1999 – 2003 The Asterisk Years (Part One)


It is the summer of 1999 and my American friend and I are by the roadside in a small French town just outside Poitiers. The road leads straight through town and out and whoever rides it fastest will win the last time trial of the 1999 Tour de France. My American friend snoozes in a camping chair. Fans brandish stopwatches as the riders pass and scribble notes in the margins of L’EquipeChildren dart across the road in the brief pause between each blur of moto, rider and team car. The day is warm and still and drowsy, now fragmented by the wave of noise that surges towards us with each new rider, now settling into torpor, stillness, anticipation…

My American friend is here to see the last man out on the road, the man in Yellow, the Survivor. The man who, 11 days ago, crushed the race under his wheel on the climb to Sestrières with the kind of performance L’Equipe would come to call ‘Extraterreste’.  The man who looked death in the face and lived. The man who will win the 1999 Tour de France and every Tour for the next 7 years – until USADA publish their ‘Reasoned Decision’ and he is stripped of all those results – Lance Armstrong.

The helicopter noise turns from bee buzz to angry wasp to full on war zone drone. The roar starts, builds, moves in a raucous wave towards us. My American friend stirs and puts down his book. He leans forward expectantly in his chair. The crowd is yelling full bore, the moto whines into view. I crane my neck to see if he is approaching, this would be giant of the road. And he is there. And gone. And past. Taking the noise and the buzz and the anticipation and the excitement with him. Young lads run to the nearest bar to see him cross the finish line. Families finish their picnics. Children and old ladies are once again free to cross the street. “Wow, he was booking it!” says my American friend.

In 1993, 21 year Lance Armstrong rides his first Tour de France. He will concede over 6 minutes to Miguel Indurain in a 59 km time trial around Lac Madine and afterwards he will tell David Walsh – a man who will describe him as “an ambitious, intelligent, interesting kid” – “If I can get a minute a year, a minute a year isn’t that much. .. When you’re 30 you’re not gonna be 9 minutes faster than you are at 21”

But being 9 minutes faster than he was at 21 is exactly what Armstrong will be, finishing the  57km stage 19 time trial in the 1999 Tour in  1’ 08”, already a stunning 10 minutes faster than his time around Lac Madine. And he will continue to blitz the time trials, continue to ride minutes faster than the 21 year old self that made that prediction.

Standing by the road that day in 1999 did we know we were witnessing the birth of a myth?  The Comeback King. The Man Who Lived.  Nobody wanted to admit that Lance Armstrong might not be Prince Charming. That he might be the ogre in the fairytale not the hero. Not even when L’Equipe exposed his hurriedly backdated TUE despite the fact that, in an interview to that paper, he had denied having any TUEs in his medical book. Not one. Not even for EPO. Even though he was a cancer survivor and might legitimately have claimed its’ therapeutic use.

The TUE didn’t make sense but then it wasn’t anything the UCI under Hein Verbruggen were strangers to. It is 1997 – the year that Tyler Hamilton says he started doping – and Laurent Brochard has just burst out of the peloton in San Sebastian like a mad dog chasing a train and lifted his arms in the eternal V of victory to claim the World Championship jersey for France. Hein Verbruggen will announce ‘if a doctor wants to cheat, he can do so before or after the race’. To hell with the UCI rule 43 that stated  a post dated TUE cannot be accepted.  And to hell with it again in 1999. Today UCI rule 46.6 allows for a back dated TUE for ‘emergency treatment’ or ‘exceptional circumstances’. The current UCI leadership are covering their backs.

But Verbruggen, some feel, has always placed himself above the law – he will corner Bruno Roussel in a hotel corridor in 1993 and remind him “Si vous ne faites pas le nécessaire, je peux vous faire un coureur positif… Words that Willy Voet will confirm. Words that resonate when, in 2011, Tyler Hamilton tells us that ‘Lance’s people and the people from the other side, the governing body of the sport [the UCI], figured out a way to make it go away.” If you have the power to make a rider positive then do you also have the power to make a positive disappear? Especially if that rider decides to ‘fais le nécessaire’ by making two large donations to the UCI?

