1990 – 1995: The Lord and Master

1990 CLAWING BACK TIME

Firmin Lambot (1922), Roger Walkowiak (1956), Gastone Nencini (1960), Lucien Aimar (1966), Oscar Pereiro (2006) – and Greg Lemond. All won the Tour without winning a stage. Alberto Contador managed it too (in 2010) but was stripped of the title after a positive test for clenbuterol.

Lemond did a kind of reverse Walkowiak in 1990. The tale of the 1990 Tour was how one man resisted virtually au bout after a great escape on the very first stage – and how another man clawed the Jersey back second by second.

Ronan Pensec, Steve Bauer, Frans Maasen and a little known Italian called Claudio Chiapucci were allowed to get away from the peloton on stage 1 and finished the stage 10’ 35” ahead of the peloton containing the favourite for the 1990 Tour, Greg Lemond.

Steve Bauer – who had led the race in 1988 – carried the Yellow Jersey to the Alps. Pensec took it off him in Saint-Gervais on his 27th Birthday but, despite a great ride on Alpe d’Huez that made the French start believing they might, just might, be looking at a French winner – despite the fact that his team leader at Z was none other than Lemond – he came unstuck in the time trial at Villard-de-Lans and it was another of the stage 1 breakaway riders who pulled on the Jersey that night.

Claudio Chiapucci wasn’t exactly unknown – he’d won the King of the Mountains at the Giro earlier in the year – but his defence of the Yellow Jersey was a thriller as Lemond used all his tactical nous to close the gap on the Italian:

Stage 13 to St Etienne – Lemond sends teammate Pensec up the road. The Carrera team, resplendent in those awful faux jean shorts, give chase but as they catch the Frenchman, Lemond and Breukink counter and Chiapucci loses almost 5′ of his huge advantage. Lemomd closes to 2′ 34” behind the Italian.

Stage 16 to Luz-Ardiden (Aspin, Tourmalet and mountain top finish at Luz-Ardiden) – the ‘Little Devil’ attacks in the Yellow Jersey on the Aspin and stays clear over the Tourmalet. He is caught on the descent by Lemond, a master at the discipline, but there’s one last throw of the dice. On the final ascent to Luz-Ardiden, Chiapucci positions himself ahead of Lemond in a deliberate show of strength. The Tour is balanced on a razor’s edge – until 8kms from the summit when the Italian cracks and is finally overwhelmed by a young Spaniard Miguel Indurain, who wins his second Pyreneean stage (he’d won at Cauterets the year before) with Lemond hot on his heels. The gap closes to a scant 5”.

Stage 17 to Pau (Aubisque, Marie-Blanque) – with a time trial to come, Lemond seems certain of winning his 3rd Tour when disaster strikes: he punctures on the Marie-Blanque. Alone by the side of the road, a lengthy weight for a wheel, the Tour once more balanced on a razor’s edge…teammate Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle, up the road in a breakaway, makes a U-turn and rides back to his leader. In company with Eric Boyer, the three make a stunning descent of the Marie-Blanque – a motard remarks he has never seen a descent like it – and the Tour is saved…though Lemond let’s it be known that he thinks attacking when a rider punctures, especially a rider in the Rainbow Stripes of World Champion, is hardly sporting.

Stage 20 Lac de Vassiviere (time trial) – Lemond had become the first ever American stage winner in the Tour when he won the time trial in the 1985 Tour over a similar distance and circuit. He doesn’t win in this race – that honour goes to the Dutchman Erik Breukink – but his performance is good enough to leave him 2′ 16” clear of a floundering Chiapucci on GC. The Italian vows he’ll return a better rider against the clock.

Lemond won the 1990 Tour without ever winning a stage – but Chiapucci would have done the same had he managed to hold on to his huge initial advantage. It was an extraordinary feat by the American to come back from an accident that had left him minutes from death. Chiapucci, apart from his podium place, left the race empty handed: the King of the Mountains went to Thierry Claveyrolat, the Points to Olaf Ludwig, Eduardo Chozas won the Prix de la Combativite and Gilles Delion was the best young rider. Lemond’s Z team won the team prize – recompense for their valiant efforts on the Marie-Blanque to save the race for Lemond. Extraordinarily enough, Chiapucci was the first Italian to stand on the podium since Felice Gimondi in 1972.

1991 THE TOUR IN TRANSITION – START OF AN ERA

The press were buzzing in 1990 – “if Miguel Indurain had ridden for himself and not Delgado” they wondered “would he, could he, have won the Tour?”. In 1991 they had their answer. And again in 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995. The quiet Spaniard with the crooked grin, the luxuriant eyebrows and the unflashy style would dominate the race becoming the first – or only, in light of the USADA reasoned decision – rider to win 5 Tours in a row.

