Greg Lance – Watkins
The Main Web Site:
Those astonished at revelations of
#drugs & #doping in #cycling by #UK_Parliament today might care to take note of my posting 19-Jul-2015 https://gl-w.com/2015/07/19/that-asthema-seems-a-major-qualification-for-competitive-cycling-stretches-credibility/… one wonders when last or even if a winner has EVER won #drug_free – A sport for cheats? A test of drugs?
as a youngster, when bikes were far more practical due to the low number of cars owned, I cycled extensively – usually at relatively high speed on a very light weight racing bike.
Nowadays over 50 years later I own a bike but can’t remember the last time I thought of using it as clearly a bike on the crowded roads nowadays is dangerous to the rider and others. All too often I find myself driving at wobbling idiots travelling at 15mph, often two abreast.
The alternative is comming around a blind corner to find some idiot on a bike in the middle of the carriageway or cyclists on the main ‘A’ road in rain or twilight, even once it is dark with no lights or some one candle power flicker wearing dark clothes trying to commit suicide & destroy someone elses life – obviously anyone is welcome to commit suicide if they wish but to make someone else responsible is incredibly selfish!
The one really puzzling thing about cyclists is firstly why they believe the public should subsidise their activities by building cycle tracks, cycleways and veladromes – football players, rugby players and fans pay for their own facilities but cycling is heavily subsidised and also uses public highways without either insurance or road taxes!
Secondly is how do cyclists honestly expect people to believe they were attracted to the sport with asthema – when I was riding speed put a huge strain on the lungs, the muscles and the heart – I believe asthema would preclude the exertion of cycling, particularly competitively. I just don’t believe asthma makes one a world class cyclists which leaves me with the distinct impression that well learned symptoms and massive doses of asthma drugs may well provide the opportunity of gold medal performances.
I do NOT believe that cyclists taking asthema drugs are breaking the drug rules of the sport of cycling but I do believe the law pertaining to drugs in cycling are totally inadequate.
When the rules are rationalised and tests show that performances were drug enhanced will medals and awards be stripped in retrospect as they were with Lance Armstrong when tests were improved and showed he had been drug fueled throughout his career!
Here are several media factual reports, with the most recent first, that seem to support my belief that Cycling is little more than a drug fuelled racket.
This is the sport utterly disinterested tax payers are expected to tollerate and subsidise:
Paul Kimmage: Cycling’s dirty washing can no longer be rinsed clean by myth and memory powder
The Times, Friday
Let’s start with Thursday. Let’s start with what happened at La Roche sur Yon when Chris Froome, perhaps the greatest endurance rider the world has ever seen, was introduced to the crowd during the opening ceremony of the 105th Tour de France. There are plenty of clips on YouTube so there’s a chance you’ve seen or heard about it.
How did we get here? What can we say that we haven’t said before?
Twelve years ago.
The 16th stage of the Tour de France from Bourg d’Oisans to La Toussuire has just finished and I’m sitting in a queue of traffic trying to get to my hotel when John Saunders from Setanta Sports calls. “Any chance you might take a call tonight?” he inquires. “I’ve been reading your stuff on the race and you sound pretty sceptical?”
“Well, actually, that’s changed, John” I reply. “This has been the most interesting Tour for 17 years. Did you see the stage today?”
“Fantastic! Floyd Landis exploded on the final climb and lost 10 minutes! When is the last time we saw that happen to a yellow jersey in the Tour de France?”
“Okay, great,” he says. “We can talk about your new-found enthusiasm.”
“Yeah but I’m still not sure I believe everything,” I caution.
“There’s still some dopers winning stages.”
“Okay, we can discuss that. But generally you’re feeling positive about the race?”
“Yeah, I like what I see.”
“Right,” he says, “we’ll call you at 20:30.”
Read more here:
- Ewan MacKenna: So how is it then that you explain a freak like Chris Froome?
- Mourning the death of anti-doping
My mind starts racing in the hour that follows. I’m thinking: ‘Every time I give these guys the benefit of the doubt, they kick me in the nuts.’ Suddenly we’re on air and I’m being prompted by John about my new, positive view on the Tour . . . except that now I’m feeling sceptical again. He asks a question. I cut him off. I’m ranting about hypocrisy and cheating and deceit.
