1996 – 1998 The James Bond Tours: Suspend Your Disbelief

1996 THE DEFEAT OF THE LORD AND MASTER

 This is truly the Tour of Rubbing Your Nose In It – Mr 60% stood on the top step of the podium, his dauphin was Jan ‘disco biscuits’ Ullrich and rounding out the dopers deluxe podium was Richard ‘cry baby’ Virenque. Honours were even in the other competitions between the 2 great doping armadas: Festina took the King of the Mountains with Virenque and the team prize, to Telekom went the Points Jersey and the White Jersey for best Young Rider (Ullrich). In 1997 Telekom would do even better and take the team prize as well.

 Yet Indurain always gets a free pass when doping raises its ugly head – maybe his judicious use of the droit de seigneur in never contesting stage finishes bought him a lot of valuable friends in the peloton, or maybe it was just his reserved, ‘decent bloke’ persona. Perhaps because, in defeat, he looked all too human and met it with the grace of all defeated champions. But he was as implicated as the rest – he and the Banesto team paid highly for the services of Dr Conconi, the progenitor of the ‘Conconi’ test and the man who was funded by the IOC and the Italian Olympic Committee to discover an EPO test whilst administering EPO to elite cyclists (ah, the soap opera that is cycling, you couldn’t make this stuff up). Coconi also ‘prepared’ Moser for the hour record with (then legal) blood transfusions and trained both Ferrari and Checcini.

 This, then, is a tale of two 32 year olds – one vying to become the first rider ever to win six Tours de France, the other a ten year pro with modest palmares but a reputation as a great team leader – so good, in fact, that Marc Madiot had tried to sign him for his putative Francaise des Jeux team. That project fell through so it was Walter Godefroot‘s Team Telekom that signed Bjarne Riis.

 Anybody who watched that race remembers the stage to Lourdes-Hautacam. The stage when Riis, 8 kms from ths finish, drops to the right hand side of the road and allows himself to drop back through the group of favourites – led by his teammate Ullrich – scrutinising their faces, their gearing, whether they’re on the limit. He’s told them all he’ll win by two minutes at Hautacam and he’s going to prove himself right: “no one was really good” Riis said afterwards “and I felt really strong. I knew I was the best”. When he attacks, he just rides them off his wheel with indecent ease. Like the devil, he tempts his rivals three times and the third time it sticks. He rockets off up the road to a stage win in the Yellow Jersey, the first rider to do so since Fignon in 1989.

In fact Riis had taken advice from his old teammate Fignon who knew what it was like to watch a slender lead evaporate and cost you the Tour. He was complimentary about the Dane’s qualities as a rider “he could do anything: go fast when he had to and go through a gap with perfect timing” but the praise was qualified: “He had a ‘big engine,’ but this has to be made clear: he was a good rider but not capable of winning a Tour de France in normal circumstances.”

He’s never a man you’d think of as a great climber” pondered Sherwen. “Like a man possessed!” thrilled Phil Liggett. Indeed he was – in 2007 he finally admitted that he had used EPO to win the 1996 Tour de France. His name stands in the record books because his admission was outside the time limit for sanctions. At a press conference he said “My jersey is at home in a cardboard box. They are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself.”

But Riis claimed doping was just one part of the puzzle – that weight loss and harder training were equally as important, that the win on Hautacam was as much due to his gearing as anything else. He paid great attention to the kind of details that would later become known as ‘marginal gains’. But ‘Mr 60%’ as he was known for his high haematocrit level (the UCI would impose an arbitrary level of 50% in 1997 in an attempt to curb EPO use) was a cycling pharmacy – not just EPO but Human Growth Hormone (HGH) although he said it left him feeling ‘blocked’, cortisone and Prozac which added an important mental edge – were all key to his preparation and his transformation as a rider from 1993 onwards.

Riis is now a team manger at Team Saxo-Tinkoff.

But this race was already lost in the Alps, on the 6th July. It was raining again, as it had been the day before when Armstrong abandoned. Heulot started the day in Yellow. Leblanc had lost 4 minutes the day before through a series of mechanicals and was out for revenge. Indurain was praying for sun. This stage is one of those mythical Alpine stages that has it all – terrible weather, dramatic crashes, a suffering Yellow Jersey and a grand defaillance.