I loved the Indurain years – he was never a selfish rider, never chasing the glory wins, always happy to do enough to control the race and take the Yellow Jersey in Paris. For this he was declared boring, lacking in panache. He was that rarest of things – a modest champion, always appearing both shy and charming – until he put the hammer down as he so often did in his beloved Pyrenees and the main contenders would drop off the back of the group of favourites like so many pebbles tumbling down the mountainside.

Physiologically, Indurain was one of the most impressive riders ever to grace the sport and a recent study (2012) completed 14 years after his retirement suggests he’s still in the kind of physical shape that he wouldn’t disgrace himself in the pro peloton if he came out of retirement. At 6′ 2” he earned the Spanish nickname Miguelon – in English, more prosaically, he was Big Mig. To the French he was le Roi Miguel. He was like a kit part champion – he had the time trialling prowess of Anquetil, the climbing style of Bartali, the nous of Lemond, the sense of terroir of Hinault even some of the sheer grace of Fignon. He was the new face of a post Franco Spain – as Andy Hood said of him “(Indurain) became a symbol of a new, more assertive Spain stepping confidently on to the European stage”.

Indurain’s domination is one tale – but each Tour has their own to tell. The 1991 Tour has several, each, in its way, telling the tale of the Tour’s continued transition from a national Tour to a global one.

THE PEACE RACE

The fight for the Green Jersey was like a dog fight between the nations of Eastern Europe – East Germany (Olaf Ludwig) v Uzbekistan (Djamolidine Abdoujaparov) v Russia (Dimitri Konyshev). The Uzbek won it but only in the most dramatic fashion. If you’ve seen it, Abdoujaparov’s crash on the Champs Elysees is unforgettable – 17.22h and the sprint is on: slightly ahead of the peloton Abdou and Ludwig are hurtling towards the finish line. The Tashkent TGV edges ahead – he stamps hard on the pedals, head down, charging for the arrivee. Then disaster strikes – he drifts slightly right and his pedal catches a Coca Cola box that’s been left by the barriers. The Tashkent Terror goes down and is hit by Zannatta and Schur in turn. Whilst they get up and back on their bikes, Abdou stays down and doesn’t move – he lies on the cobbles of the Champs, not far from the podium that he will be unable to mount and claim his last Green Jersey. He has a broken collarbone and a head injury that necessitates 48 hours surveillance in hospital. He’s been knocked unconscious and will remember nothing of the crash.

But they make them tough in Uzbekistan – 17.36h 14 minutes after the peloton have crossed the line, a lone rider, supported by the 4 man medical team of the Tour, crosses the line on foot. The Green Jersey that he’s worn with such pride and defended so fiercely for the last 3 weeks is torn. He’s bleeding from his right eyebrow and his hair is thick with blood. But, because the accident happened in the last kilometre (now the rules state the last 3 kms) and he has crossed the line, he has saved the Maillot Vert.

Rolf Sorensen wasn’t quite so lucky – he crashed into a traffic island on the way into Valenciennes, broke his collarbone, and joined the list of those unfortunate riders forced to abandon whilst wearing the Yellow Jersey.

BAROUD D’HONNEUR

My favourite memory of this race is of stage 6, the 259km monster from Arras – Le Havre. Thierry Marie, resplendent in the somewhat gaudy blue of the Castorama strip, took off after 25km and rode the rest of the stage alone. He said “I couldn’t wait to see my Normandy again” and rode into Le Havre singing at the top of his voice, a ridiculous grin plastered on his face. Memory says it was the Marseillaise – or is that just memory making perfect as it did with Roche at La Plagne? The Viking had already won the 3rd prologue of his Tour career to wear the Maillot Jaune at the start of the race. His grand exploit meant he wore it again for a couple of days before it went to Lemond.

RAGE ON THE TOURMALET

The 1991 Tour caught fire on the Tourmalet, where Indurain and Chiapucci went mano a mano all the way to the finish at Val Louron. Indurain took the Yellow Jersey from Lemond and took it to Paris. L’Equipe as ever captured the drama:

Everything turned around up there, amid the infernal noise of klaxons and helicopters, in that incomporable cacophony of the maddest moments of the Tour de France. Everything was sewn up there, on the last 500 metres of the Tourmalet, on this thread of narrow road, in the midst of the fists and the arms, those thousands of faces deformed by excitement.

A moment before, the Banesto team car had come alongside Miguel Indurain, who asked a question, just one: “Who isn’t looking good?” “Leblanc!” yelled Jose Miguel Echavarri through the window. “And I think Lemond, too”.

At that moment there was a noticeable acceleration in the groupe de tetealready reduced to 8 riders and what happened at that moment unleashed one of the most furious battles of the last few years.

