Cycling's great lie never likely to die

Letter from Paris
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The Independent Online

Let's be cynical for a moment. According to the French press, professional cycling was stripped bare at the trial which recently ended in Lille. In 100 hours of testimony, spread over three weeks, a marathon almost as long as the Tour de France itself, a peloton of witnesses from road-race cycling past and present admitted what everyone suspected: drugs are and have long been ever-present in professional cycling.

Let's be cynical for a moment. According to the French press, professional cycling was stripped bare at the trial which recently ended in Lille. In 100 hours of testimony, spread over three weeks, a marathon almost as long as the Tour de France itself, a peloton of witnesses from road-race cycling past and present admitted what everyone suspected: drugs are and have long been ever-present in professional cycling.

According to the French press, the pretences and illegal practices of the great champions were stripped aside and nothing will ever be the same again. Almost every recent winner of the Tour - Miguel Indurain (1991-95), Bjorn Riis (1996) Jan Ullrich (1997), Marco Pantani (1998) - was accused, convincingly, under oath of taking drugs.

"Everyone was on EPO after 1994," said Erwann Mentheour, former rider. Exactly the same thing was happening at Banesto," said Thomas Davy, a former team-mate of Indurain.

Even the old champions of an, allegedly, more innocent age - Copi, Anquetil, Thevenet - were all on drugs, according to the historicalevidence presented to the trial.

(What of Lance Armstrong, the American Tour winner in 1999 and 2000? He was also accused by a leading trainer of riding in a way which was "humanly and phsyiologically impossible" without artificial stimulants. There was absolutely no direct evidence produced against him but his team, US Postal Service, is under legal investigation for using a non-banned drug, based on calves' blood, of which more later.)

The accusers at the Lille trial were former and present riders and trainers: the very people who had always observed the sport's strict and singular code of honour: "If you are not caught, you are not guilty".

Even Richard Virenque, the French rider who was on trial for his alleged part in organising systematic doping in the then world-champion Festina team in 1998, finally became an honest man. Or at least partially honest. Virenque, having repeatedly denied having knowingly taken drugs, was forced to admit under oath that he had taken illegal substances, including the dangerous blood-oyygen boosting drug, EPO.

But Virenque, having been forced to abandon one bike, immediately got another. He retreated to the second line of denial of all riders. He didn't want to take dope, he said; he had been forced to do so to faire le métier (follow the trade) and keep up with the rest of the peloton.

This is also a great lie, according to the dozens of riders and ex-riders and trainers and ex-trainers who gave testimony in Lille. The pressure to find, and take, newer, more powerful, less detectable drugs - and hang the long-term health consequences - comes not from the fans, or the sponsors or the trainers, but from the riders themselves.

The standard defence of drugs in cycling - they all do it, so it doesn't matter - was also comprehensively punctured in Lille . Medical experts and trainers pointed out that some potentially talented riders reacted less well to drugs than others. The Tour de France, and other races, were becoming a medical and pharmaceutical test, not a sporting test.

Verdicts and sentences have been delayed until next month. They are likely to be light but the sport, according to the French press, will never be the same again.

Really? The evidence suggests otherwise. It suggests that, come next summer, everything will be back to normal: or rather everything will be back to abnormal.

The President of the court, Daniel Delegove, was furious when the Tour de France organisers presented the route for the 2001 Tour, in the middle of the trial, as if nothing special was happening in Lille. The Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, and the president of the Internationial Cycling Union, Hein Verbruggen, complained that the trial had been turned into a witch-hunt of cycling in which great champions, past and present, were traduced without being able to defend themselves.

In other words, the cycling authorities are as much in denial as the riders.

The "calves' blood" affair - in the midst of the Mad Cow crisis, if you please - also suggests that the riders have learned nothing. There have been rumours for months that the peloton has moved on from EPO to "EPO-likes", to new substances which have the same effect, and may or may not be safer, that are not yet banned.

The Lille trial was not the earthquake that cycling needs. The ICU and others should abolish all tainted records, honours and achievements (which probably means all of them). They should suspend the Tour de France for one year, to impress on riders and teams the need for a new beginning.

What's the chance of this happening? Let's be cynical for amoment...

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