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.

Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home