Cycling: Another Tour, another scandal to become part of shameful history

The distinguished Tour historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft is saddened but not shocked by the latest story to taint a once-great sporting institution
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The Independent Online

If the death of Diana or 9/11 were truly shocking, because so utterly unexpected, no one can honestly say that "Tour de France rider fails dope test" is an astounding story. If anything, there is a dull inevitability about the news that Alexander Vinokourov has failed a test for blood doping on Saturday. Each year, as we piously pray that this Tour will be scandal-free, we await the bad news. Sure enough it comes as depressingly - but no more unexpectedly - than rain at a Test match.

The truth is that doping, or the use of artificial stimulants, is as old as the Tour itself. All that has changed is the nature of the non-normal nutrients, as the racecourse vets at Newmarket would call them, that cyclists consume. At first it was alcohol, drunk in huge quantities in the early days after the Tour was created in 1903.

Between the wars the favourite drug was cocaine. Henri Pélissier won the Tour in 1923, and was quite happy to say that he dosed himself with aspirin for migraine, chloroform for his knees, and a bottle of cocaine "for my eyes". When the Tour resumed in 1947 after its second interruption by war, the cyclists had found something new in the form of amphetamines or la bomba, as Italian riders called it, although its use was strictly speaking illegal, as wartime American bomber air crew had been issued it to ward off fatigue. And it could not even be called an open secret, since everyone knew.

Cyclists did not even deny it, at least not after they had retired. One famous Tour winner, the great Fausto Coppi, was asked whether had ever used la bomba and said: "Only when absolutely necessary." And how often was that? "Most of the time." Another, the equally great Jacques Anquetil, irritably asked a French politician during a television debate if "they expect us to ride the Tour on mineral water".

We have just marked the sombre 40th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson on 13 July 1967, when he collapsed and died near the summit of Mont Ventoux, stuffed full of amphetamines. The best English cyclist of his age, and the first to wear the Tour leader's yellow jersey, Tom used to tell his friends, "If it takes 10 to kill you, I'll have nine," a piece of black humour that ceased to be funny that grim day.

But they went on doping, and they went on dying. In the 1970s there was a change of kind rather than degree with the advent of steroids. These were very widely used among cyclists (and tennis players, and footballers, and baseball hitters...) until succeeded by erythropoietin or EPO.

Unlike booze, coke and bomba, these actually do improve performance, especially EPO, which stimulates the red blood cells and increases energy. In the process it thickens the blood and makes it harder to circulate. We can thus date its arrival as a sporting drug with grim accuracy to the late 1980s, when numerous young Scandinavians, engaged in orienteering, died of inexplicable nocturnal heart attacks, shortly followed by another death toll among Belgian and Dutch cyclists.

Because steroids and EPO are synthetic versions of natural metabolic products, they were at first very hard to detect. So was the ghoulish practice of blood doping, of which Vinokourov stands accused, when a rider is injected with a quantity of blood - his own or someone else's - previously removed and preserved.

And so we have only slowly pieced together the extent of the problem over recent years, which is to say since 1996. That year's Tour was won by Bjarne Riis, a workaday rider whose baffling victory caused much private muttering, before the day only months ago when he finally admitted that he had ridden on EPO, and said that they could come and take back his yellow jersey.

The following year the Tour was won by Jan Ullrich. His chequered career went up and down for years, until last summer when his name was linked with the Operation Puerto investigation into the nefarious Madrid "sports doctor" Eufemiano Fuentes, and Ullrich was slung out of the Tour.

A year after his victory came the 1998 "Tour de Farce" when the Festina team was ejected after its team car had been stopped at random and found to be loaded with drugs and needles. That race was won, not that anyone much cared, by Marco Pantani.

The following year he was ejected from the Giro, the Tour of Italy, when he failed a dope test. His career, and his life, dwindled away, until he was found dead of a cocaine overdose in February 2004.

From 1999 to 2005 the Tour was won by Lance Armstrong. As he has very often reminded us, he never failed a single test, although that did not silence his detractors.

Then, shortly after he won his unprecedented seventh and final Tour two years ago, the story broke that a specimen taken from him in the year of his first victory, at a time when there was no satisfactory means of tracing EPO, had been frozen, belatedly tested, and found to contain traces. This allegation has so far been neither proven nor disproven.

And then last year another American, Floyd Landis, won the Tour after one particularly breathtaking day when he routed the field.

Shortly after he had donned the yellow jacket in the Champs-Elysées we learnt that his urine sample, taken at the end of that heroic day, had shown an artificially high level of testosterone.

When this year's Tour began "Vino" was favourite. The race leader at present is Michael Rasmussen, who has just been told that he cannot ride for the Danish national team again because he missed three out-of-season tests, and the rule is now supposed to be that a test missed is a test failed.

This is the first Tour for years that I am not covering on the road, but I am glad I am not there, and I cannot be surprised at the general cynicism any mention of the race brings. Is it any wonder, now that, as one veteran correspondent has put it, bike racing has all the credibility of professional wrestling?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's book 'Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France' has just been published in a revised edition (Pocket Books £8.99)

Stuck in a vicious cycle: What they say about the problem of doping in the world's greatest race

I took doping substances. I didn't have the choice. I was the sheep - if they threw me out of the herd I was finished. I live in a world where the rules are set up a long time in advance. I didn't cheat other riders. In the pack you never use the word doping but medical help. You are doped only when you get caught.

Richard Virenque, October 2000

There was drug taking in all the teams. What makes me say that? We tried to win the Tour de France for six years by doping and we didn't manage it.

Willy Voet, who was convicted after being found with a car load of drugs paraphernalia, just prior to the 1998 Tour

I took care of distributing them [drugs] among the riders. Because all the riders trusted me, it was agreed that I should keep accounts of what each one consumed. I wrote the riders' names and the stuff that was given to each of them. At the end of the season I totted up their intake.

From Willy Voet's book Breaking the Chain

A lot of sports don't look for anything. We've decided to take another attitude, we're fighting against doping - and we're being sanctioned because cheats are being found!

Patrice Clerc, president of the Tour de France organiser ASO, July 2007

Cycling's image has been seriously damaged, not just by the Landis case but the Spanish affair before the Tour de France. That's something we have to face up to and to act on in order to get that image back and I've no doubt we can.

Union Cycliste Internationale president Pat McQuaid, August 2006

There are always doping scandals in sport. It is just that cycling always gets more attention.

Johan Bruyneel, director of Discovery Channel pro team, July 2007