Col de la Madeleine (km 79: alt. 2,000m, 19km ascent, average 8%)

Laurent Jalabert: “From the start I had heavy legs. Beyond a doubt because of the rain the last few days. On the climb I was going backwards, it was too hard. I tried to stay focused despite the suffering. I told myself if they eased off at the front I could get back. But I was already 5 minutes behind and when you’re not on a good day you don’t get back.”

Stephane Heulot: “Since Besancon I’d had a problem with my right knee and the bad weather made it worse but I tried to hide it. I tried to play a psychological game with myself, told myself it was just cramp, not tendinitis. Because tendinitis in the Tour, that’s the end of it. On the climb I wasn’t too bad but the pain came back on the descent.”

Luc Leblanc: “Some might think it was an error to attack 2 or 3 times in a row at the foot of the Madeleine but I wanted to test my legs in a way my adversaries would notice. It also allowed Telekom to see which of the favourites weren’t too good and to set a tempo to get rid of them. I was also reminded of when Ugrumov attacked at the foot of the Madeleine 2 years ago before finishing in 2nd at Val-Thourons behind Nelson Rodriguez.”

Cornet de Roseland (km 163: alt. 1,968m, 20km ascent, average 6%): Udo Bolts was alone at the head of the race. Virenque accelerated with ex-Festina teammate Leblanc on his wheel. Zulle crashed twice on the descent and Bruyneel once – into a ravine.

Heulot: “I was riding on one leg. It felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife. I couldn’t do it any more but Roger Legeay urged me to keep going. He said “try to get over the top…” The crowds were encouraging me to keep going. They didn’t know what was happening, they thought I’d bonked. It was the first time I’ve ever cried on the bike. I’m not a cry baby. But my nerves cracked. For 3 years I’d dreamed of the Tour and, without accident, I was sure I’d finish in the top 10. Wearing the Maillot Jaune hadn’t disturbed me, I’d slept normally but, for the last 2 days, because of the pain, I’d been really stressed. I stopped. I tore off my dossard. I threw in the sponge on the Cornet de Roseland that I know by heart: other years, when I hadn’t ridden the Tour, I’d gone to see my mate Franck Piccard at Saisies and we’d climbed it every day. And that’s where I abandoned…”

Leblanc: “Virenque doesn’t deserve talking about. He attacked, I went after him. He told me off for not taking a relay, but he had to look at it from my point of view – I was much further back on GC and all I was looking for was a stage win. I didn’t have to ride, that’s logical. I explained that to Richard and he got pretty annoyed. I understood, because this Tour has been more tiring than previous ones, both physically and psychologically.”

Jalabert: “When you see the reaction of the crowds, you know they don’t want you to climb off. So there was no question of abandoning. On the Roseland, I was better.”

Miguel Indurain: “I felt really good and I was planning to attack at the bottom of the climb to Les Arcs.”

Alex Zulle: “When I crashed I didn’t have the time to be afraid because everything happened so quickly. I found myself on Ugrumov’s wheel and he had a gap. I was surprised”.

Johan Bruyneel: “My fall was broken by branches when I crashed into the ravine. I couldn’t climb up myself, sveral people had to make a bridge to help me out. The gods were with me. It was incredible – I only had a few bruises on my body.”

Leblanc: “I didn’t take any risks on the descent because I cared about my health. When Zulle fell the first time, I was really worried for him because he was in the ravine, it was a sheer drop, it was upsetting. I turned to a cameraman to ask him for news. When Zulle crashed a second time I knew why – he’d clipped my back wheel and fallen off.”

Les Arcs (km 199, alt. 1,700m, 14.5km ascent, average 6%): Leblanc attacked 6km from the summit to go after the stage win. Indurain cracked losing 4′ 19”. Evgeny Berzin, the 1994 Giro winner, became the first Russian to wear the Maillot Jaune – though equal on time with World Champion Olano, he had finished ahead of him in the Prologue.

