In Pantani, cycling has found a genuine throwback to another era, a pixie in a land of giants, a romantic climber in an event dominated by pragmatic time triallists. In the midst of the chaos, he and the defending champion, Jan Ullrich, have reminded everyone of cycling's unrivalled capacity for drama, on the climb of the Col de Galibier and, the following day, chasing down the treacherous face of the Col de Madeleine. They were back on the young German's terrain yesterday, but not in his weather. With much of the power difference negated by the slippery conditions on the 52km time-trial course through the Bourgogne, Ullrich clawed back only two minutes 35 seconds of the near six he needed, leaving Pantani with a comfortable lead to nurse home to Paris today.
By tradition, this is a day for champagne and celebration. Merely reaching Paris is the pinnacle of a rider's year. In the final few days, nothing else matters. This year, the organisers have known the same feeling. "To reach Paris will be the greatest triumph in the Tour's history," Jean- Marie Leblanc, director general of the Tour, said. But there will be no sense of triumph in the completion of the tainted formalities today, either for Pantani or the organisers, whose arrogance has been exposed as surely as many of the casually insolent practices of some members of the peloton. The idea that the Tour was above the law died somewhere on the road from Dublin to Paris.
Tomorrow, at 10am, nine members of the TVM team will present themselves to magistrates in Reims to answer questions about drugs found in one of their team cars earlier this year. Later in the month, Rodolfo Massi of the Casino team and Nicolas Terrados, the doctor of the Once team, must return to court in Lille, charged with offences under the Drug Act of 1989. The four Spanish teams have all withdrawn from the race, applauded by their government and their fans, the Dutch government has launched an investigation into the way the anti-doping enquiries were conducted on the Tour and the much treasured camaraderie of the peloton has been torn apart by the suspicion that riders are being shopped by fellow riders.
Bjarne Riis, the self-elected patron of the peloton, was so upset by accusations of his colleagues that he called a press conference at the end of the 19th stage to Autun to rebuff suggestions that he had called Massi "a drug dealer". Later that night, Massi was charged with importing, distributing and transferring "poisonous substances". In the language of the peloton, peddling and pedalling seem to have become confused.
Leblanc, who has spent much of the past three weeks playing Nero at the sack of Rome, now has the task of repairing the damage in time for next July. His main fear will be that sponsors and potential sponsors will go elsewhere and that towns who have traditionally queued up to put money into the coffers of the Societe du Tour, the private company which runs the race, in return for television exposure and local kudos will regard association with a mobile drugs canteen with rather less enthusiasm. So far, like the French public, they have remained ambivalent.
As we waited in the burning heat of Friday afternoon for the leaders to reach the finish at Autun, the usual crowd of onlookers, children through to great grandparents, were perplexed by the arrival of a car and a van plastered with the name of Festina, the Swiss sponsor of the team thrown off the race in disgrace two weeks and a thousand allegations ago. Farm Frites, new co-sponsors of the TVM team, cut their losses with the withdrawal of the Dutch-based team in Switzerland on Thursday. In confessing to having taken EPO, the drug at the centre of the controversy, Alex Zulle, one of the leaders of the Festina team, blamed the pressure of sponsors.
"We are having to justify ourselves to our sponsors even as we speak," Mark Gorski, director of the US Postal team led by Bobby Julich, yesterday. "The attitude of sponsors is critical to the survival of the sport. But there are many other factors. At the end of all this, we have to start an immediate dialogue between the UCI (the sport's governing body), the team directors and representatives of the riders to find a way forward on the drugs issue. We have to direct more financial resources towards testing and instigate more stringent tests, and we have to redirect the focus of the sport.
"So much of what has gone on has been negative, yet there's been some great racing here. We have to highlight the greatness of the sport, the pageantry, the courage of the riders, the beauty of the scenery and move away from the fact that a handful of teams are using banned substances. We can put this sport back together again pretty quickly, but it has to be done imaginatively and it has to be driven by the UCI. The danger is that we let it drift and come back to the same mess this time next year."
Many believe that the Tour has been the subject of a calculated campaign. "The way news has come out day after day and the way the investigations have been carried out, it almost seems as if someone is trying to sabotage the event," Chris Boardman said. "It has to come from a very high authority, from political and governmental level." One theory is that football's popularity in the wake of the World Cup victory has given the police the opportunity to invade the traditional summer pastime of the French. The Tour's crisis will not be mourned in some quarters. In recent years, the Tour has established an unhealthy dominance in cycling's calendar, while the jurisdiction of the UCI has often been ignored by the organisers of the Tour. Riders spend the year preparing for the Tour, devaluing other races.
The president of the UCI, Hein Verbruggen, remained on holiday in India throughout the controversies, a forceful reminder to the organisers that this was the Tour's problem for the moment. The UCI, though, stand accused of implicitly condoning the controlled use of EPO, an artificial hormone which triggers the production of red blood cells and aids recovery, by testing to an allowed maximum of 50 per cent, five to 10 per cent above that of a normal person. No rider has tested above that level on the Tour, which suggests a worrying mastery of a complex process. "You could put a marker at the manufacturing stage so that it could be detected," Massimo Testa, doctor of the Asics team, said, "but it would be very expensive."
The line between legal and illegal drugs has been drawn almost invisibly at times in cycling and is now being obscured in the minds of the riders by the ambivalent attitude of the authorities. EPO tests are actually called "health checks" and many team doctors, particularly in events like the Tour which encourage athletes to go beyond their limits, prefer regulated drug use to the indiscriminate and old-fashioned abuse of the syringe. "You cannot ride 35,000 kilometres a year on spaghetti alone," as Javier Mauleon of the Once team said. You would like to believe that Pantani's nobility has not been gained from the end of a needle. But, after the last three weeks, no one can even guarantee there will be another Tour de France.
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