A Tour on wobbling wheels

Twenty days, 3 550 km, just the rider and his bike. Body and soul tested to the limit. . . 

This is what the Tour de France has been about for more than a century. Supposedly. 

But is it humanly possible to complete the world’s toughest bicycle tour on your own, with nothing but guts and guts and then more guts? With an average of 119,000 calories burned during the tour (more than twice the normal consumption of a large, moderately active man) is the rider himself good enough to be crowned the winner in the sport’s biggest spectacle? 

Although there are those who tread with nothing but their own blood and sweat to the bitter end, the answer seems to be a tragic no. For as old as the mountains are and through which the riders force their bodies for three weeks, just as old is the use of all kinds of aids, most illegally, to propel the bones to the extreme. 

Five time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil’s crucial answer to the question of how the riders manage to keep up, get up and keep going was: “How do you think they survive the route, on mineral water?” After his retirement, Fausto Coppie (winner in 1949 and 1952), admitted unequivocally that he regularly used illegal drugs. 

This year was no exception. 

Last Monday, barely 24 hours after being crowned the winner of this year’s Tour de France, it was claimed 24 year old Spaniard Alberto Contador’s victory was “the biggest scam in sports history”. Patrik Sinkewitz, Alexandre Vinokourov, Cristian Moreni, Michael Rasmussen and Iban Mayo are the other riders who have tainted this year’s race, literally and figuratively. 

These names are the latest additions to a list that goes back as far as the 1920s, when the Pelissier brothers provided a long list of drugs they use to survive the Tour. “We run on dynamite,” they said. However, they were never punished, since the first official testing of banned substances was only introduced in 1968. It was only the death of Tom Simpson due to a lethal combination of amphetamine, painkillers and sleeping pills that caused authorities to acknowledged there was a problem and testing began in earnest. 

Since then, four riders have been tested after each stage – the overall leader, the stage winner and two other riders. Each riders is also tested before the start of the Tour with additional testing done out of season. But despite these and other efforts of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and other authorities, the stain stubbornly remains on the sport’s name. 

Over the past thirty years, there have been numerous offenders, including Michael Pollentier, Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Richard Virenque, Marco Pantani, Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis, who are still trying to prove his innocence and retain his 2006 winner’s crown after being tested positive for a banned substance. 

Not even Lance Armstrong, who was undefeated between 1999 and 2005, has managed to escape the rumours. After his remarkable cancer recovery, questions were asked about his seemingly extraordinary abilities. However, he has never tested positive for any banned substances. 

Even before the tour began in 1903, trials were conducted on riders in six day races to determine the physiological stress and associated use of stimulants to prevent fatigue. This included extra caffeine and cocaine in coffee, brandy in tea and nitroglycerin capsules after stages to help with strained breathing. These days, modern drugs such as synthetic testosterone, erythropoietin (EPO), nandrolone and even blood transfusions are used to achieve a higher level of performance. 

With the Festina scandal during the 1998 Tour, French customs officials arrested Willie Voet of the Festina team with several of these illegal drugs in his possession. Last year, Spanish police uncovered an even bigger illegal drug set-up during Operation Puerto. More than fifty top riders were linked to a doctor who performed illegal blood transfusions. 

In a newspaper poll during this year’s Tour, 78% of readers said they did not believe in the integrity of a stage winner. But even worse – more than half indicated they will continue to watch and support the Tour, even if it is considered “a pharmacy on wheels.” 

And indeed – drug scandals or not, the Tour continues because it can still rely on the necessary support. Villages along the route of the Tour continue to dig deep into the pockets to be part of the spectacle. Newspapers, television stations and sponsors are concerned, but they are still willing to cough up for coverage and broadcasting rights. 

The intent seems to be there to clean things up. The Tour de France needs an injection, but a healthy and legitimate one, says tour director Christian Prudhomme. 

“That has to change now. The revival of cycling must take place through the Tour de France. There has to be a revolution.” 

But is there truly a will to do so? Will lip service be followed by action? Is it possible to truly eradicate this evil? 

The proof is in the doing.