Leblanc: “When I attacked, I thought I’d finish second – Dufaux had a good lead. I told myself: damn, I’ve gone too soon. Second is ok all the same, but the opportunity to win a stage doesn’t present itself every day. I was on the big plateau, contrary to Dufaux. I was going faster than him and when I saw the cars ahead of me I realised that I was getting back to him and I didn’t need to panic. To keep the same speed, I tried to stay focused so I didn’t give in to euphoria and then blow up. I caught Dufaux and attacked immediately, sticking it in the 53×15. I knew then I’d won. I convinced myself that no one behind me was climbing as fast as I was. It was a great feeling, a great moment in my career. I passed from hell to paradise. I want to talk about the stage to Aix-les-Bains where I was unlucky and lost 4 minutes. I take great pride in the fact that I came back at the very highest level after having such bad luck. For me it’s very important to show the crowds, and young people in particular, that in sport as in life you should never give up. When you know you have the talent, when you’ve won big races, you must never give up. I knew I’d come back. And that, I repeat, is my greatest pride.”

Indurain: “I don’t know what happened to me. At 6km from the finish I had a bizarre feeling: my pedal stroke was flat. I took notice of it but because the speed of the group wasn’t that high, I didn’t give it much importance. At 3.5 km from the summit, I was on the wheel of a Telekom rider when I felt I was losing my strength. I fell back to the tail end of the group. Riders were turning round to see where I was and before the group accelerated I knew I was having a bad time. It was difficult to go any faster. By the end I couldn’t even see the road anymore. I don’t know how I crossed the line. I got a 20” penalty because someone passed me a bidon: the rules were applied. Without that bidon, with the fringale, I would have lost a minute.”

Richard Virenque: “I could not believe it. We were all there with Indurain to the fore and then when the others broke he just appeared to cycle on the same piece of road. Truly, it is the most remarkable sight I have seen on the Tour.”

Jalabert: “On the climb of les Arcs I broke down completely. I started 7 minutes down and finished 13 minutes down. I tried not to zigzag. Yes, I really suffered. That night I had no morale. In the Tour it’s the legs that rule the head. I’m not going to cry but it’s true I was on the verge of tears. I don’t know how I got to my hotel room. My muscles were aching, I had diarrhoea, fever and vomiting. I lay down and I didn’t move. The doctor told me I’d probably caught a virus that had been incubating for several days. It maybe explains what happened, but it’s not an excuse.”

Jalabert climbed off 3 days later, 69 kms into the stage from Torino-Gap.

Indurain ‘the Sun King’ had been undone by 14 days of cold and rain – there was snow on the Iseran and stage 9 was shortened to a 46 km romp up Montegenevre and Sestriere (won by Riis) – by age, by an unexpected fringale and by another 32 year old who looked like a rocket propelled Homer Simpson on a bike.

1997 THE NEW MERCKX

Of all the Tours that I’ve followed, this was truly ‘my’ Tour – the first I (knowingly) watched on French soil with all the excitement and hoopla that entails. I studied maps, picked my vantage points with care, rallied the troops (my long suffering parents long inured to my obsession with men in lycra on bikes) and made sure there was water for the dog.

Memory tells me I watched stage after stage from the roadside – in fact, there were only two that passed our neck of the backwoods that year – stage 4 to Puy de Fou, that extraordinary French Medieval theme park/living history where Minali took the sprint win and the following stage between Chantonnay and Le Chatre where I watched a young Frenchman, Cedric Vasseur, escape for 147 km alone into the Yellow Jersey, 27 years after his father Alain had won a stage in the Tour.

Watching Minali win again was a belle souvenir – I’d seen him win the sprint into Portsmouth in 1994 – and I couldn’t resist saying hello to David Duffield who’d become my ‘voice of the Tour’. At that point I still found ‘Duffers’ charming – it wasn’t long before ‘the toilet two step’ and ‘turn mother’s face to the wall’ would have the same effect on me as nails on a blackboard – and stage finishes are always fun for cycling celeb spotting – look, that’s Poulidor in that car! Oh my god, that’s Merckx, isn’t it? Allez Blaireau! (I freely admit I was starstruck).

