A supposedly "clean" Tour de France starts on Saturday. Two events last week suggest that nothing much has really changed: that in cycling the only important rule is not to be caught; and that many people in the sport, perhaps the majority, sincerely believe that if you have not been caught you are innocent.
Almost exactly 12 months ago the French customs stopped an official Festina team car at a place called Dronckaert (it means "drunkard") on the Belgian- French border. The car, driven by Willy Voet, the trainer of the world's top road-race team, contained a cornucopia of performance-enhancing drugs. Voet was on his way to Dublin, for the start of the 1998 Tour.
Since then scores of people, including more than a dozen top riders, have been placed under criminal investigation in France; Marco Pantani, the "cleaner-than-clean" winner of last year's scandal-wracked Tour has tested positive for presumed use of the illegal artificial hormone, EPO; Voet has written an extraordinary best-selling book which catalogues in gripping detail his 30 years of cheating as an amateur cyclist and then a professional soigneur or team trainer.
The Tour de France, belatedly realising that its future was at stake (sponsors were finally growing alarmed), has theoretically cleaned up its act. Anyone implicated in alleged drugs taking - whether proven or not - has been excluded from the starting line-up at Puy-du-Fou in western France. Those kicked out include the most popular French rider, Richard Virenque, the entire Dutch TVM team and the sporting director of the Spanish team, Once.
Manolo Saiz, the Once director, is a fascinating test case in the warped psychology of cycling. He has been excluded for, in effect, being rude about the Tour organisers. What he actually said was that there was "no drugs problem in cycling". The French authorities and the Tour de France had "created the problem", he said, by inventing new rules and applying the country's laws. In other words, everyone is innocent unless they are caught; if we do not apply the rules, then there is no drugs problem.
Saiz sees no reason why his tortured logic should keep him out of the Tour. The International Cycling Union - the body which is supposed to police the sport worldwide - agrees with him. It intervened last week to beg the the Tour to sticky-tape Saiz's invitation back together again. The ICU would also like the Tour to reconsider its ban on TVM, despite the formal doping proceedings in progress against the Dutch team. According to the newspaper L'Equipe, both appeals are likely to succeed.
The other event last week which suggests that nothing much has changed takes us back to the Franco-Belgian border. Another Festina car, driven this time by the masseur, was stopped by French customs. Lo and behold, there were two banned, doping products aboard, although not in the industrial quantities seized last year.
The masseur, Rick Keyaerts, said the products had been prescribed to him to treat his "allergy to insect stings". The Festina team fired him immediately. It suggested that he was acting on his own initiative, on "behalf of one or two riders". In other words, despite everything, there are still riders who cannot bear the thought of a chemically unaided Tour de France.
The incident is reminiscent of the reaction of Richard Virenque, the baby-faced, shameless darling of French cycle fans, when he heard that Voet - long a personal trainer and "friend" - had been arrested with a car-load of dope last year. Other team officials said Virenque's reaction was not "poor Willy" or "this is a terrible scandal for the team". It was: "How can I get my products now?"
And yet 60 per cent of French people still say that it was unfair to ban Virenque - who denies ever having knowingly taken dope. The truth is that many fans are as hooked on drugs as the riders: they don't want the sport to have to ease the severity of its competitions or move down a gear in performance levels.
Their attitude is the same as Saiz; or that of the group of thugs in Lille who recently beat up a journalist from L'Equipe, to teach the press a lesson for "inventing" scandals.
It is the attitude of the alcoholic who has no problem as long as no one catches him drinking. Voet, the man arrested at a village called Drunkard, puts it this way in his book: "The favourite saying of riders is `if you don't test positive, you're not doped'. They end up by believing it. It is as if a motorist was to say `I may be driving at 180kph but, as long as there is no radar, I'm not going too fast'."Reuse content