Reading between the lines
Seven hours and 20 minutes have passed on the 16th stage of the Tour de France and Michel Pollentier, a 27-year-old Belgian from the Velda-Flandria team is about to write his name into history.
This is Alpe d'Huez but not as we know it; Pollentier has cleared the 21 hairpins, the scorched tarmac and the madding crowds, and we join him as he enters the mountain-top resort with less than a kilometre to race.
Who: Michel Pollentier
When: July 16, 1978
Where: L'Alpe d'Huez, France
Photographer: Presse-Sports (L'Equipe)
There's no catching him now. His nearest pursuers, Hennie Kuiper and Bernard Hinault are almost a minute back, but the little Belgian is racing for more than just the stage. The maillot jaune of the Tour - the sports most coveted prize - is also within his grasp, so he pushes on, buckled on his machine, his face contorted with pain.
The team manager has drawn alongside. Fred De Bruyne, a former champion and noted bon viveur, is wearing a smile that says lock up the ladies. But it's the mechanic swinging from the car - perhaps the late Freddy Heydens - who really makes the shot. His face is a portrait of absolute joy.
Pollentier has just been presented with the yellow jersey when Robin Magowan, an American poet and writer, steps from a press car. He's been commissioned by Penthouse to write a feature on the Tour, and has followed every stage since the race started in Leiden, but nothing has compared to what he has just witnessed.
"As I get out of the car, an English correspondent turns to me: 'This race sure beats anything I've ever heard of. Except for sailing single-handed around the world, I can't imagine anything so demanding'. I myself am in tears, as I have been most of the way up; it's the race and the altitude and the bravery hitting me all at once."
This was ten years before Ben Johnson at the Olympics. This was 20 years before the Festina affair and the coming of Lance Armstrong. This was a picture painting a thousand words and an author who was reduced to tears by them. And in his book, Tour de France, Magowan could have written a history of the sport from his depiction of what happened next.
De Bruyne was also reduced to tears when he stepped from the car. "I had followed Pollentier through his long breakaway, five yards back, all the way up to Alpe d'Huez," he explained. "It was a magnificent athletic exploit and, after parking some 250 yards away, I wept like a child, I was so moved and full of joy. Imagine, there I was on top of the world, a manager on my first Tour with both the green jersey and the yellow jersey."
De Bruyne chatted for half-an-hour to a journalist and some friends and followed Pollentier from the team hotel to the doping control caravan where Renato Sacconi, the medical inspector, would conduct the test. Antoine Gutierrez, a French rider with the Lejaune-BP squad, had also been selected to provide a sample.
"I congratulated Michel and sat down," De Bruyne explained. "On my left was Gutierrez, trying to provide a specimen for the doctor, while Pollentier was in the other corner. Both were having trouble urinating. I then spoke to Sacconi, who kindly expressed his congratulations on Michel's ride.
"Suddenly the doctor cried out, 'What are you doing?' to Gutierrez. I looked around and saw there was some urine in the Frenchman's test flask and a small plastic tube in his hand. He was confused and tried to say the tube had been in his pocket. I was overcome with astonishment and I thought I am glad he isn't one of my team.
"But then, about a minute later, panic returned when the doctor pulled down Pollentier's shorts and revealed this plastic tube that you all know about by now. At that moment the caravan could have exploded. 'Michel,' I cried, 'What are you doing? You have no need to fuck up like that!'"
Magowan was in the media centre - "tucking into a sumptuous barbeque" - when it was announced that Pollentier was out of the race for trying to defraud the control. He abandoned his food and followed the swarm to the Flandria Hotel, where Pollentier was sitting with a teammate, Marc Demeyer, in the dining room.
In Tour de France he writes: "Pollentier, his head sunk, brazened it out, 'Search me, as far as I know everything is in order. I've been told nothing, and I've had no official notice'. Then, with no wish to say anything further, he let big Marc Demeyer clear a passage for him . . .
"Looking worn out and forlorn, Pollentier made his way up to room 32 . . . But how could we go on pestering a rider who in shooting for the moon had put up such an effort only to find himself banned? Michel slumped down on his bed. Then, thrusting aside his suitcase, he took out the yellow jersey, stared at it, and then tossed it in the corner."
He would never wear it.
And Magowan's history of cycling? Well, that's not what it was called but it's all there in Tour de France if you read between the lines, or study the finishers in Paris that year and what they would say about doping. From the winner, Hinault, to Joop Zoetemelk (second) to Freddy Maertens (13th), to Roger Legeay (42nd) to Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke (64th), to Barry Hoban (65th), to the late Paul Sherwen (70th).
But start with Jef d'Hont, Pollentier's 'soigneur', who was still helping riders to dope 20 years later.
And let's not forget another member of Pollentier's team, the young Irishman who won the sixth stage that year and finished 34th.
"It didn't occur to me to ask Pollentier why he had done it," Sean Kelly says in his autobiography, Hunger. "We didn't have that sort of relationship. And there was the hierarchy. He may have fallen from grace but he was still Pollentier and I was just Kelly."