The show ends and I feel awful: ‘Jesus! What is wrong with you.’
The following afternoon Floyd Landis produces the greatest performance in the history of the race . . . and tests positive.
A year later.
A Tuesday afternoon in Pau. Fifteen stages of the 2007 Tour de France have been completed and the riders are being treated to a second and final rest day. For Jean-Claude Leclerc, a former French professional champion who works as an analyst on the race for Swiss television, that means a nice leisurely breakfast followed by a stroll to the press room after lunch.
He pulls up a chair a couple of spots from me and a fiery debate ensues. The heat is coming from me. I am raging at the headline – ‘Le Courage de Vino’ – on the front page of the latest edition of L’Equipe, the French sportspaper. “It’s a joke,” I fume. “They are trying to sell us another miracle.”
“Well, we’re not that far from Lourdes,” Leclerc smiles.
For Vino read Alexandre Vinokourov, the 33-year-old Tour favourite from Kazakhstan, who has been showing remarkable signs of recovery after the fifth-stage crash which left him with more than 30 stitches in his knees. On Saturday, he blitzed the field in the time trial at Albi; on Monday, he won the brutally tough mountain stage to Loudenvielle.
I don’t believe any of it.
“Here’s the problem,” I tell Leclerc. “Last week they were telling us Vinokourov was in so much pain that he could hardly stand – this week he’s walking on water! It’s a replay of the crap we had last year with Landis. And L’Equipe are letting him get away with it! They’ve been promoting him since the start of the race as the great white knight.”
“Yes, but what can you say?” Leclerc counters. “He hasn’t tested positive. There is no proof that he is doing anything wrong.”
“You can say, ‘Sorry Alexandre, go sell your bullshit some-place else’.”
“Okay,” Leclerc laughs, “I’ll try that tomorrow during the broadcast.”
Later that afternoon, news breaks that Vinoukourov has been blood doping and is out of the race.
A year later.
Tempetes sur la Tour, a new book by Pierre Ballester with some startling statistics on doping is published on the eve of the 2008 race: 85 per cent of the winners since 1968 have, at one point or another, contravened the anti-doping rules; 72.5 per cent of those who have stood on the podium have cheated.
The book also contains the results of a survey (of a thousand French citizens) on their attitudes towards the race:
“Doping has destroyed everything, I feel betrayed” – 90 per cent
“Because of doping I no longer believe in the results of the Tour” – 85 per cent
“All top-level cyclists are doped” – 69 per cent
The trend continues in the 2008 with a spate of (nine) positive tests that include Spanish rider Moises Duenas, a team-mate of a young Tour debutant called Chris Froome.
A year after that.
Time passes quickly in the company of Dave Brailsford. It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Manchester and as our interview enters its fourth hour he has been selling me the vision of the Sky professional road cycling team and his five-year plan to win the Tour de France with a clean British rider. But there’s a hitch. I am not quite ready to buy yet.
A furrow lines his brow. “You seem a bit anti,” he observes. “No, not anti, you seem very sceptical.”
“I admire what you’ve done on the track,” I say, “but I really don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
“Right,” he says, “but I’ve got to be able to . . . “
He pauses and fixes me with a gaze. “Am I a cheat?” he asks.
“No, and I’m not suggesting you are.”
“All I can say is . . . if there is any doubt or suspicion [of doping] on our team, I’ll expose it. And if I get to the point where I think it can’t be done, I’m walking away. You ask me why I am doing this. I’m doing it for the likes of Brad Wiggins, because Brad in my mind is clean. I don’t think Brad Wiggins dopes – I could be horribly wrong but I don’t think I am – and that proves to me that nowadays – and maybe not before, but nowadays – you can run in the top four in the Tour without doping. And that’s what makes me think it’s worth doing.”
“Do you know 85 per cent of those who have won the Tour de France since Tommy Simpson’s death [in 1967] have been implicated in doping?”
“I know,” he replies.
“So when you say, ‘We can do this clean’, that’s a pretty big call.”
“Well, you’ve got to believe in something, otherwise what’s the point? Let’s all pack up and go home.”
Eight years later: as Team Sky, the world’s most successful bike racing team, are being booed off the stage at the Tour de France, Dave Brailsford has not gone home. And I’m at the Irish Open in Ballyliffin answering queries about the reaction to his team.
