And L'Equipe are letting him get away with it! They've been promoting him since the start of the race as the great white knight."
"Yes, but what can you say?" Leclerc counters. "He hasn't tested positive. There is no proof that he is doing anything wrong."
"You can say, 'Sorry Alexandre, go sell your bullshit some-place else'."
"Okay," Leclerc laughs, "I'll try that tomorrow during the broadcast."
Later that afternoon, news breaks that Vinoukourov has been blood doping and is out of the race.
A year later.
Tempetes sur la Tour, a new book by Pierre Ballester with some startling statistics on doping is published on the eve of the 2008 race: 85 per cent of the winners since 1968 have, at one point or another, contravened the anti-doping rules; 72.5 per cent of those who have stood on the podium have cheated.
The book also contains the results of a survey (of a thousand French citizens) on their attitudes towards the race:
"Doping has destroyed everything, I feel betrayed" - 90 per cent
"Because of doping I no longer believe in the results of the Tour" - 85 per cent
"All top-level cyclists are doped" - 69 per cent
The trend continues in the 2008 with a spate of (nine) positive tests that include Spanish rider Moises Duenas, a team-mate of a young Tour debutant called Chris Froome.
A year after that.
Time passes quickly in the company of Dave Brailsford. It's a Wednesday afternoon in Manchester and as our interview enters its fourth hour he has been selling me the vision of the Sky professional road cycling team and his five-year plan to win the Tour de France with a clean British rider. But there's a hitch. I am not quite ready to buy yet.
A furrow lines his brow. "You seem a bit anti," he observes. "No, not anti, you seem very sceptical."
"I admire what you've done on the track," I say, "but I really don't understand why you're doing this."
"Right," he says, "but I've got to be able to . . . "
He pauses and fixes me with a gaze. "Am I a cheat?" he asks.
"No, and I'm not suggesting you are."
"All I can say is . . . if there is any doubt or suspicion [of doping] on our team, I'll expose it. And if I get to the point where I think it can't be done, I'm walking away. You ask me why I am doing this. I'm doing it for the likes of Brad Wiggins, because Brad in my mind is clean. I don't think Brad Wiggins dopes - I could be horribly wrong but I don't think I am - and that proves to me that nowadays - and maybe not before, but nowadays - you can run in the top four in the Tour without doping. And that's what makes me think it's worth doing."
"Do you know 85 per cent of those who have won the Tour de France since Tommy Simpson's death [in 1967] have been implicated in doping?"
"I know," he replies.
"So when you say, 'We can do this clean', that's a pretty big call."
"Well, you've got to believe in something, otherwise what's the point? Let's all pack up and go home."
Eight years later: as Team Sky, the world's most successful bike racing team, are being booed off the stage at the Tour de France, Dave Brailsford has not gone home. And I'm at the Irish Open in Ballyliffin answering queries about the reaction to his team.
Rory McIlroy: "What's happening with Froome?"
Paul McGinley: "Are you not at the Tour?"
Pádraig Harrington: "You're going to have to explain this to me?"
But where do you start? What can we say that we haven't said before?
On Friday, the eve of the opening stage, I thought of an old journalist friend, Jean-Louis Le Touzet, and a conversation we shared a decade ago when the race started in London. "You know," he said, "cycling is a wonderful sport. I mean, you write about football and they don't care if you ever come back, but cycling embraces you. It wraps itself around you and won't let you go. It holds you close to its bosom and says, 'I love you'. But to do your job correctly, you have to push it away. You can't love it back."
The problem was obvious.
"The Tour has always considered itself bigger and stronger than doping," he said. "It's like the alcoholic who thinks he can control his drinking but who wakes up one day to find he is dependent on it. The power of the Tour was always about memories - the great riders, the great battles, the mountains, the suffering - and those memories served as a kind of washing machine.
"If ever there was a stain and the race was mildly tarnished, you stuck it in the machine with the 'myth and memory powder' and it came out nice and fresh. But the machine has reached the end of its cycle. The powder has run dry and the washing keeps coming out dirty. Winning has no value any more. How can you exploit a win that nobody believes in?"
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