There were 500 metres and Greg Lemond was hunched savagely on his saddle. He got up. He sat down again. Got up again. He couldn’t pedal any harder. It wasn’t a pretty thing to watch, Lemond, in those moments…

The gap was insignificant – only 17” to Chiapucci, Indurain, Hampsten, Mottet, Bugno, Leblanc who was holding on well and Rue – when Lemond wrestled his way over the summit. Soon enough, he went to the other extreme and in 3 or 4 vertiginous hairpins, just before La Mongie, he was back on the wheels of the leading group, but Indurain had already flown.

Lemond leaped off the front of the group, chose a gear that was testament to the reserves at his disposal and, 5 kms later, just at the foot of the Aspin, he caught Indurain. Who couldn’t have hoped for a better rider to share the relays with.

As for the rest, the climb of Val Louron, it was a match-poursuite of giants, intoxicating for Indurain and Chiapucci, one knowing he had a rendezvous with the Yellow Jersey, the other taking a great victory that earns him huge respect”.

THE PDM AFFAIR

Martin Earley trudges towards the PDM team bus, bags in hand, as the Dutch team abandon the race en bloc in Quimper. Sean Kelly’s temperature that morning was 38.5 degrees C (101 F), he realised he wasn’t going anywhere. Van Poppel (40 C/104 F) was shaking with fever and dressed as if it was the depths of winter – 2 long sleeved jerseys and a goretex vest “and despite all that I couldn’t get warm, I felt like I was at the North Pole” he complained. Raab and Verhoeven (39.5 C/103 F) hadn’t slept a wink and Verhoeven couldn’t get out of bed. Raab made it to the sign on then went straight back to bed. Boden, the German Champion, had finished the stage to Quimper outside the time limit and been eliminated. Breukink was on the point of cracking “Another day in that state, I can’t do it. I have no desire to kill myself. I’ve had medicine to bring down the fever, but I’m empty, I have no strength”.

Jan Gisbers, their directeur sportif, explained the situation: “It’s a catastrophe. It must be a virus, because no one’s complaining of a stomach ache. And everyone has the same symptoms – heavy head, cold and joint pains.”

Initial reaction: food poisoning. PDM were the only team staying at the Cheval d’Or hotel in Rennes. Impossible, cries the proprietor’s daughter, everyone on the team, including the team management, ate the same thing (quiche lorraine, vegetable soup, grilled chicken, spaghetti, courgettes, mashed potatoes, yoghurt and cooked pears) and none of them got sick, now did they?

The ‘truth’? It was allegedly caused by poor storage of Intralipid, a liquid nutritional supplement for use with the elderly, comatose patients and those unable to feed themselves. Breukink was having a jour sans and needed some extra fuel in the tank. Intralipid was the answer. Team doctor Wim Sanders administered each rider with a 20cc injection – in fact, for there to be any nutritional impact, they would have needed to be on a drip.

The truth? It’s now common knowledge that PDM had a regime of blood doping and EPO in use since at least 1988. Team manager Manfred Krikke admitted “When we started PDM we decided that we would not be the most ethical team in the peloton. The one rule imposed from the PDM directors was that there was to be “no drug affairs” rather than “no drug taking. Within this direction, we experimented with products that were just within or over the edge of legality. Just like in other sports. We were not doing anything that the other teams were doing.”

The background of the PDM team is an interesting one, particularly for how it speaks to the development of team organised doping and the wider issue of ‘professionalisation’ of the sport. Krikke was an ex-commando and ran everything with military precision: hotels were meticulously inspected, team chefs checked the kitchens and dining rooms, medical routines were scrutinised – they even created a complete media contact book. They were the fist team to have a proper team bus with washing and shower facilities on board. Sounds familiar? In terms of their set up and meticulous research and preparation for a race, PDM set the blueprint for teams like US Postal and Sky.

It was DS Gisbers who recommended the ‘sloddervos’ Sanders as team doctor and it was Gisbers and Sanders who would go out to play when the riders were safely tucked up in bed. When the scandal hit they weren’t even at the team hotel – they were across town partying with team groupies. Krikke did his best to manage the scandal but the rumours continued to fly and were finally confirmed in 1997 when proceedings for tax avoidance – initiated by Krikke – started against Sanders. The true scale of doping at the team was revealed – Sanders had a network of suppliers for EPO and had been using products supplied by Willie Jeandarme who had been implicated in doping in horse racing (much like our old friend Dr Sainz) since the early 80s. Jeandarme later claimed he was supplying other teams in Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium (including Lotto).

Dr Fleysakier concluded that”high fever, a feeling like influenza, muscle pain and neck cramp (are) typical of of an overdose of EPO”. Another theory is that the EPO was poorly stored – Sanders admitted that, whatever he injected, had been in his case, in his hotel room, in direct sunlight. Sean Kelly point blank denied he had been doped though he, Alcala, Breukink, Dhaenans and Nelissen were clearly identified through the testimony of Sanders as having done so. The real irony is that the team that inherited PDM’s medical team was Bruno Roussel’s Festina.