Rory McIlroy: “What’s happening with Froome?”
Paul McGinley: “Are you not at the Tour?”
Pádraig Harrington: “You’re going to have to explain this to me?”
But where do you start? What can we say that we haven’t said before?
On Friday, the eve of the opening stage, I thought of an old journalist friend, Jean-Louis Le Touzet, and a conversation we shared a decade ago when the race started in London. “You know,” he said, “cycling is a wonderful sport. I mean, you write about football and they don’t care if you ever come back, but cycling embraces you. It wraps itself around you and won’t let you go. It holds you close to its bosom and says, ‘I love you’. But to do your job correctly, you have to push it away. You can’t love it back.”
The problem was obvious.
“The Tour has always considered itself bigger and stronger than doping,” he said. “It’s like the alcoholic who thinks he can control his drinking but who wakes up one day to find he is dependent on it. The power of the Tour was always about memories – the great riders, the great battles, the mountains, the suffering – and those memories served as a kind of washing machine.
“If ever there was a stain and the race was mildly tarnished, you stuck it in the machine with the ‘myth and memory powder’ and it came out nice and fresh. But the machine has reached the end of its cycle. The powder has run dry and the washing keeps coming out dirty. Winning has no value any more. How can you exploit a win that nobody believes in?”
To view the original of this article CLICK HERE
The Briton was booed on-stage at the opening ceremony for the biggest race in cycling and Kimmage explained why the French public have taken a dislike to their champion: “The issue is that a rider with no pedigree, no, with a limited pedigree in 2011 is on the verge of becoming the greatest bike rider of all time,” he told Joe.
“Now I’m sorry – that’s a miracle and I ain’t buying it and the people on the Tour de France ain’t buying it and Chris Froome has given us no reason whatsoever the last five years to buy it. That’s the issue.
“Now you can dress it up with Salbutamol and get into the science of this and that – that’s actually very convenient for Chris Froome and his fans because everybody is blinded by science but no, that is not why he is being booed, that is not why he is being booed in France. He is being booed in France for the last five years on how he has conducted himself,” he added.
Listen back to the full Sunday Paper Review podcast here:
Paul Kimmage isn’t buying Chris Froome’s rise from his ‘limited pedigree” in 2011
Ewan MacKenna: So how is it then that you explain a freak like Chris Froome?
“Did he stay away, did Froome stay away?” he asked of the Britain’s ludicrously early break.
“Man you should know, I’ll tell you all about it. He’s in the pink jersey right now,” came the reply.
“Bullshit,” Bennett said stunned.
“Forty seconds ahead of [Tom] Dumoulin currently,” he was told of the overall classification.
“He did a Landis, Jesus,” he tellingly surmised.
It was a refreshing and breezy break from the thick smog of omerta that still hangs over cycling, but his team were quick to issue a statement playing down his reference. Little wonder as he was obviously talking about stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France, another of the most stunning in the sport’s history. It was then that Floyd Landis, a day after collapse, gave himself a chance in a race he’d eventually win. There was just one problem, he was juicing.
But there were others too that were stunned by the defining ride of this Giro, and one of the defining rides of even such an unbelievable career. One source has claimed that Team Sky chief David Brailsford actually turned to another Director Sportif during it and asked, “Where did that come out of?” It’s a quip that cannot be confirmed but it would certainly make sense as this arrived after days of Froome’s relative struggles, when he seemed often to be on square wheels.
As for the company line, it was that Froome was simply the most daring on the descent. Only that didn’t add up as, regarding time gained, 22 per cent was downhill, with 29 per cent on the flat and 49 per cent on climbs. What it meant was that for over five hours he didn’t take a break and was always claiming chunks so, rather than explaining the win, that lot made it yet more inexplicable.
To be fair to the Sky rider, there have been many direct and indirect accusations over the years about what he’s been up to, and he has never been convicted of doping. Indeed such a circus is cycling that he’s currently awaiting to see if he’ll be stripped of his last Grand Tour win – the 2017 Vuelta – while adding another one without suspension, due to adverse findings over the amount of asthma medication Salbutamol he took in Spain. But drugs, or drugs alone, cannot explain the rise of the now 33-year-old from obscurity.
