Tuesday 15 October 2019

Paul Kimmage: Twenty years on from the 'Calvary' of the 1998 Tour de France, cycling still has a cross to bear

The peloton makes its way up the Wicklow Gap during the Tour de France 1998. Photo: Sportsfile
The peloton makes its way up the Wicklow Gap during the Tour de France 1998. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

It's 20 years since the town of Longford was twinned with Noyal-Chatillon-sur-Seiche and Google was formed and the Good Friday Agreement was made and Frank Sinatra died and Michelle de Bruin was banned and France won the World Cup and the Tour de France started in Dublin with the Festina affair.

Festina, a Spanish watch manufacturer, were the sponsors of the world's best cycling team that year; the affair was the massive scandal that ensued when a team car laden with performance-enhancing drugs was intercepted by a French customs official as it headed for Dublin.

After the fourth stage to Cholet, Bruno Roussel, the team manager, was arrested by French police. After the sixth stage to Brive, the nine Festina riders including the French 'chou chou', Richard Virenque, were evicted from the race. After the seventh stage to Correze, the forecast had never been brighter, according to the Sunday Independent.

"The Festina affair is without doubt the best thing that could have happened professional cycling. In future years we will hopefully look back on it as the moment in the history of the sport when the drugs tide finally turned."

. . . not one of my better calls.

One story from that week is worth recalling. On the Tuesday evening, as Roussel was being interviewed by the police, one of the older Tour riders was being interviewed by the L'équipe journalist Philippe Brunel. The 'Brunel' interview, a long-form Q&A, was a regular feature in the paper and followed familiar lines: the glory of cycling, the magic of the Tour and the major talking points of the race.

This one was different.

Jaded from the hypocrisy, the rider spoke truthfully about the demands of his profession and confessed what every racer in the peloton knew but was too scared to say: that Willy Voet - the Festina masseur who had been caught ferrying the drugs to Ireland - was not the villain being portrayed, but a kind and decent man who had been simply acting to orders.

That the abuse of EPO, a blood-boosting hormone, had been widespread in the peloton since 1994 and that the scandal enveloping Festina might easily have happened to other teams.

It was a remarkable testimony of frankness and honesty and Brunel was buzzing when he left the hotel. He had been reporting on the sport for decades but no active racer had ever given him what this guy had: the 'family' secrets; the A to Z on doping; the power of 'Omerta' and the code of silence. 'This will change the game,' he thought.

. . . And then his phone rang.

It was the rider, pleading for the interview to be pulled. His team manager had noticed them conversing in the lobby and was threatening to sack him for "professional misconduct". "I'm really sorry," he gushed. "I'm not denying what I said but I've a wife and kids to support. I hope you understand."

The interview was binned.

They met the following morning, shortly before the start, and the rider was full of remorse. "Last night I acted like an intelligent human being," he sighed. "This morning I'm a fucking idiot again."

But he was in good company.

When the '96 Tour winner, Bjarne Riis, was asked for his impressions, he insisted that "it wasn't up to me to respond". Then the Eurosport commentators, Stephen Roche and David Duffield, announced that they would not be addressing the controversy in depth because they only "dealt with facts".

And every day the stench got worse.

Three members of the Dutch team, TVM, were arrested. Four Spanish teams and an Italian team withdrew from the race. The police were raiding team hotels and a stage was cancelled after the riders staged a sit-down protest. And of the 189 who had set out from Dublin, it was a battered and depleted (96) peloton that arrived in Paris.

Pro cycling had hit rock bottom.

Two months later, an 18-year-old Irish kid called Mark Scanlon won the World Junior Championships in Holland. A month after that, when the route for the '99 Tour was announced in Paris, he was invited on to the stage at the Palais des Congres and presented as the new face of the sport.

For Jean-Claude Killy, the once-great Alpine skier and president of the race owners, the Société du Tour de France, it was a chance to start again. "We all touched rock bottom this year," he announced. "If the 1998 Tour de France was chosen by history to live through this Calvary, it is because the Tour is so great. Because the Tour is so great, it lives on. And because it lives on, it will never again be the symbol of doping, but a symbol of the war against doping."

Eight months later, the first 'Tour of Renewal' was won by a cancer survivor called Lance Armstrong. There has been no shortage of wonder in the decades that have followed and the favourite for this year's race is Chris Froome, a four-time winner who has survived bilharzia, typhoid, urticaria, blastocystosis, asthma and a temporary bout of renal failure during the last Tour of Spain. So you will hopefully forgive me for giving it a swerve.

We're all stocked up in miracles.

And for those wondering if anything has changed, I will direct you to Dan Martin's comments in Friday's Irish Times, when he was asked by Ian O'Riordan about Froome's pending case for excessive levels of salbutamol.

"I'm not technically allowed to comment on it. The team told me not to comment but I don't really care. We don't know anything, do we?" Martin said. "It sounds horrible sitting on the fence, but we don't know the facts, and it's hard to comment. It's the situation we're in."

Sound familiar?

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