It is summer 1999. Sestrières has been an extraordinary display of power, on the limit of what you could accept as possible even when you later hear the tales of sniggering in the press room. Even when L’Equipeuse their code words for doping to report it, just as Hamilton and Armstrong are using their own secret code for Edgar Allen POE. Secret boys clubs both in their own ways enforcing the Omerta.

But it is on this particular blazing summer afternoon in July, after you’ve watched the inevitable result in the local bar, after your American friend has got drunk on beers and pastis and wine bought for ‘notre copain Americaine’, after he has been practically carried shoulder high into the streets on a wave of bonhomie and alcohol, that you realise you know, and will always know, that those extra 10 minutes didn’t come from cadence, or training harder, or better nutrition, or weight loss or cancer, they came from a syringe or an eye dropper or a patch. They came from the desire to do whatever it took to win, enabled by a governing body that desperately needed a ‘Tour of Hope’ after the debacle of 1998 and the fallout of the Festina affair. They came from the complicity of journalists content to publish the feelgood story and never look too long or too hard at the facts behind the myth.

They came from the recognition that ‘you’re never gonna be 9 minutes faster than you are at 21’ on paniagua.

When did you know Lance Armstrong was doping? Was it the guided missile attack to Sestriere? Or the infamous ‘Look’ (2001)? The duel with Pantani on the Bald Mountain (2000)? Or the adrenaline fuelled charge after the musette mishap (2003)? Maybe the sprint win at Grand-Bornand (2004)? Or was it the day that Lance Armstrong forced Christophe Bassons – ‘M. Propre‘ – to abandon the race at St. Flour?

Bassons had been making enemies for a year as a result of his M. Propre column in le Parisien-Aujourd’hui. He was persona non grata in the peloton as the result of his outspokenness and his refusal to bourrer le canon (use EPO – a fact confirmed by his Festina teammates Meier and Moreau).”Doping hasn’t been eradicated, it’s still here at the Tour, even though things have improved certain riders are still backsliding…this is what I say to those who question me. Journalists come and see me because I’m the only one who speaks out about the problem. If others had chosen to do so, they’d seek me out less often, we could have achieved more for ourselves and for all the young riders entering the sport.”

Bassons claimed that there had been talk of a rider protest after the Sestriere stage – the one where the journalists laughed out loud in the press room at the preposterousness of Armstrong’s attack – against continued doping in the peloton but the tide had already turned. As far as Jean-Marie Leblanc was concerned, the Tour was ‘clean’ and Bassons was just a trouble making self publicist.

And what did Armstrong do at this pivotal moment? When more voices could have spoken out he enforced the omerta. When he could have stood shoulder to shoulder with Bassons for a clean sport he told him to get off the race. As French sports minister Marie-George Buffet remarked: “What a strange role reversal. Rather than fighting against doping, they’re fighting its opponent.” Instead of speaking out, Armstrong turned the screw, telling France 2/3 “His accusations aren’t good for cycling, for his team, for me, for anybody. If he thinks cycling works like that, he’s wrong and he would be better off going home.”

Armstrong knew exactly how the sport worked. He was already working it. His US Postal team would elevate doping to levels that PDM and Telekom and Festina could only dream of, aided and abetted by a UCI that saw a dream opportunity to force open the door of the lucrative American market for good and a media that parachuted in news, not sports, journalists to cover the Americans feats. And this was, after all, the ‘Tour of Hope’ – what better poster boy than the rider who came back from the dead “the greatest comeback in the history of sport!” as team manager Mark Gorski was so quick to sell it.

But there were some voices that didn’t wholeheartedly join the chorus of approval the Philippe Bouvet, writing in l’Equipe on 25 July, 1999, stated “It wasn’t an easy race to read because of the manifest superiority of Lance Armstrong. It was absolutely inevitable that we would ask questions because it’s impossible to simply forget overnight the paths into which cycling has strayed these last years.