Consider the fact that Chris Froome, if all is above board, can now make a claim to be the greatest cyclist ever. Of those around him in terms of both the quality an quantity of race wins, Eddie Merckx can be scratched due to four positives; as can Jacques Anquetil who famously said, “You can’t ride the Tour de France on mineral water”; and there’s an asterisk beside Bernard Hinault as he saw a doctor that did hormone replacement, even if such treatment wasn’t attributed to him.
The difference between them and Froome though is they were all athletic prodigies, tipped for greatness from the very beginning such was the ability they always exuded. But to suddenly show otherworldly talent shouldn’t happen midway into a middling career. Look at it this way, many have done like Jeremy Lin and improved and had their moment. But LeBron was always LeBron.
So how is it then that you explain a freak like Froome?
* * * * * * * * * *
The story goes that it was around 2011 when David Brailsford and Team RadioShack manager Johan Brunyeel met and talked business. The former was offering up Froome for a trade however Brunyeel knew far better and was having none of it. “I want a cyclist, not a donkey,” he said. Sky were stuck a little longer with an average rider, and it had already been that way for some time.
If you speak to some on the South African scene where Froome had previously raced, he was at best an okay domestique that didn’t jump out. And after a couple of years of doing little at Team Sky thereafter, his agent was worried. Set to be let go, it wasn’t like there was a line of suitors either. Reports say there may have been an offer of £90,000 a year from Garmin but that was it and he wasn’t even due to go to the upcoming Vuelta in 2011 until Lars Petter Nordhaug cried off sick.
What basically amounted to a forced last-minute substitution changed everything forever.
Normally, such mid-career transformations are looked upon critically by cycling specialists. These nothing-to-all rises tend to be indicative of doping, as in the well-known case of Lance Armstrong for instance, who made a remarkable jump in performance between 1998 and 1999. But we can’t label Froome’s rise as doping for a troubling reason. Doping wouldn’t explain the breadth of it.
Thus, in any sport, you’d then want to know how. In power sports, you’d then need to know how. In cycling however, you then rarely get to know how. That’s why many struggle to take it seriously.
This is where people need to use common sense, ask obvious questions, and demand good enough answers if they are to accept what has happened before them. For instance Brailsford, not for the last time, couldn’t believe what he was seeing in that 2011 Vuelta to such an extent it’s a matter of public record that he got one of the doctors to check Froome’s blood data. But it’s not acceptable that on the one hand this is a team that have tried to quell suspicions with talk of their meticulousness and of marginal gains and of the microscopic attention to detail, and on the other hand we’re told they nearly let perhaps the greatest of all slip right through their net.
They can’t have it both ways, and still they demand that.
Froome has stressed his own reasons for his transformation, discussed with this parish’s Paul Kimmage in their 2014 interview. The problem was that neither he nor his wife Michelle who was sitting in could get their story straight. Froome talked about bilharzia, a disease that eats red blood cells which for sure is not good for a cyclist and would be hugely debilitating in terms of performance, but was stumped when asked about why it didn’t come up on his biological passport. It was then claimed by his wife that the disease wasn’t yet bad enough to really register. Again, it can’t be both, so which is it? And regardless of the answer, another explanation is needed.
The other reason for his sudden improvement was, he claims, an advancement in bike handling. Yet only two weeks before that 2011 Vuelta, in the rather average Tour of Poland, Froome came in in 85th, over 26 minutes behind the winner. What could he change in a fortnight in terms of the basics that meant, so soon after, he was sprinting up mountains in a Grand Tour he should have won? When you turn water into wine, you’ll likely need to convince people, and this doesn’t cut it.
As has long been the case, there is a core of cycling fans that are well aware and that are anywhere from skeptical to cynical, such is their love for their sport. But then there are the flat-earthers and the latter camp will quote articles like the one in Esquire in December 2015. It was then that the magazine accompanied Froome into the lab as he tried to silence the many doubters via physiological tests meant to explain one of the greatest turnarounds we’ve ever known in sports.
What they needed though was something to compare his results against in order to make the story credible, and suddenly Michelle got lucky. In a drawer she discovered the findings of a lot of similar tests carried out in 2007, that had never been mentioned in any previous interview despite the fact they would be used to explain his brilliant but cloaked talent as a youngster, and they weren’t even hinted at in his autobiography in 2013. Still, the magazine had a comparison and Froome seemingly had his out, as they could show his yesteryear VO2 max and a life-long engine.
