Cycling: The feted and hated one

Shunned by officials, lauded by the fans, Virenque is a symbol of Tour's tainted past
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The Independent Online
THE HEADLINE in the local newspaper as the Tour swept through town was a little unfortunate. "Transfuses contamines: nouvelles revelations sur un scandale". If Jean-Marie Leblanc choked on his croissant on Friday morning, few could blame him. So much for the brave world of "nouveau cyclisme" which the head of the Tour had been preaching.

Fortunately for Leblanc's digestion and the Tour's tender convalescence, the story referred to a cover-up by the health authorities in Nantes in the late Eighties, not to any further dope busting in the new whiter than white Persil Tour. The very mention of drugs here is greeted with dismay. When reports of a positive test surfaced after the Prologue last Saturday the authorities issued not so much a denial to the press as a rebuke. There had indeed been a positive drug test for an anti-inflammatory agent, the statement said, but the rider, as yet unnamed, had produced a medical certificate to justify its use.

The hidden message was more significant: "Come on, lads, we're all in this together. We don't want another Tour like the last, do we?" The community of the Tour, shattered by the revelations of 12 months ago, is beginning to re-gather its strength. Even Credit Lyonnais, newly privatised, has entered into the spirit, designing a new yellow jersey and provisionally renewing its long-standing sponsorship until 2003.

Cynical old lags will take a bit more convincing that the 86th Tour de France is quite as sanitised as its image. Neither a strong tailwind nor the prevalence of teams with talented sprinters in the field fully explained the record-breaking stage from Laval to Blois last Wednesday, the first with speeds averaging more than 50kph. Their suspicions might yet prove to be well founded; these are early days. But no one could argue with the entertainment provided by Tom Steels, Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel, Jaan Kirsipuu, the first Estonian to wear yellow, and Stuart O'Grady, who have pushed, shoved and elbowed their way down the high streets of northern France like shoppers pursuing a bargain.

Aerial shots allow television viewers a unique insight into the brutal world of the sprinter, but to stand within yards of the finishing line in Maubeuge on Friday afternoon, with a head-on vista of the final downhill straight, was to see sport stripped bare. Only later did that tell-tale bird's eye highlight Tom Steels' blatant shove on Jan Svorada in the climax to Stage Six. The Belgian, claiming his third stage win for the second Tour in succession, was disqualified and Cipollini became the first rider since 1930 to win four successive stages. The Italian is toying with the idea of riding the sprint at the next Olympic Games, which will be an interesting new habitat for the Lion King.

On the outside, the rituals of the Tour have been left reassuringly untouched. Generations empty on to village streets to celebrate a break in a life forged by the seasons, while civic dignitaries bask in the brief glow of grandeur the Tour's arrival brings to them and their town. The passing of the Tour, the blur of colours and the whir of wheels, is incidental; the preparations and the aftermath are the most important features of the Tour, memories of the day the circus came to town. No one on the roadside wants to know much about the battle for the soul of the Tour which is being waged on every stage this year.

Every morning a different rite of passage is enacted in the village de depart. It involves the arrival of the Team Polti car, the stepping out of a slender, boyish, rider, number 69 pinned to the back of his garish green and yellow shirt, a self-conscious wave to the fans and a swift exit into the black hole of the team motorhome. The parade lasts no more than 15 seconds.

Gianluigi Stanga, head of Team Polti, believes Richard Virenque has already won the Tour just by reaching the starting line, but Leblanc, who had to reinstate France's most popular rider on a technicality after initially banning him on moral grounds, has publicly stated that he hopes Virenque does not win the real thing. As he pedalled his way down the Belgian border from Aynes-sur-Helpe to Thionville on Stage Seven yesterday, Virenque might reflect that he has journeyed further on this year's Tour than he did last. Then, his farewell speech was delivered on the morning of the seventh stage in the bizarre surrounds of the Chez Gillou bar at Gare de Correze in the Limousin countryside. The whole of Virenque's Festina team had been expelled after the discovery of a chemist's shop in the back of Willy Voet's team car and the admission of systematic doping by the team's director, Bruno Roussel. But Leblanc had come to deliver the news to the team himself. "It was only natural that the director of the Tour should come to say goodbye [to the team] one by one... it was very moving," Leblanc said at the time. "We'll be back next year," Virenque replied through his tears.

Despite overwhelming presumption of his guilt in the Festina Affair, Virenque has stoutly maintained his innocence over the past year. He is still facing a nominal charge of complicity to handle drugs pending further investigation. "He is a little bastard," Voet said, a view shared by many of those who recently voted Virenque the most hated celebrity in France. Yet Virenque is winning the propaganda war hands down on the Tour highway. Barely a village is passed without a banner proclaiming "Richard, on t'aime". The organisers tried to burn off the pro-Virenque slogans whitewashed on to the road at the Prologue, but they cannot censor every one of the Tour's 3,680km. Leblanc has to sit back in his official car each day and acknowledge the depth of France's love for a loner. "He is still their favourite rider," said Lance Armstrong, the outspoken leader of the US Postal team. "God knows why, but he is."

The French can also detect a whiff of hypocrisy in the Tour's attitude. Only too happy to laud his achievements when he single-handedly kept French hopes alive in the Indurain hegemony, the organisers have been quick to make Virenque a scapegoat for ills the Tour itself has until recently done little to discourage. The antagonism has spread to the peloton, who now have an excuse for their instinctive distrust of Virenque. If the mayor of the Vendee refused to shake hands with him before the first stage, most of the peloton have refused to speak to him. "It's a shame that there are 189 riders on the Tour and yet all the attention is devoted to just one," said Cedric Vasseur, a rival for France's cycling affections. "But you have to say that Virenque is the most popular rider with the people and in that sense his presence is good for the Tour."

Virenque has been keeping quiet, but in the village de depart on Friday morning, they clambered over fences to get an autograph, thrust forward copies of his autobiography, Ma Verite (My Truth), for him to endorse oblivious of the fact that, for many of the riders, Virenque represents the sport's chemical brotherhood. He has broken the laws of the playground by failing to own up, yet the peloton's sense of justice has been equally infringed. "I cannot believe that Leblanc has said publicly that he hopes Richard does not win the Tour," said Didier Rous, a former team-mate of Virenque's at Festina. "He should be treated the same as everyone else. The hypocrisy at the moment is incredible."

The mountains, his favoured hunting ground, are two days away and the confidence is returning to Virenque's handsome face. The Italian Polti team, who have their countryman Ivan Gotti, winner of the Giro, to service as well, might not leap to the Frenchman's aid on draining afternoons over L'Alpe d'Huez and the Col du Galibier. If formal charges are brought against Virenque by the prosecutor in Lille over the next 10 days, which is a possibility, Leblanc will have good reason to banish the Frenchman once again.

If not, he might have to watch the most prestigious stage of his beloved Tour being hijacked by a tainted symbol of the past.

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