Cycling may have changed its look but posing the questions doesn’t mean we know the response. And if we ask those questions, Lance Armstrong has a duty to speak out about the cheats of yesterday who carry a heavy responsibility for their sport. A duty to the heritage left by Bjarne Riis, for example, whose 1996 victory symbolises those years, to Marco Pantani also, caught out in the last Giro and more unforgiveable that he is anchored in these terrible habits when the survival of the sport depends on him.

Although the shadow of doubt that hangs over the Yellow Jersey is perhaps unfair, any restriction in respect to Lance Armstrong runs the risk of compunding a grave error.”

As for the whistleblowers – well, the sport has never been keen on them. Bassons is now a professor in the French Ministry for Sport. He continues to fight against doping with humour and good grace and the courage he showed in speaking out as M. Propre if anyone has the right to say “I told you so” it is the quiet Frenchman. He believes that a cultural and educational change in the sport is as important as the scientific and legislative fight against doping. I’ve shaken him by the hand and said ‘merci‘ – I wanted to thank him for opening my eyes once and for all that summer morning in St Flour.


I saw a lot of Davis Millar in Yellow in the 2000 Tour de France because the first 7 stages were in and around my little neck of the backwoods and have car, dog, maps, camping chairs, picnic and l’Equipe will travel to see live cycling. Millar won the slightly too long to be a prologue opening time trial at Futuroscope – a splendidly demented jumble of glass and modernism on the scrublands outside Poitiers – then kept it after a bunch sprint won by Tom Steels on the brilliantly named Avenue Ougadougou in Loudun (did you know: Loudun and Burkina Fasso are twinned towns?). It was a long hot day and I fed the dog on Cochonou sausages.

Then we were off to the roadside between Loudun and Nantes (another stage win for Steels) and Nantes for the contre le montre par equipes (an exercise I hate but which is splendid to watch with your start list and stopwatch). ONCE emerged triumphant ahead of US Postal and Telekom.

Jalabert – who had reinvented himself as a Grand Tour contender since that horrible crash in Armentieres and had dominated the 1995 Vuelta winning all 3 Jerseys in one of those miracle seasons riders sometimes have – took the Maillot Jaune and then promptly lost it again when he was attacked whilst taking a euphemistic ‘natural break’. Jacky Durand, the great baroudeur, claimed he had no idea the Yellow Jersey was taking a piss – it was all a coincidence that he attacked just at that moment…Jalabert was furious, and the French press dubbed it ‘the Affair of the Piss Pot’. Massimiliano Elli, a 36 year odl Italian domestique profited from the attack and pulled on the Jersey: ”Somebody went off on the left while Jalabert was stopped on the right,” he said. ”Like a lot of others, I joined the attack but I didn’t start it.”

Don’t attack the Yellow Jersey when he’s taking a pee” is one of the great mythical unwritten rules of cycling, along with others like “Don’t profit from the misfortune of others” – a rule Armstrong flagrantly ignored when he demanded his US Postal team drive away after the Chute de Gois in 1999 which destroyed the GC hopes of Alex Zulle among others. An aside on Zulle: did you know he made jewellery and that riders in the peloton could often be spotted sporting his distinctive triangular earrings? Well, now you do.

Erik Dekker earned the nickname ‘Triple Dekker’ when he took 3 stages with great panache:

  1. Stage 8: Limoges – Villeneuve-sur-Lot (203.5 km) Dekker attacked from the start of the stage – that’s right, from km 0, as soon as the flag was dropped. 17 riders went with him and the steam went out of it after 22 kms. Undeterred, Dekker took off again a few kilometres later with 18 other riders. This time it stuck and Dekker stayed with his breakaway companions until 30kms from the finish when he struck out alone and finished more than a minute ahead of his rivals.

  2. Stage 11: Bagneres-de-Bigorre – Revel (218.5 km): Dekker attacks after 15 kms on the cote de Mauvezin. Only Santiago Botero could go with him and with 90 kms to ride have a time gap of 14′ 30”. After 204 kms together, Dekker had no problem in outsprinting the King of the Mountains for win number 2.

