Early yesterday afternoon the Tour de France crossed its moral finish line. News that the winner of the 2006 Tour, Floyd Landis, had tested positive for testosterone is a devastating blow for the world's premier cycling road race. It is difficult to see how the event can be taken seriously again.
With television viewers and roadside crowds down this year, and sponsors already beginning to ask questions, the Tour has been plunged into the deepest crisis of its 102-year history. It is too early to suggest that the 2007 Tour, due to start in London, should be cancelled. But Tour organisers, the administrators of road-race cycling and the whole media-commercial circus which surrounds the race have been confronted with their worst nightmare. No Tour winner has ever tested positive for a banned drug before.
Last night, Landis denied cheating, insisting he was innocent of injecting testosterone. Asked if he had cheated, Landis said: "No, come on, man." However, he confessed: "I wouldn't hold it against somebody if they don't believe me." Landis admitted he "can't be hopeful" that the B sample will find a different result. "I'm a realist," he said.
Landis has hired Spanish doctor Luis Hernandez, who has helped other riders who returned test results showing high levels of testosterone.
Landis, 30, is scheduled to have hip replacement surgery in the coming weeks, and suggested the cortisone shots he has been taking for the long-standing problem may have had an effect. He also admitted to taking hormones to treat a thyroid problem. "I've had a thyroid condition for the last year or so and have been taking small amounts of thyroid hormone," he said. "It's an oral dose, one a day."
Cynics and not just cynics will say that a Tour winner testing positive was only a matter of time. Professional cyclists hearing the news will, doubtless, be mystified. How could Landis, after seven years as a professional, be so stupid? Not so stupid as to take banned performance-boosting drugs but so stupid as to get caught? As a stage winner and race favourite, he would have known he faced tests.
Riders have almost always been one step ahead of the testing rules and scientific testing know-how. They have better, and better-paid, doctors, than the authorities. That Landis was caught suggests if proven an element of desperation on his part. After his unexpected near collapse while wearing the race leader's yellow jersey on the 16th stage, he came back like a high-speed train on the 17th stage and, in effect, won the Tour by making a solo uphill dash to Morzine in the Alps. No one at the time in public at least suggested that there was anything unusual about such a rapid physical recovery.
In truth, few people closely connected with the sport swallowed the official story that this was a "clear water" Tour. The expulsions of nine riders, including two favourites, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, before the race suggested cycling administrators had learnt their lessons. But the Tour, and professional teams, were given no choice, under their own rules. The expulsions did not follow a crackdown by the Tour or the world professional body, the UCI. They followed a police investigation in Spain which found evidence to connect a deeply suspect doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, to 56 professional riders.
Tour and cycling administrators will doubtless say that the fact Landis tested positive shows the sport is determined to put its house in order. It shows that anti-doping rules work and that it is not possible to cheat. However, after years of false dawns and new doping scandals, the public will find it difficult to accept that the Landis affair is a proof, not of rottenness, but of cleanliness.
TV ratings for the Tour slumped in many countries this year, partly because of competition from the World Cup. Even in France, the ratings on France 2 television have been at least 10 per cent down this summer.
Diehard cycling fans seem not to care about doping. Challenged to defend their sport, they downplay the importance of drugs: "Just a few vitamins "; "Everyone does it, so it's not cheating."
The Tour relies for its status and enormous commercial success, on sponsors who hope to reach the mass of the public, not just cycling fans.
Daniel Bilalian, sports director of France Televisions (including France 2), said during this year's race: "The Tour needs to be cleaned out, not just a quick sweep of the broom, but under the beds and in the cupboards... We cannot go on with the [credibility of the] Tour getting a swipe on the head every year."
Yesterday the credibility of the Tour received not just a swipe on the head but the equivalent of a 100-bike pile-up.
Tours de farce: Past scandals that have brought the race to its knees
In 1967, the Briton died of heart failure on the ascent of Mont Ventoux. Traces of amphetamines were found in his blood, and drug testing began the following year.
Having just won the stage to Alpe D'Huez in 1978, claiming the yellow jersey, the Belgian went missing when he should have been providing a urine sample. When he turned up two hours later, one of the doctors became suspicious and pulled up his jersey - revealing a rubber bladder full of pre-prepared urine and a tube. He was thrown off the Tour and banned for two months.
Ten years to the day after Pollentier's humiliation, the Spaniard Delgado was a few days away from winning the 1988 Tour when he tested positive for probenecid, a masking agent. He was saved by the fact that cycling's governing body had not yet ratified it as a banned drug.
The Tour of Shame
A few days before the start of the 1998 Tour, French customs officers arrested Willy Voet, one of the back-up team for the Festina outfit, with boxes of erythropoietin, growth hormones, testosterone and amphetamines in his car. During the Tour, French police raided several team hotels and found numerous doping products at the TVM team's hotel. During stage 17, the riders held a sit-down strike in protest of what they saw as victimisation by the police.Reuse content