Vasseur’s exploit lit up the race that year – he held the jersey for 5 stages, all the way into the Pyrenees – his brace defence of the Maillot Jaune was one of the highlights of the race. In the meantime Zabel won 3 stages to get a stranglehold on the Green Jersey for the second year running, Tom Steels was thrown off the race for throwing a bidon at Moncassin, Cipollini declined to finish the race again citing a bad knee and Abdoujaparov failed a test for Clenbuterol and retired from the race and cycling. The sprint field was devastated and the race wasn’t even halfway through.

But this was truly a Tour to be won in the mountains with the Pyrenees and the Alps running into each other with no let up. The French had high hopes for Virenque, riding on the increasingly mighty Festina team. Riis was sure he would defend with ease surrounded by a superstrong Telekom team. And then there was Marco Pantani, returning to full fitness from a horrific crash in which he’d smashed his femur.

But the race would be won in the mountains and against the clock by a young German, one of the last products of the mighty East German machine, Jan Ullrich. He only won 2 stages but he dominated the race, either dropping the pure climbers Virenque and Pantani or controlling them with ease. Riis was furious at the rise of the young German and finally lost it during the Disneyland time trial – in front of a backdrop of Cinderella’s castle, the Dane had a puncture, a wheel change, and then dropped his chain before finally picking up thousands of pounds worth of Pinarello TT bike and hurling it into the verge. It was one of the great bike tosses of the Tour de France but the Tour was a disaster for Riis.

Meanwhile, back in the mountains: Brochard went away on the descent from Val-Louron – on Bastille Day no less! – to take the first of 4 stage wins for the Festina team. And then Ullrich dropped the hammer on the race, recording the highest ever power output on a climb at 6.9 w/kg and that after a 252 km stage that climbed the Portet d’Aspet, the Port, the Port d’Envalira, the Ordino and finished with a 32 km ascent to Andorra/Arcalis. Ullrich took it on from the foot of the climb. Vasseur fought manfully to protect the Yellow Jersey but there was no resisting the young German – hunched low in the saddle, he rocketed up the climb to finish over a minute ahead of the tandem Pantani/Virenque and pull on the Maillot Jaune. “Let me have a minute to breathe and enjoy the moment” said the 23 year old Ullrich after his exploit. “There are still the Alps to climb. But…for the moment I’m happy to be in Yellow. I don’t know the time gap to the others. I’m going to look at all that calmly later.”

2 days later Ullrich took win number 2 during the Saint-Etienne time trial. Virenque managed the best TT result of his career: “I was on a big day, I felt great, I was carried by the crowd. I was sure I’d do a good time on this parcours. When I was overtaken by Ullrich that was a good moment. 3 minutes, sure, that’s a lot. But it meant I didn’t have to take any more risks.” Willy Voet knew why Virenque had been on such a good day – the Festina soigneur had been asked to get his charge the latest wonder dope. Unable to do so, he’d substituted an ampoule of water – ah, the power of the placebo.

The Alps were dominated by a Pantani in full flow, sandwiching the second stage win for Festina. Virenque took the win to Courchevel in a brilliantly orchestrated display by the boys in blue and white. Gerard Enjes reported the stage for l’Equipe:

What exactly did Richard Virenque say to his teammates, Saturday night, at Alpe d’Huez? ‘Listen, lads, tomorrow the Tour is all to play for. We’re going all in. We have nothing to lose’ affirms Laurent Dufaux. ‘Tomorrow we’re going to make the racing hard from the off. We’re going to put Ullrich under pressure the entire day’ adds Bruno Roussel.

‘Second in the Tour, that’s good, but if we want to win we need to hit Ullrich hard from the start’ remembers Pascal Herve.

It doesn’t matter exactly what the words were. Like its speaker, the discourse comes from the heart and soul. And the response of the ‘lads’ is clear: ‘no problem, we’ll do what we can’ says Roussel.