In 1990 PDM rider Johannes Draaijer died of a heart attack at 26 and his wife later said that he had once become sick as a result of using EPO. 2 other team members were ‘retired’ that year with heart problems. The list of suspected EPO deaths in the sport is a long and tragic one. Whilst Sanders and Gisbers were drinking and fucking the human cost of their doping experiments were being paid by the lives of young men, their wives, children and families.

1992 THE EUROPEAN TOUR

To celebrate the signing of the Maastricht Treaty that presaged the bringing together of the European Community, the 1992 Tour de France visited Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and Italy.

But this is the tale of two extraordinary stages. One a time trial, the other a solo flight through the mountains.

And it’s about how we define panache – that most slippery and almost alien concept, wedded as it is to the heroic age of cycling, and to a peculiarly European idea of spirit and brio. Ask any cycling fan to define panache and they’ll talk about the legendary exploits of the Tour, of Pantani and Merckx and Coppi, of solitary raids through the thin air of the highest mountain peaks.

But what of Indurain, that most unassuming of the Grand Champions? L’Equipe attempted to define and refine the idea of panache thus:

Why hide it, we like Miguel Indurain a lot. The man Indurain, the still unexplored star, reserved but genuine. And the champion Indurain, monumental. No panache? That’s a good joke! After all, what exactly is panache? A 200 km escape through the Alps, like Claudio Chiapucci, on a Saturday that will go down in history but for minimal gain? Obviously. But panache is also being the fastest winner in history, to take 3 minutes (and more) into all your rivals over 65 kms in Luxembourg, in a time trial, or to ride at 52.349 km/h over 64 kms between Tour and Blois. Miguel Indurain has dazzled us with the panache he has shown.

The Spaniard is not a ‘cannibal’ it’s true – he’s an absolute pragmatist and does what’s important. “To have panache – to cut a fine figure” says the Petit Robert. No one could have more panache than Miguel Indurain.

Claudio Chiapucci has bought a great delight and a wonderful craziness to the Tour. Miguel Indurain has bought his class. The French public probably prefer Claudio. But, as is well known, the French prefer the seconds…”

Patrick Chasse says he’ll always remember the Luxembourg time trial – it’s the day his son was born “so I was looking at that alien instead of the other one” he jokes. And it’s true that Indurain’s performance was rapidly dubbed ‘extraterrestre’ – that nudge nudge wink wink code word for doping. This was the top 10 on that 65 km Luxembourg – Luxembourg stage:

1. Miguel Indurain: 1hr 19min 31sec
2. Armand De Las Cuevas @ 3min
3. Gianni Bugno @ 3min 41sec
4. Zenon Jaskula @ 3min 47sec
5. Greg LeMond @ 4min 4sec
6. Pascal Lino @ 4min 6sec
7. Stephen Roche 2 4min 10sec
8. Arturas Kasputis @ 4min 26sec
9. Alex Zulle @ 4min 29sec
10. Pedro Delgado @ 4min 52sec
It was utter devastation on GC, pure and simple, with Indurain schooling his rivals in the art of riding against the clock. But he didn’t take the race lead – that was still held by Pascal Lino, who’d accumulated a healthy cushion by grabbing over 6 minutes against Indurain on a breakaway in stage 3. Indurain had dropped more time on a Classics style stage between Roubaix and Brussels and was outside the top ten on GC before he left the start gate on stage 9. But that Luxembourg GC showed every ounce of his class – he caught Laurent Fignon for 6 minutes. Cold, calculating, doing enough and no more though he may have been as a rider, Indurain was the definition of panache – at least in the contre le montre.
And then came stage 13 – Saint-Gervais to Sestriere. A stage designed to honour the grand exploits of Fausto Coppi, exactly 40 years earlier. Coppi had won an incredible stage in the 1949 Giro by 11 minutes winning all 4 major climbs of the day in a 192 km escape. He pulled off an almost identical feat in the 1952 Tour de France, attacking and going clear over the Croix de Fer, the Galibier, Montegenevre and winning at Sestriere by 7 minutes. When you consider that the day before he’d entered the record books – and signed his name on one of the 21 hairpins – by being the first man to win on Alpe d’Huez the feat is all the more extraordinary.
Chiapucci had every intention of honouring his compatriot, the great Campianissimo. And he had 254.5 kms and the climbs of the Saisies (2nd Cat), Cornet de Roseland (1st Cat), Iseran (H.C.), Mont-Cenis (1st Cat) and the finish to Sestriere (1st Cat) to prove his panache was worthy of comparison with his idol.
If you weren’t born, or weren’t following cycling, or didn’t have a TV on Saturday 18th July I beg, nay implore you, to watch that stage. It is in my top 5 greatest all time Tour de France memories, maybe the greatest because it had that whiff of the old school about it, as Chiapucci channels the spirit of his hero. Stephen Roche, his sometime teammate, said that the problem with Chiapucci was that he never attacked alone – maybe he wanted to show the Irishman, too.

