Torture and temptation on Tour

Three-week, 3,500km French nightmare which turns athletes like Virenque to drugs

You cannot do the Tour de France on just bread and water. That cryptic message from the veteran tour riders took on a shocking new connotation yesterday when the famous French cyclist Richard Virenque admitted he took performance-enhancing drugs during the 1998 race to help him through the ultimate endurance test.

You cannot do the Tour de France on just bread and water. That cryptic message from the veteran tour riders took on a shocking new connotation yesterday when the famous French cyclist Richard Virenque admitted he took performance-enhancing drugs during the 1998 race to help him through the ultimate endurance test.

For some, though, the race itself is the drug. The dream of every lad with a bike and cycling ambition is to race in the Tour. Those who make it quickly discovered a nightmare that lasts three weeks, but the challenge is irresistible. Pedalling more than 3,500 kilometres over two mountain ranges is one thing. Racing it is another. It has taken its victims to extremes, leaving men maimed and even dead.

In the early days there was treachery. Fans ambushed their favourite's rivals, stoned and beat them, threw tin-tacks on the road, and riders took trains and lifts to keep in the race.

Henri Cornet is still the Tour's youngest winner. In 1904 at the age of 20, and months after the race had finished, he was declared victor because the original first four were among a host of disqualifications. Again the tale-tellers say it was because they took the train but that Tour, with officials firing pistols in the air to break up the mobbing of riders, was worthy of a Hollywood script.

Other evils lurked, but it would take years for the true extent of doping to be uncovered. Back in the 1920s the Pelissier brothers talked of running on "dynamite". Their exploits and explanations featured in an article entitled Prisoners of the Road, which gave an aghast public an insight to what men will endure for a chance of sporting fame. "Do you want to see how we keep going?" Henri Pelissier asked the author, Albert Londres. "That's cocaine for our eyes, and chloroform for our gums," he said, and then the three brothers each produced three boxes of pills.

The story lives on as part of Tour folklore, even though Francis Pelissier admitted years later that they had kidded Londres about their pills and potions.

Many claimed the heat on the Ventoux mountain in the 1967 Tour burst the thermometer in a café halfway up the mountain road. Fiction or not, the stark fact of that day was the death of Tom Simpson and, when an autopsy showed traces of amphetamines in the British rider's system, the verdict was that he died of exhaustion and heat, exacerbated by altitude and drugs.

There is the story of two famous riders who agreed to ride a race without amphetamines, and just drink mineral water. They suffered so much, that they agreed never again to forego amphetamine.

The race makes heroes but breaks many riders. Some see nothing wrong in taking what a doctor gives. The crime is getting caught, and in 1978 Antoine Gutierrez and Michel Pollentier showed just how far riders were prepared to go. Each had a tube connected to a rubber bottle, containing uncontaminated urine, under their armpit. Both were disqualified and suspended, but Pollentier discovered public opinion was with him. "There's a mystique around the Tour because it is so inhuman," reasons another Tour rider. "The European public don't care because it has been an institution for so long."

The Pelissiers talked of losing toenails, suffering dysentery and lack of sleep, and by the mid-Seventies riders were in revolt over the long transfers, either by plane or train, that upset their routine.

"One day we were racing in 95 degrees, and the next among snow-lined roads in the Alps. The body was not meant to do what we did," said a Tour veteran. "When there is no more fat to burn your body burns muscle."

Since its first outing in 1903 the Tour has grown monstrously. Team sponsors spend heavily to ensure their name is seen globally on television, and the temptation, particularly with racing contracts at stake, is obvious.

Lance Armstrong has been to the brink of death. His survival from cancer to win the Tour shone a refreshing light on the race especially after the 1998 débâcle. His Tour triumphs mean a lot to the Texan, but the victory he treasures is his 1995 Tour win in Limoges. As he crossed the line Armstrong looked to the sky and pointed. "This is for you," he said, dedicating his win to Italian team-mate Fabio Casartelli who had died two days earlier when he crashed descending from a Pyrennean mountain.

Even Armstrong's name, however, was dragged through the courts yesterday as claim and counterclaim continued to rock the sport.

Cycling is determined to purge itself of the cheats. Yesterday it came a step closer.

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