Then some started to study the numbers on the 2007 page that claimed, back then as a pro cyclist, he weighed in at 75.6 kilos, and had a body fat percentage of 16.9 per cent. As a reference point according to the American Council on Exercise, 15-17 per cent puts you in the fitness category, while six-13 per cent is athlete status. So Froome was closer to fat than an athlete while being paid as an athlete? Look at photos and you tell us what you think. Besides, interviews with Froome around then have him admitting to training and racing hard and being in good shape.
It gets worse though. Go through the numbers and for scientific findings they are actually wrong. For instance the indicated BMI value, 21, is not compatible with Froome’s stated weight of 75.6kg and height of 186cm. The BMI should have been 21.9 (or rounded off at 22). That’s nearer to overweight than underweight on such a scale. Ultimately, if true, it has resulted in Froome dropping six kilos of just body fat which, while possible, is according to many experts improbable.
On top of that, there are other inconsistencies around two published photos of those same faxed test results. Far fetched or not, while all other results are bolded up, the VO2 max number isn’t, leading to some claiming photo-shopping. Such calls are accompanied by the ring-binder holes being in different place. One again, as is classic Chris, there’s a haze of uncertainty.
But put that aside and what have we? Froome had body shamed himself? The difference between obscurity and all-time greatness was that once he was relatively fat, and then he was scarily thin?
Granted, the mumbles from some in the peloton for a while have been around the sickly skinniness of Sky, and particularly their poster boy. That can be allied to the UK parliamentary inquiry into the team receiving an anonymous whisle-blower’s letter stating that they go to camp and take cortisone to lose weight. Not doping when out of competition, that’s more to do with the administrative nightmare rather than the drug’s big benefits. But while the weight loss can be explained, that’s not done so easily when it happened side-by-side with an increase in power. That’s just common sense rather than science.
Take 2013 during the famous scale of Ventoux when Froome broke the back of the field with three stunning kicks on the side of the mountain to drop some of the sport’s greatest climbers. At that stage he was a mere 64 kilos, leaving him with a BMI of 18.5 that is defined as underweight.
Have a look back at that stage and the video where it’s linked up with the data seemingly released by a mole in Team Sky, and if that’s true then they clearly wanted to tell us something.
As an example skip forward to 28.17 at the start of the attack as his power surges. Watch the tiny increase in heart-rate to go with that. Skip to 30.13 and see it again, this time as his power goes off the charts to 1,022 watts to the point he cannot keep his legs turning fast enough and has to return to the saddle. Again it occurs with barely a difference in his heart-rate. Crucially, all of these are roughly via a 15-second bursts, an important number as you’ll shortly see.
A cyclist attacking while seated with a cadence in the 120s alone was amazing. Then the data comes, and you see these jumps in power with next to no change in heart rate. Perhaps there were problems with the measuring equipment but in a climb that takes over 45 minutes, riders should not be at max heart rate, and so there should be some gain or capacity to increase heart rate. Either that, or Froome was actually riding at his maximum rate, and launching vicious attacks repeatedly. Either is crazy.
There are a whole host of studies that show the best way to ride a long race is at cadences around 100 to 110. Above and the metabolic demand is too high. So why did Froome do it? That was five years ago, so why is it that nobody copied this method since? If cycling and attacking while seated at a cadence of 120 was better, then others should’ve done it by now, only no one can. Why not? In fact Froome doesn’t do it himself always but if he has a method to destroy the field, why be selective? Instead, sometimes while looking like he’s in fast forward, often he’s just like the rest.
It doesn’t end there. His ascent of the mountain in 2013 was the fourth quickest ever, ahead of Marco Pantani in 2000 and Armstrong in 2000. Those guys were on EPO though, which conservative estimates says gives you about an eight per cent advantage. Are we saying he’s eight per cent better naturally than some of history’s fittest athletes? If so, that is certainly not the sort of marginal gain that Team Sky like to talk about as an excuse. We’d of course like to compare this with last Friday in Italy also, but while riders in the Giro were hooked up and providing live links to parameters on television, Froome’s wasn’t working. Make of that what you will, but this is all fact.