Lemond suffered like a dog again, perhaps more than he had the year before on the Tourmalet. Bugno was trapped with Indurain, knowing he was damned if he attacked and damned if he didn’t – he attacked anyway but dropped away with 10km left to race when only Indurain could stay with Vona. Then suddenly, with 4 km to race, it looked like it would be mano a mano to the finish for the Spaniard and the Italian, the one hunched low over his bike, wrenching every last ounce of effort from his body, the other almost robotic in his metronomic precision. Yet somehow, somewhere Vona caught Indurain and passed him to take 2nd place – Big Mig, it seemed, had cracked.

inside the last 300m Ciapucci raises one fist, then the other, he clasps his hands above his head in an attitude of prayer and supplication and looks skyward, he grins, he raises his arms with the last ounce of his strength in that almost crucified V of victory as the calvary is over.

The crowds were extraordinary – the motards could hardly hold them back to let the little Italian through. He couldn’t have been more different physically to Coppi, stocky and pugnacious where Coppi was bird like and aquiline, but both rose to the challenge of the Alps and let the tifosi roar them to the finish on their home soil. I know someone who was lucky enough to have been in Sestriere that day – he said the wall of noise rose all the way up the mountain from the valley below. I defy anyone not to watch that stage and weep for the sheer beauty of what happened.

What is the definition of panache? Is it a rider playing to his strengths and smiting the opposition with a fatal blow where he is at his very strongest? Or a rider taking a huge gamble, win or lose, staking everything on one throw of the dice, one turn of the card, one massive, extraordinary attack? I’ll leave you to decide

1993 THE RACE FOR SECOND

The Indurain Tours were often unfairly categorised as dull but this one fully lived up to that description.

Was it the parcours? The race certainly had its fair share of stages for the sprinter’s delectation and they made hay while they could – Nelissen, Cipollini and Museeuw traded the race lead between them until the stage 9 Lac Madine TT and Abdoujaparov grabbed 3 stage wins and another Green Jersey – he was able to collect this one in Paris.

Was it the field? Indurain’s main challenger was Tony Rominger, who blazed briefly on the pro scene, retiring in 1997 after breaking his collarbone. In that time he won the Vuelta 3 times, broke the Hour record twice and finished 2nd in the 1993 Tour winning the Polka Dot Jersey, despite a relatively poor record in his 4 other Tours. He is currently embroiled in money laundering allegations that link him directly to that most sulphurous doping doctor, Michele Ferrari. The 93 race might have been very different if his CLAS team hadn’t had a poor time trial, losing 2 minutes and being further penalised for pushing each other. He was valiant in the mountains but Indurain mastered him easily and Hinault was typically scathing “Rominger is riding for second place, that’s obvious, and that’s sad for cycling!” Rominger hit back: “Where was Hinault today? In a car. I respect him hugely, he’s won the Tour 5 times. If he’d give me the legs he had, I’d have ridden differently. Hinault was stronger than me, that makes all the difference…I came here to win a stage and I’ve won two, and what’s more the two great Alpine stages. Above all I’m happy with winning the queen stage, that finished close to my home in Monte Carlo. In my opinion that’s better than finishing on the podium”.

Rounding out the podium was Zenon Jaskula, an almost unknown Pole. He took a huge stage win to Saint-Lary-Soulon where he outsprinted Indurain and Rominger. He looks almost embarassed to have made the podium. But then this was a race where several riders suddenly outperformed themselves – one Bjarne Riis won stage 7, the day before Johan Bruyneel had set the record for the fastest recorded stage ever in the Tour (49.417 km/h), 2 days later the rider with whom his destiny would become inextricably entwined scored his first success at the Tour. Lance Armstrong was the youngest rider on the Tour at 22. He states that he rode his first Tour clean, though samples from that era show elevated levels of testosterone. He said he came to the Tour to learn and to win a stage. “I’ve already learned a lot and I’ve won a stage. Now I want to continue to learn so I can win again someday”. We all know how that turned out…

There is one jokey little anecdote about the race: the ‘Indurain sandwich’. Exactly as he had done the year before, Indurain crushed the race under his wheel during the first time trial. His ‘little’ brother Prudencio – though he was 1 m 88 to Miguel’s 1m 86 – came dead last 17′ 48” down on the winner. Had it not been for a puncture, Miguel would have eliminated Prudencio – maybe the puncture was just brotherly love in action?

This was Indurain’s second Giro/Tour Double in a row – an unequalled feat – and he was as dominant as ever. In controlling Rominger in the mountains, they blew the rest of the peloton away. L’Equipe described him as being “a gentle giant…with a kind of quiet panache”.