Yesterday morning at breakfast, Richard added the second coat. ‘He told us ‘lads, today is the big stage. There won’t be a moment’s rest. Let’s do it’ remembers Herve.

Because it’s not the stage win he’s talking about – it’s the conquest of the Maillot Jaune. ‘A climber can’t be considered beaten before the Alps’ states Roussel. ‘It’s like Indurain starting a long time trial 4 minutes down on a climber and saying he’s lost the Tour. We have a team that likes to make trouble – we like to upset the applecart.’

The Festina team is up for it from the foot of the very first col. ‘There were attacks from the start’ explains Herve. ‘We hadn’t foreseen attacking from so far out. We’d thought about attacking at the end of the ascent then stringing everyone out on the descent. In the event everything got moved forward.’

It’s an amazing spectacle. Laukka excepted, the entire team moves to the front of the race and quickly reduces the peloton to shreds. The demonstration of force has commenced.

‘At 500 metres from the summit’ continues Herve, ‘Richard asked me to accelerate and attack the descent flat out.’

You know the rest – the enormous work done by the Festinas resulted in a stage win for Virenque. ‘We’ve achieved 99% of our objective, Richard had good reason to believe even if we haven’t totally succeeded,’ estimates Roussel. Herve resumes the story ‘If we’d taken the Yellow Jersey we’d have entered into the annals of the Tour. We’ve only won the stage but we went down fighting.’ Roussel says ‘For us, there only remains tomorrow and then the GC will be settled. If the legs are there we’ll try something to make an impression again.’

It’s not a vain promise from he who affirms ‘if someone asks me why I’m on earth, now, I can reply: to live moments like this. I have a lump in my throat.’”

The commisaires had to shift the time limit back as more than 60 riders were outside the cut off point and the peloton would have been halved at a stroke. Of course, it helped that Virenque had paid Ullrich 100,000 francs for the win. Unfortunately, he didn’t offer Olano and Pantani enough – a paltry 10,000 each – when they collectively had Ullrich on the ropes during a seemingly innocuous stage in the Vosges. Virenque was one of the Tour’s great descenders, fearless to the point of madness, and Ullrich wasn’t. The Tour was on a knife edge – if Olano, Pantani and Virenque worked together the Tour was lost…I remember the debates, the arm waving, the sulks as everything fell apart and Ullrich’s Yellow Jersey was saved.

It just remained for Didier Rous and Neil Stephens to take stages 3 and 4 for Festina – Stephens crossing the line rocking an imaginary baby in homage to his newborn child – and for both Hepner and Voskamp to be disqualified in a bizarre sprint finish when the German appeared to lose his balance and lean into the Dutchman. For the first and only time the demotion of a rider profited another (Traversoni) who didn’t finish in the same time (he won the bunch sprint at 26” from Voskamp and Hepner).

The plaudits for Ullrich were extraordinary – the names ‘Merckx’ and ‘Hinault’ were invoked, both of which saw the young German as a potential multiple winner. It seemed nothing could stop ‘Kaiser Jan’ from becoming the first rider to win 6 Tours…

It turns out I lied about only seeing 2 stages – I was in Paris that year. Next to the crazy Danes who were drinking at 10 am and making toast on a disposable barbecue. My father sitting in his camp chair reading his Maigret, seemingly oblivious to the bedlam and euphoria around him. The dog sneaking under the barriers and cocking his leg on a gendarme to general hilarity. The Festina floats in the caravan. And the race: the speed, noise, colour, the glimpse of those iconic Jerseys and just about blagging my way onto the Champs Elysees itself to catch the tail end of the tour d’honneur.

That Christmas Eve my father died. I haven’t been back to the Champs Elysees since.

1998 THE LAST DOUBLE

So I was driving into the outskirts of Cholet after stage 4 when I saw two riders in the familiar blue and white strip freewheeling towards me. I ditched the car on the hard shoulder and pursued on foot. They rode into the forecourt of a Campanile (I think, might have been a Novotel, one of those budget chain places anyway) so I followed and was met with team buses – not just Festina but the distinctive red of the Saeco team (Mmm, Cipollini spoke a voice in my head), a France 2/3 film crew doing a segment with a team mechanic, bikes and fans everywhere. I hovered near Laurent Brochard’s bike with the Rainbow Stripe handlebar tape and I wanted to touch it, just rest a fingertip on the guidon except in the film in my head I watched it and its fellows topple like dominos, a commotion, an ejection on my ear. Funny but that moment often pops into my mind – what would have happened if the tip of my finger had just….