  3. Stage 17: Evian – Lausanne (155 km): on a comparative tiddler of a stage Dekker popped off the front of the peloton on the descent into Lausanne and sped away with 3 kms to go. Mario Aerts went with him but it was Dekker that resisted the surging sprinters and took win number 3.

Javier Otxoa won a rain drenched stage to Lourdes-Hautacam defying a jet propelled chase from Armstrong that was every bit as preposterous a performance as his ride to Sestriere the year before. Otxoa was one of the young Spanish climbers that made the Kelme team so exciting – riders like Sevilla, Cabello, Heras and Escartin would light up any race when the road went upwards, at least until Jesus Manzano blew the whistle on their team wide doping programme in 2004. Oxtoa’s story is a classic of tragedy and renewal: a year later he was out training with his twin brother Ricardo when they were hit by a car. Ricardo was killed outright, Javier lay in a coma for 9 weeks with serious head and chest injuries and a fractured tibia and fibula. His body shrank to 49 kilos and his parents were advised to switch off his life support. They refused and Javier survived, wheelchair bound and unable to speak properly. Kelme kept his contract open – there was a year left to run – but the next time Javier Oxtoa would compete as a cyslist would be as a Paralympian. His DS Vincente Belda said it was a miracle he was back on the bike at all. On November 10th, 2002, Oxtoa was present at the Criterium Internacional de Ciclismo Comunidad Valenciana. He rode one circuit alone, another accompanied by a peloton including Abraham Olano in his last race. “Wearing a rider’s jersey again made me very happy. Like a dream that came true. It all was such a nice thing to me, including the presence of so many people who cheered and supported me”. Javier Oxtoa had won his most important race.

Remember Honore Barthelemy, the Frenchman who lost an eye in the 1920 Tour de France? Marcel Wust, the German sprinter, who had made a career of winning stages in the Vuelta (12 of them) and had picked up a stage win at the Giro and one in the 2000 Tour on stage 5 to Vitre had a terrible crash at a post Tour criterium, falling into a metal barrier. He didn’t lose the eye but the loss of vision ended his career: “I need to see the riders in the sprint who will try to pass me on the right side,” joked the German. Like Oxtoa with Kelme, he had the full support of his Festina team and was found a job in team management.

Richard Virenque won the King of the Mountains again, just as he’d done in 1999. That’s right, Virenque rode the 1999 Tour de France. He wouldn’t be sanctioned for his involvement in the Festina Affair until the end of 2000 when he received a 9 month suspension (later reduced on appeal to 6 months) and a derisory fine. He also took a downhill stage finish at Morzine where his superb skills coupled with Heras’ crash on one of the final corners of the parcoursled to a rekindling of Virenquemania. I remember Veloclub spending its entire edition that evening in thrall to the scenes outside the Polti team hotel – the memory reminds me of the tale of the scenes outside Bartali’s hotel in Aix-les-Bains in 1938, the General shouting “don’t touch him – he’s a God”. Virenque is still hugely popular in his homeland – he recently won the French version of “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here…” but his particular brand of arrogance never played well outside France.

It was the last time the Tour would see Roberto Heras perform at the highest level – after attacking and dropping Armstrong like a bad smell on the Joux-Plane (Armstrong was said to have experienced a fringale) the Spaniard was snapped up by the US Postal team and spent the rest of his Tour de France career as a domestique in the Armstrong mountain train. Another reason to dislike the Boss (Armstrong) and the Hog (Bruyneel), robbing the race of a potentially great climber and all the panache he might have brought to the mountains.

To quote Racine: “I embrace my rival, but only to strangle him.”