1994 THE TOUR IN BRITAIN

1994 wasn’t the first time the Tour visited the UK. There had been a UK team in the 1955 Tour and British riders had won stages since 1958 when Brian Robinson took a sprint win after Arigo Podovan was demoted in the sprint for dangerous riding. But he won fair and square the next year, 20 minutes ahead of the peloton. Sporadic success followed with Barry Hoban and Michael Wright leading the way.

The race first hit British shores in 1974 when the peloton were ferried from Brittany to an unopened bypass in Plymouth which they cycled up and down for 144 kms then transferred back to France. British immigration decided to be extra scrupulous – well who could blame them with a bunch of bike riders? – and Barry Hoban complained that he didn’t get back to his hotel room until gone 10 pm. The irony was that it wasn’t the Devon tourist board or the city of Plymouth that had paid through the nose to import the race to British shores – the stage was paid for by Breton farmers hoping to sell their artichokes to the Brits. The riders hated it and the experiment was not repeated until 1994.

I was at the Brighton stage, not far from the finish line at the Kemptown end of town. The crowd were fascinating – genteel blue rinse ladies, day trippers, crusties and crazies, cycling fans and Spanish students waving massive Basque flags shared the pavements. The blue rinse ladies highly disapproved of the Spanish students “do they have to be quite so noisy?” they huffed as the Spanish exchange students waved their flags and chanted Indurain’s name. The cycling fans rolled their eyes in time honoured “this is a cycling race” fashion. The crusties and the crazies soaked up the carnival atmosphere. It was a great day out, the Tour with a particularly British slant – slightly disapproving of its continental nature, ever so slightly in love already with its charm. Cabello won the stage – that gave the Spanish kids something to really make a noise about – and then, as the crowds dispersed, we ‘real’ fans (the ones who watched the C4 coverage and read cycling mags and scoured the papers for results and devoured the occasional copy of l’Equipe and might, just might, have actually seen real live bike racing beforehand – you know, us die hards, not the Johnny Come Latelys) were left to perv over bike porn and grab autographs and try and talk to Laurent Fignon (failed – even though I spoke so prettily in my very best French).

Next morning off to Portsmouth with a theatrical friend who I never would have thought for a million years would have been a pro cycling fan – you live and learn eh? – at crack of sparrow’s fart. Oh the thrill of hurtling down the road past the minibus full of Coca Cola cheerleaders in curlers getting their slap on. Past the team cars and buses, buzzing with excitement, trading stories of favourite stages and singing along to Abba. Park up, grab a spot near the start/finish line. Watch the riders sign on – and yes, Miguel Indurain truly is the most wondrous specimen of physical perfection I have ever seen – then roll out slowly for the depart fictif. Several hours later, when the helicopters start to churn the air overhead and Daniel Mangeas ‘the Voice of the Tour’ is cranking the excitement to fever pitch, we watch as Minali hurtles over the finish line, arms thrown aloft.

And then it’s gone. The first time I’ve actually, properly watched my beloved Tour, seen the sheer speed, heard the real noises of the race unmediated by the commentary of Phil & Paul – the whoosh of spinning wheels, the klaxons of motards, the roar of team cars, the excited garble of commentary vans and that moment of silence before the roar starts somewhere down the road and builds and waves and crescendos as the race draws ever nearer and swirls past in a few dizzying, vertiginous seconds of sound and colour and controlled chaos. I once stuck my face as close as I dared into a sprint finish, inhaling the whirr of spokes and gears, the curious stillness at the heart of it, the distortion and concentration on the rider’s faces as they race pell mell for the line – at stake a place in the history of the greatest race on earth.

Of course we didn’t get to see the French star Laurent Jalabert or the Belgian champion Wilfried Nelissen thanks to a policeman who stepped out to take a photograph on stage 1 of the race, a bunch sprint finish into Armentieres. Nelissen ploughed straight into the gendarme and broke his collarbone and then took down Jalabert who suffered terrible facial injuries and huge loss of blood. L’Equipe described the scene: “The first sight we have of Wilfried Nelissen is that of his face flat against the tarmac. He’s till wearing his blue helmet, only lightly scraped, but virtually useless since he hit the ground face first, like Mario Cipollini in the Vuelta. He’s inert, but you know what we look at first? Hi Belgian Champions jersey. Which is moving because of the shallow inhalations and exhalations that say he’s breathing…the medical team say it’s a miracle. Another group are about 2 metres back. A pink stain, the ONCE jersey, and a red stain, Jalabert’s blood.”

Jalabert broke teeth and cheekbones, Nelissen had a concussion and face and knee injuries. Neither of them were ever quite the same riders again – Jalabert made a conscious decision to avoid the hurly burly of the mass sprints. It was the start of his transformation into France’s next great contender.

We also didn’t get to see Chris Boardman in Yellow. He’d ridden a magnificent prologue to best Indurain by 14” and held the Jersey to the team time trial where his GAN team were 8th, 1′ 17” down on winners GB-MG Technogym. So it was Museeuw who wore the golden fleece in the UK. Boardman would wear it the next time the race visited the British Isles in 1998, but that’s another tale.