I got Neil Stephens autograph on a cheque book of all things, stood as close to Cipollini as I dared (and was struck by the girlishness of his waist – riders are really no bigger than jockeys when you see them in the flesh) and watched the crowd surge after Brochard and Virenque as they entered the hotel.

I was hanging around, reluctant to leave, when the rumours started – there was a big problem for the Festina team, Roussel had been arrested…

It was the close cropped peroxide hair that should have given it away. Made my heart lurch when I saw them on the start line, mes gars, the Festina team. Because (whisper it) peroxide was supposed to interfere with the hair testing process. So what were they afraid of?

Rewind to 8th July 1998: Willy Voet, a Belgian soigneur with the Festina team is stopped by customs officials at Neuville-en-Ferrain with a boot load of doping products. He’s placed under arrest in Lille. From then on the Festina Affair developed at speed – it was a race within the race that nobody wanted to watch:

10th July: Judge Patrice Kiel charges Voet with ‘importation of contraband products and traffic in forbidden products.’

11th July: Chris Boardman (GAN) wins the Tour de France prologue in Dublin

14th July: Will Voet’s lawyer, M. Bessis, declares that Voet was acting under orders from the Festina Team management.

15th July: Bruno Roussel, directeur sportif and Dr Ryckaert (ex-PDM), team doctor are arrested in Cholet

16th July: “We’re here to win the Tour” confirms Richard Virenque before the start of the stage in Chateauroux, won by Mario Cipollini (Saeco). “There’s no question of excluding riders who have nothing to be reproached with” adds Jean-Marie Leblanc, the director of the Tour.

17th July: Roussel and Ryckaert are transferred to Lille and charged with illegal important and traffic of banned products.” Bruno Roussel admits that his riders are doping under medical supervision. The Societe du Tour de France excludes the Festina team. Virenque: “The pressure from all sides has forced us to depart. But it’s also the decision of the Societe du Tour de France and we accept this decision. Legally we could continue from the moment that those responsible have admitted it. We are only witnesses. It’s for the Tour de France and the sport of cycling that we are leaving the race. I was one of the favourites for the Tour and I’m asked to leave like this. It’s hard, above all on the day before the chrono when I was feeling so good. I wonder what the Tour will be without us, this Festina teamwhich has brought so much to the race these last few years. But it has become unbearable, for us and our families. I know that we have adversaries on the bike, and I don’t doubt outside that, I’ve discovered as much since the start in Dublin. We’ve been suspended as a symbol that no longer pleases, because it obviously hurts too many people.”

18th July: The Festina team, excluded the day before, arrive at the start line for the time trial. After discussion with Jean-Marie Leblanc near the start line the team leave the race. Virenque is driven away in tears.

21st July: Dr Ryckaert’s lawyer reveals the existence of a slush fund, financed by the riders primes, to buy doping products.

23rd July: The 9 Festina riders – Virenque, Herve, Brochard, Zulle, Dufaux, Moreau, Rous, Meier and Stephens – and 3 members of team management – Michael Gros, Miguel Moreno and Joel Chabiron – are placed under arrest. Brochard, Dufaux, Meier and Zulle admit to doping.

24th July: stage 12 Tarascon – Cap d’Agde is disrupted by a rider’s strike as a result of a France 2 report showing boxes of medical products being removed from the dustbins outside the hotel where the Italian Asics team are staying. The stage starts 2 hours late and is won by Tom Steels. Leblanc pays tribute to the riders: “The riders were hurt this morning, as perhaps we have all been, by the way that the Tour has been transformed for the last 10 days into a news item where we are all talking about interrogations, arrests, confrontations, imprisonment, EPO, masking products…in short, we’re talking far more about doping than the race. The riders feel that its unjust, excessive. They feel it’s a great race, we’ve had great stages in the Pyrenees. They wanted to show their despair at the manner in which you, newspapers, radio, television are presenting the Tour.”