An EPO test had been validated by WADA and used at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The same year, the Tour authorised riders’ samples to be frozen for future retesting. It seemed like the net was finally closing – or that the UCI had woken up to the fact that they had to be seen to be doing something. Armstrong was still courting suspicion and controversy following a borderline test for corticosteroids in 1999 (the UCI admitted this year that in fact 4 samples showed traces of the banned substance). 3 riders had been prevented from starting the 2000 Tour after failing the mandatory health check and recording a haematocrit level above 50% (the level was set in 1998 – a panel from the Australian Institute of Sport including Michael Ashenden argued the level was too low and would encourage false positives, Raymond Poulidor that it was too high and should have been set at 45%).

The Amaury Sports Organisation, who owned the Tour and l’Equipe amongst others, had to be seen to act to protect the integrity of the race. On 5 April 2000, they announced a raft of 10 measures:

  1. THE ETHICAL CODE: affirming the sporting spirit of the race, the values of competition and the obligation to be transparent and the principles of the fight against doping.

  2. THE COMMITMENT OF EACH TEAM: The Directeur Sportif and the doctor of each team will undertake in writing to respect the ethical code and the rules of the Tour; not to administer or prescribe any restricted substance without first informing the medical experts of the UCI

  3. THE SUPPORT OF THE RIDERS: each rider will bear witness that he recognises and understands the ethical code and the rules of the Tour; commit to respecting the principles and methods

  4. THE MEDICAL DELEGATION OF THE TOUR: 2 or 3 medical experts from the UCI, at the behest of the Societe du Tour de France, are tasked with putting into place anti doping measures at the Tour; they will act as representatives of the teams to put in place a preliminary agreement in the case of a medical prescription for restricted substances; they will be constantly on call throughout the Tour

  5. PRELIMINARY EXAMINATION: in the context of the third phase of the longitudinal control, in the days preceding the depart in Dunkirk, each rider will submit to a control of biological blood parameters by the medical delegation from the UCI. This control will determine whether they are fit ti start the race.

  6. DAILY CONTROLS: 10 riders will be controlled daily, including the winner of the stage and the first three on GC. Tests will be undertaken on the basis of up to date, validated tests, particularly the EPO urine test. Unannounced blood tests will continue to take place.

  7. PUTTING IT INTO ACTION: The Societe du Tour de France will put in place – and will underwrite – a logistical organisation that allows the medical delegation of the race to carry out daily testing, transmission of samples to testing laboratories and the swift release of results.

  8. RESEARCH PARTNERS: Under the authority of Professor Roland Jouvent, we will put in place a programme of medical research on the effects of doping and the psychopathology of sport at the elite level.

  9. TRAINING SESSION: this will be organised on the day before the start of the race and will be led by a biologist, a sports doctor and the race organisers and will ensure that riders are informed about all aspects of doping – banned substances, real and rumoured risks, alternatives to doping, the exemplary nature of athletes and the responsibilities of the rider to his sport.

  10. A PREVENTION CAMPAIGN: In the framework of a partnership with the Federation Francaise de Cyclisme and training centres cofinanced by the Societe du Tour de France we will undertake a preventative campaign with young riders as a priority, but also addressing the public at large through the intermediary of a televised publicity campaign on French network television.

    All solid, sensible proposals – though the thought of Armstrong and his US Postal team attending a training session on the real and rumoured risks of doping now seems purely, deliciously farcical. The fact that the biggest doping scam in the history of the sport would continue to play out for another 12 years is testament to the fact that the commitment to make money off the sport through the promotion and pimping of its first global superstar was far greater than the commitment to the fight against doping.

    2001 was also the year of ‘The Look’ (pardon me for yawning) – Armstrong played doggo all day on the 209 km stage to Alpe d’Huez then, at the foot of the mythic climb, turned and gave his rival Ullrich (whose Telekom team had been bluffed into controlling the peloton all day) a long, hard stare (ho hum). It was such an overwhelmingly arrogant gesture that parts of the crowd started to boo him – well, the French have always preferred their ‘Eternal Seconds’.