Other memories? Eros Poli, of course, and that preposterously fabulous stage win to Carpentras via Mont Ventoux. And the rise of the Blue Armada of the Festina team.

Luc Leblanc and a new young French star Richard Virenque dominated in the Pyrenees with back to back stage wins. Leblanc had a reputation s a crybaby in the peloton but he had good cause to be emotional – 15 years before he defied Indurain to win the stage into Lourdes, he’d been involved in a serious accident. He suffered a double fracture of the tinia and fibula that plagued his career. His brother died. When the tears streamed as he stood on the podium they were surely as much for what had been lost as for what he had achieved.

Virenque on the other hand – “the housewives’ favourite” as he was somewhat snottily dubbed by the British press – is one of the great pantomime villains of the Tour: the cheat who twisted on the hook of the Festina affair and used all manner of elaborate syllogisms to explain that he had been doped without his knowledge and, perhaps worse for some, the King of the Mountains record holder who only ever popped off the wheels to pinch the big mountain points.

Yet the latter is a calumny, as the 1994 Tour proved. He attacked repeatedly on the 204.5 km stage to Luz-Ardiden, winning 3 of the 4 climbs that day – the Aspin, Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden, missing only the Peyresourde the first difficulty of the stage – and beat Pantani by over 4 minutes. Any other rider would have been lauded for his achievement. Yet Virenque is eternally vilified and attitudes towards him raise interesting questions about our attitudes to doping and the subjectivity of those attitudes. He’s hated because he didn’t admit – neither did the almost universally revered and admired Pantani, or most of the peloton for that matter. He was brash and arrogant – so was Armstrong and many another Champion. Yet he is reviled where others are given the benfit of the doubt though several of his 7 stage wins were perfect examples of the panache we all claim to admire.

It’s too crude to invoke his nationality as the reason, though old enmities and alliances undoubtedly affect our views of individual riders. Rather it seems our attitudes to doping are entirely subjective – Pantani retains our sympathy as a tragic hero though it’s arguable that his motives for doping were any different to any other rider, including Virenque. This is when doping becomes knotted and thorny and twisty – when rider A is revered despite his doping and rider B reviled because of it. Watch the Luz-Ardiden stage: why do we hurl the word doper at Virenque then swoon over the chasing Pantani. The reality is that both were doped that day. Did Virenque somehow dope more than Pantani, or better? Is that why he stood on the podium and not the Italian? Did he simply have better legs, a bigger dream, a stronger desire to win? Doping is never that simple. Doping is only ever a part of a bigger, more puzzling equation.

The saddest sight of the race was the abandon of Greg Lemond, the great American champion distraught as he is stripped of his race number – abandoning the race was like being cashiered – and climbing into the voiture balai, his adventures in the Tour definitively at an end. Lemond has been outspoken about the way the advent of the EPO era killed his career.

1995 BIG MIG JOINS THE IMMORTALS

This Tour has many tales – Pantani’s consecration on the Alpe, Jalabert’s brilliant stage win in the Green Jersey on Bastille Day in Mende, Indurain’s extraordinary escape on the stage to Liege where Bruyneel sucked his wheel then outsprinted him for the win earning my eternal enmity, Virenque’s solitary escape through the Pyrenees…

But there is only one tale of the 1995 Tour de France. The death of Fabio Casartelli, the promising young Italian rider on the Motorola team, on the road to Cauterets.

11 h 50, km 34: the first climb of the day and the peloton are rolling along piano piano on the Portet d’Aspet in intense heat. The torpor of the day is brutally shredded by Radio Tour “Chute! Chute! Motorola. Museuuw, Perini…”

Dante Rezze (French rider on the Aki team): “We were into the descent, riding really fast, strung out in a line, when the crash happened on a bend. I wanted to throw myself onto the floor but I was on the wrong side of the road and couldn’t stop myself going straight ahead. I went head first into the ravine. I fell about a dozen metres. At the bottom there were rocks. I hit them with my head, I was injured everywhere…People were trying to help me, but it was worse than useless. It was a quarter of an hour, maybe half an hour that I tried to get out. They tried to carry me, hoist me out with a rope, pull me out…later in the ambulance, I asked why we weren’t moving. The told me “a rider’s being evacuated by helicopter.” I immediately knew that it was serious, they tole me he was in a coma. I thought of my crash, how it could have been me, I thought about my family, my children…it’s hard. Later I found out about the death of Fabio Casartelli. Ever since I arrived back at the hotel, my teammates have been visiting me, giving me support…I daren’t even watch the television. Every time it makes me cry. I don’t want to think about it, but it’s always there…I’ll see how it goes in the days to come but I’m not sure I want to get back on a bike…”

Hennie Kuiper (DS Motorola team): “I drove up in the car, expecting to have to change a wheel, but I saw straight away that it was serious. To begin with I just thought he wouldn’t be able to start again. That I was sure of. I didn’t think that it was as serious as it was. 5 minutes later I knew how terrible it was”.