Ultimately Phillipa York, formerly Robert Millar, on Monday noted that if he has a very high cadence on mountains, why is this different in time trials as he ought to be consistent? It was obvious what was meant as, if you lose weight, what best takes advantage of that?
* * * * * * * * * *
In 2016, French television show Stade 2 came out with an accusation that cycling’s governing body, UCI, had tried to disrupt police work during the previous year’s Tour around mechanical doping. It went that Hungarian engineer Stefano Varjas was there working for Typhoon bicycles at the time, when police spoke with the UCI regarding reports that Varjas had been trying to sell teams motors.
While so much focus has been on doping, you cannot ignore this second strand of suspicion that runs alongside it. That programme showed screen-grabs of emails between Mark Barfield, UCI’s technical manager, and Harry Gibbings, CEO of Typhoon bicycles, from that July. Stade 2 claimed Barfield’s email was a tip-off about the investigation and it read: “Hi, Do you have a phone number I can all you on straight away. I’m sitting with French police who believe an engineer ‘Hungarian’ is visiting TDF today to sell a bike and visit teams, could this be your guy???” Varjas got out of dodge and, while Gibbings confirmed the emails, he denied disruption of police work.
It’s not the first time the UCI attitude to mechanical doping has turned heads. Take the 2013 Cycling Independent Reform Commission report. There have been whispers that the original version was redacted by Brian Cookson – until recently the head of world cycling – although no proof came of that. But the issues around the version we do have were best highlighted on the blog of Michele Ferrari, the man that doped Armstrong. He reviewed that CIRC report on his site, stating: “On page 85, a fleeting reference to the ‘Technical Cheating’ showed up: frames, saddles, tubes, clothing, while only half a sentence is dedicated to ‘motors in frames’, when this problem has existed for 10 years, with the UCI never devoting a single comment to well known events.”
There are more damning claims in this area. Jean-Pierre Verdy, the head of French anti-doping, told CBS that, “Yes, of course. It’s been the last three to four years when I was told about the use of the motors. And in 2014, they told me there are motors. And they told me, there’s a problem. By 2015, everyone was complaining and I said, something’s got to be done”. He went so far as to say that by the 2015 Tour, he was told 12 racers were using motors. This makes sense as are we really to believe Belgian under-23 rider Femke Van den Driessche who was caught using one at the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships was the only one to try and pull such a stunt?
Varjas himself has since talked openly about how these new motors work. “You can activate it remotely by Bluetooth, by remote control, or by a watch. It can be controlled from the team car and the rider may not even be aware that he has a motor. It could just feel like they’re having a very good day.” The Hungarian also mentioned how when a heart rate gets to a certain level, they can kick in for 15 second bursts and how they are worth more than any form of doping.
It lead us back to the UCI and to that rabbit hole of why they aren’t catching people if this is the case. But why didn’t they catch Lance? Varjas for instance has said how easy it would be to find out who is using them. “Just weigh the rear wheel,” he stated. “If there is an engine, the wheel weighs at least 800g more than the usual weight. If a wheel weighs two kilos, it must be disassembled (to be checked).” Basically, give us a look at the bikes for a few minutes and this can all be solved.
That hasn’t happened though and, rightly or wrongly, because of his wins and because of his sport, it brings us back to Froome. The problem is that were we to give him the benefit of the doubt around literally all the issues he has helped cloud with confusion, he’s still too good. So we are left wondering how, in a sport with a century of filth behind it, we have really come across greatest if he’s actually doing nothing at all wrong? It’s one more lonely question without its answer.
There are of course many parameters that would wash away theories Froome himself has tried to merely ridicule into submission. Tellingly though such facts and figures are kept from public viewing
So how is it then that you explain a freak like Froome? This being cycling, you’ll have to use your imagination.
To view the original of this article CLICK HERE
By Nick Harris and Teddy Cutler The Mail on Sunday, June 2014
There was a clip posted on Twitter this week of an old sketch by Les Guignols – the French Spitting Image – on the absurdities of the Tour de France. It opens with a clip of a puppet racer in a yellow jersey breaking clear on a mountain pass to the astonished gasps of the rubber caricatures of Patrick Chene and Bernard Thevenet, who called the race for French TV in 2004.