Riders are also unhappy at the lack of communication from the sport’s governing body, the UCI, and the fact that Hein Verbruggen hasn’t spoken to them about their concerns though he has been at the race.

25th July: Jerome Bureau writes in l’Equipe: “No, above all we must not stop the Tour. That would be the worst solution.

We have led the fight against doping for a long time. And not just in cycling. Because we believe that no victory, no outstanding performance, no record is worth a champion putting their life in danger. 18 months ago we started to bring to public attention the ravages of this rottenness called EPO, to try and get rid of the terrible hypocrisy that the sport is mired in.

No, dear riders, you shouldn’t be afraid of the truth about doping. Refuse this crap, that’s your best defence for the future. To close your eyes, that’s a dead end.

Stop the Tour? Why not stop the Olympics? The World Cup? Athletic meetings? And all the rest? We know that doping is a plague that touches all sports including those where one is naturally secretive about nandrolone. But we also know that, as long as we agree to calmly face the problem instead of hiding behind a veil of false dignity, that sport will emerge the stronger for it.

Like you Jean-Marie Leblanc, like the millions of French people who line the route of the Tour, we want nothing more than to consider the ‘convicts of the road’ as admirable champions.”

27th July: Medical products are sized from a lorry used by the Big Mat team. Bruno Roussel is let out of police custody.

5 days after his victory at Plateau de Beille, Marco Pantani pulls on the Yellow Jersey after an extraordinary stage to les Deux-Alpes. Crossing the line, he closes his eyes and raises his arms in a crucifix, Christ crucified. Attacking 5 km from the summit of the Galibier, 48 km from the finish in Deux-Alpes, he crushes the hopes of Jan Ullrich who trails in a miserable 9′ adrift in the pouring rain. The German could only give in to the Italian climber’s utter dominance. Pantani called his victory “the best day of my career” and dedicated his win to Luciano Pezzi who had steered the last Italian winner, Felice Gimondi, to his victory in 1965.

29th July: After the directeur sportif of TVM is interrogated for most of the night, the riders stage a sit down strike after 32 km of the Albertville – Aix-les-Bains stage. The race is in real danger of being stopped for the first time in its history. Representing the riders, Bjarne Riis negotiates a deal with Leblanc – the police will back off and the TVM team will be released from custody. The race continues but only after the riders have taken off their dossards in protest and the stage is annulled. Thre teams – ONCE, Banesto and Riso Scotti – leave the race. That night, the police raid the hotels of ONCE, Francaise des Jeux and Casino. Luc Leblanc abandons the race.

30th July: The last two Spanish teams in the race – Vitalicio and Kelme – abandon. Rodolfo Massi, currently leading the King of the Mountains classification, is arrested – corticoides and other products have been found in his hotel room and those of Marc Madiot and Nicolas Terrados, the ONCE team doctor. Jeroen Blijlevens (TVM) abandons. Newspaper reports suggest that the doping products in Voet’s car were destined for Big Mat, Francaise des Jeux and Casino as well as Festina.

31st July: TVM are not at the start of the stage to Autun. There are now only 96 riders in the race. Massi is transferred to Lille to face further questioning about his involvement in the Festina doping network – his nickname in the peloton, it emerges, is ‘the little chemist.’

2nd August: Tom Steels wins the last stage on the Champs Elysees. Pantani completes the Giro-Tour double with Ullrich 2nd and Bobby Julich of the Cofidis team (who also take the team prize) finishing 3rd. The 85th Tour de France is over.

The Festina Affair would rumble on for several years and the ripples are still being felt in the sport 15 years later. Festina’s trainer, Antoine Vayer, says he laughs when he hears teams talking about their ‘scientific’ approach to the sport, as if he wasn’t using power meters and other ‘modern’ methods with his team. I asked him what he knew about doping on the team – he said when doping was discussed at team meetings he would be told ‘Antoine, there’s the door’.

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