Dr Nicollet (race doctor): “Fabio was in a deep coma. He’d suffered a cranial trauma with cerebral lesions. He went into cardiac arrest 3 times in the helicopter. Each time we were able to recussitate him. The same thing happened in the hospital at Tarbes where the doctors were very efficient getting him onto a cardio-respiratory machine. Unfortunately, the cerebral injuries were too serious. After a while, his condition improved slightly and we were able to do some head x-rays that showed the traces of numerous fractures spreading to the base of the cranium. We knew then that it was no good, that it had been over from the start. The lesions were too serious.

Hennie Kuiper: “I phoned the hospital several times. They told me it was impossible to save him. Then he was dead”.

Jean-Michel Rouet (special envoy, l’Equipe): “We’ll never forget the minutes silence at Tarbes. Time was suspended, stopped. It was too much for some, like Marco Pantani, who went offf to cry alone in a corner. No one will ever forget the passage of the race through the Pyrenees in 1995. It must never be forgotten. A rider died there and the next day his 119 companions, the majority of whom didn’t really know him, gathered together to honour his memory. They gave up the their race, their prizes, their job, their ambition, great and small. It was a day of morning and it was poignant and admirable.

Was it the right attitude to take? The only one? Everyone is free to disagree. Bjarne Riis, for example, who thought that the worst had happened and it served nothing to add to it, is as entitled to his opinion as anyone. But the Dane behaved like everyone else, because in the face of such selfishness the Tour gives an important lesson in solidarity.

To be professional is to respect your metier, others, those that pay you – in this cyclists, who suffer like few other sportsmen at the elite level, have no lessons to learn from anyone. For 15 days they’ve offered us a competition that has been exceptional on occasion and now, on the 16th, they’ve decided that the right thing to do is to pay an equally exceptional homage.

To be professional is also sometimes to be an example, to give the best account of yourself, and your sport. And what could be more tragically beautiful than to watch Andrea Peron, the other Italian rider on the American team, Casartelli’s friend, symbolically crossing the finish line at Bearn?”

Dr Testa (Motorola team doctor): “Fabio saw it was a short descent, and then there was quite a long climb on the Col de Mente. Perhaps he thought that, for a few minutes, it (his helmet) wasn’t worth the bother.”

Dr Porte (Tour de France doctor): “I do not believe a helmet would have saved him because the blow was to the base of the skull rather than the top of the head.”

Dr Distelorf (who examined the body on behalf of the Tarbes coroner): “There was a small but very violent impact to the top of the skull a few centimetres to the left of the central axis. Contrary to several reports, there were no facial injuries. The impact caused several fractures within the cranium, causing blood to emerge from the nose, ears and mouth. (If he he’d been wearing a hard helmet) some injuries could have been avoided”.

Casartelli’s professional legacy was the introduction of stringent helmet laws in the professional peloton. His personal legacy was the birth of a son three months after his death. He has a memorial near the place where he died and the Tour often pays its respects. His last bike is enshrined at the chapel at Madonna del Ghisallo.

Two days later, Armstrong crossed the line in Limoges alone, arms raised, his fingers pointing towards the sky. It was a genuinely moving gesture. I remember sitting on my sofa and weeping, again. Yet filtered through the cynical perspective of what we know now about Armstrong as a bully and a cheat can we still appreciate it as a genuine gesture? I’d like to think so.

So for me this race will always be the Tour des Larmes.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “1990 – 1995: The Lord and Master

  1. Beautiful description of the 1992 Sestrieres stage. You brought back to life every detail of that finish, exactly as I remembered it: the crowds bringing Chiapucci almost to a standstill, the growing realisation of El Diablo that he’s going to hang on, punching the air as he reaches the final few hundred metres, the noise, the emotion of it all – yes, enough to make a grown man cry.

    On a less happy note, it’s impossible not to feel that EPO has discredited many of the Tours – and its best riders – from this era.

    • The more I write, the more difficult it is to address the issue of doping in the sport – not because it doesn’t exist but because it has always existed. The question is whether there was a shift in the way riders used doping – it seems to me that the ad hoc efforts of the early years were very different to eh ‘super doping era’ of the 90s onwards. It’s also difficult to believe that the spectre of doping will ever leave the sport entirely. Was it only doping that drove on the little Devil, or the Pirate, or Virenque or Riis or all the rest of them, or was it just a part of a bigger puzzle of arrogance and pride and determination? It is such a throny and knotty issue and writing this has certainly challenged my own opinions. I guess at the end of the day I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for Chiapucci, just for the glorious memory of that incredible stage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s