“What Armstrong is trying to do is quite remarkable,” Thevenet observes.
“And to think he almost died from cancer two years ago!” Chene concurs. “What a magnificent revenge.”
Then something remarkable happens: Armstrong is caught by the Italian climber, Marco Pantani, who had the kindness to pick up a little girl – she’s sitting on his crossbar – who has lost her parents in the crowd. “This is extraordinary, Bernard,” Chene observes. “When you think that only five months ago Pantani was on the verge of quitting the sport.”
“Yes, it’s a lesson in cycling,” Thevenet concurs.
Then something even more remarkable happens: French favourite, Richard Virenque, doesn’t just close the gap on Pantani, but goes by the Italian towing a five-berth caravan from a harness on his back! “What a performance!” Chene says. “And to think, Bernard, that he started the stage this morning with a 42-degree fever! But he’s there. He’s there.”
“He certainly is,” Thevenet concurs. “It’s only in sport that we get these kind of emotions.”
Then something quite astonishing happens: Eddy Merckx, the 55-year-old legendary Belgian, has broken clear of the peloton and is closing on Virenque accompanied by the skeletal figure of another great veteran on the comeback trail – Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi. “Oh la la!” Chene cries, almost overwhelmed. “It’s Eddy Merckx. It’s the Eddy Merckx. It’s only in cycling you’d see this!”
“Le vélo never forgets,” Thevenet concurs. “To think that Fausto was 44 years dead this morning.”
Irreverent and absurd, what the sketch captures brilliantly is the bullshit we’re served annually on the Tour and how eager we are to swallow it. In 1998, when the Festina affair brings truth, we abandon it for the miracle of the cancer Jesus, Lance Armstrong, Mister Hope-Rides-Again. In 2012, when the Armstrong lie is exposed, we are suckered by the marginal gains of those ‘slithering reptiles’ (take a bow Madam Wiggins) at Team Sky, with their fresh pillows and their hand creams and their pineapple juice.
“I’ve never had an injection,” Sir Bradley Wiggins assures us, in the chest-thumping autobiography that follows his triumph in the Tour de France. “This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time,” Chris Froome pledges in a crois-moi speech on the Champs-élysées. And here we are, four years later, swamped in the mire of their dirty little secrets – the mystery jiffy bag, the mistaken testosterone patches, the unethical corticosteroids, the failed test for salbutamol – and returned to ground zero.
And what hurts most is that we saw it coming.
For six years now, since his extraordinary transformation at the 2011 Tour of Spain, Froome has been an accident waiting to happen battling five debilitating conditions – bilharzia, typhoid, urticaria, blastocystosis, asthma – in his march towards the summit. Forget the astonishing accelerations (Mont Ventoux 2013, La Pierre Saint Martin 2015) and multiple Tour wins, this is the Froome legacy.
He has redefined what it means to be ill.
Take the circumstances surrounding his second Tour victory in 2015, and the infection that struck on the Wednesday of the final week as he braved the challenge of the Colombian, Nairo Quintana. “I woke up all congested, blocked up, sore throat and I could feel it getting down into my chest. Sort of tightening it,” he told David Walsh of The Sunday Times. “I was put on a short course of antibiotics but it had no effect.
“I was trying to hold it in, so my rivals wouldn’t hear me coughing and wheezing . . . the most difficult times were on the start line where I had Quintana on one side, (and) Contador on the other. I would be standing there with a burning sensation to cough or needing to get some phlegm up, but I would hold my breath to stop myself. I didn’t want them to see I was battling with this. Just don’t let them see anything. I couldn’t wait for the neutral zone so I could get to the side of the road, blow my nose and get it all up.”
The penultimate stage to the summit of Alpe d’Heuz was approaching. The team doctor called to his room and suggested they apply for a TUE to treat the infection. “I think it was on about the evening on stage 17,” Froome explained. “Richard (Usher, team doctor) coming around to see all the riders. Stopping by my room, listening to my chest, doing other checks, ‘Listen Chris, you are sick. One hundred per cent. If we got the official race doctor to have a look, you would be granted a medication that would definitely alleviate that tightness and help you get through these next few days’.”
But Froome wasn’t having it. “After everything we had been through in this year’s Tour, especially the hostility from different people along the way, it just felt that if we go down this route, we are opening the door for a whole new wave of criticism and aggression,” he told Walsh. “It would have been within the rules, but I didn’t want it to be the Tour de France that was won because he took this medication in the last week.”
Two days later, Froome is standing on the start line on the stage to Alpe d’Heuz with “no other game plan other than “just hang on’.” He is coughing and wheezing. He is one hundred per cent sick. The stage is raced at a frantic pace but Froome does enough and the focus of the reports next day is his courage in adversity. “His legs weren’t good enough but his spirit sustained him,” Walsh wrote.
Hold on a minute.
Froome finished fifth in the stage – a career achievement for a lot of riders. He stuck four minutes into Dan Martin and finished almost two minutes clear of some other elite climbers – Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet and Robert Gesink. A couple of days later – still coughing and wheezing presumably, and sucking on his inhaler – he was racing in Holland for a handsome appearance fee. Some might say his spirit sustained him.
I call it taking the piss.
Given the list and nature of his ailments, it is no surprise that supplements are his friend: protein drinks and fish oils, beetroot juice and energizer greens. He has used Tramadol but only for back pain, an anti-histamine called Loratadine for an allergy to sun creams; Fluticasone, a preventative spray for asthma, and Ventolin (Salbutamol) when he’s racing and about to make an effort.
“Is that not using the inhaler to boost your performance?” I asked him once.
“I eat breakfast before a long race,” he replied. “Is that not boosting my performance? If I don’t eat I won’t have any energy; if I don’t have my inhaler before a really big effort I’m probably not going to be able to breathe very well. I know I’m not going to breathe very well.”
“But is that (health) not the essence of competition?” I suggested.
“Inhalers are not performance-enhancing,” he said. “If any normal person who doesn’t have asthma takes an inhaler, they’re not going to ride any faster. Their lungs are not going to open any larger than they were before. But someone who does have asthma, the airways are going to close up and that inhaler just helps them to close less. It just helps me to be more normal and I definitely don’t see that as an unfair advantage.”
But that depends, obviously, on how much is used.
On Wednesday, three months after he was informed by the UCI that he had provided an Adverse Analytical Finding for Salbutamol on the 18th stage of the Tour of Spain – his fifth Grand Tour win – and just minutes before Le Monde and The Guardian broke the story that he was facing a possible ban, Froome released the following statement:
“It is well known that I have asthma and I know exactly what the rules are. I use an inhaler to manage my symptoms (always within the permissible limits) and I know for sure that I will be tested every day I wear the race leader’s jersey.
“My asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor’s advice to increase my Salbutamol dosage. As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose.
“I take my leadership position in my sport very seriously. The UCI is absolutely right to examine test results and, together with the team, I will provide what information it requires.”
The language was interesting. Is there a difference between using an inhaler to “manage my symptoms” and using an inhaler “before a really big effort”? Perhaps, but I don’t have the energy to debate that here . . . actually no, that’s not true.
Four years ago, after he had pulverised his rivals to take his first yellow jersey in the Tour at Ax 3 Domaines, I listened as Froome announced to the press that he was making it “a personal mission to show that the sport had changed.” A year later, when he agreed to an interview in Monaco, he enforced that notion again.
“I’m trying to speak out for clean cycling,” he said. “I’ve always raced clean; I’m always going to race clean; I’ll fucking hang up my bike the day I even think about doping.”
But here we are with a failed test and what do we get? How does Froome react? He togs out as if nothing has happened at the World Time Trial Championships. He travels to Japan and Australia and the US for some end-of-season jollies and agrees a reputed £2m deal to ride the Giro d’Italia next year.
Yep, it’s business as usual folks, no hint of any problem . . . until a call from the newspapers sounds the alarm and now he’s reaching out on Twitter: “Thank you for all the messages of support this morning. I am confident that we will get to the bottom of this. Unfortunately, I can’t share any more information than I already have until the enquiry is complete.”
That enquiry will drag for months and there’s a chance he’ll be exonerated. And there’s a chance he will win the Giro next year and add a fifth Tour de France. But the problem for Froome is that we’ve been here before. Is he just another cheat or the best we have ever seen?
Frankly, we don’t give a damn.
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Paul Kimmage: Tour de France leader Chris Froome would be well advised to invite questions
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