    The real highlight of the Tour for me – and the entire French nation (remember I was living there at the time and getting my Tour fix direct from the source or France 2/3 coverage) – was Laurent Jalabert’s stage win at Colmar on the 14th July, Bastille Day, 6 years to the day after his famous victory at Mende. My neighbour Pierrette came running up the lane to the house, clanging her cowbell, resplendent in Yellow – she wore yellow every day of every Tour, a habit she’d first adopted in childhood. We embraced delightedly, overjoyed that Jaja had done the nation proud. He took the Polka Dot Jersey of best climber in the 2001 Tour – extraordinarily enough, for a rider with 135 career victories to his name, it was the first time he’d stood on the podium in Paris.


Laurent Jalabert – Jaja to an adoring French public – announced his retirement on the 18th July after the stage to La Mongie. From then on, the race became his farewell to the public, with riders vying to get in a breakaway with him whilst the roadsides broke out in a rash of Polka Dots as if France had collectively come down with the measles.

In 3 consecutive days, the Frenchman rode 429 kms at the head of the race, snaffled the Polka Dot Jersey and the Prix de la Combativite for the second year in a row and conquered the hearts of an adoring public. I remember him on one solo raid, resplendent in red and white, his ear piece ripped out and dangling on his jersey, Riis grinning at him from the team car alongside. Here was a man totally at ease with himself, his career and everything he had achieved in his 14 years as a professional cyclist. To watch Jalabert in the 2002 Tour de France was to remember all the reasons why you fell in love with the beautiful sport in the first place.

It was an extraordinary transformation for the 34 year old – from pure sprinter via the horrific smash in Armentieres to twice winner of the Green Jersey to GC contender to King of the Mountains. Along the way he won Milan – San-Remo, Fleche-Wallonne (twice), Paris-Nice (three times), Criterium International, Tour of Catalunya, Vuelta a Espana, Midi-Libre, Tour of Romandie, Tour of the Basque Country, San Sebastian Classic (twice) and was World Champion against the clock.

He told the press conference at his retirement “It’s the story of a young kid who rode bikes with his friends and it became a passion and he dreamed of becoming a professional rider and riding in the Tour de France. My dream came true and now 14 years have gone and my record of victories is a fine one and I have met fantastic people in cycling’s big family. I’m not depressed, it’s a page I’m turning. I’m very excited about starting a new life”.

Jalabert rode his final Tour with the number 51 on his back. Four Tour afficionados, it’s the most legendary dossard in the race:

It’s the dossard Merckx wore when he won his first Tour de France, taking every classification possible.

It’s the dossard Ocana wore in 1973 when the heavens smiled and he finally won his Tour.

It’s the dossard that Thevenet had pinned to his Peugeot jersey when he beat Eddy Merckx to win his first Tour de France.

It’s the dossard Hinault was handed when he entered his first Tour in 1978. He won it in the French National Champion’s Jersey wearing the number 51 on his back.

The 51 hasn’t always worked its magic – Roche beat Delgado in 1987, Gianni Bugno was beaten by Miguel Indurain in 1991. But it’s worked elsewhere – Cancellara wore it when he won Paris-Roubaix in 2010.

In 2012 it was worn by a young Italian Vincenzo Nibali. He finished 3rd.


In my pile of cycling books and programmes and old newspapers, I have a copy of l’Equipe dated samedi 5 juillet with the headline ‘Cents Ans, C’est Geant’. It is printed on yellow paper and bears a photo on its cover of the first winner, Maurice Garin and the reigning champion, Lance Armstrong.

For the first time since 1963, the race started and finished in Paris – just as it had done that early morning outside the Reveil Matin in 1903.

The initials HD (for Henri Desgrange) appeared in their unique orthography on the Yellow Jersey for the first time since the multiplication of sponsors forced them off in 1984.

The 6 original villes etapes – Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and Paris – were visited by the parcours, though in 20 stages and 3427.5 kms as opposed to the 2428 kms covered in 6 stages by the first Tour de France.

A special Centenary classement to honour the winners in the 6 original ville etapes: the 6 stage winners were Alessandro Petacchi (Lyon), Jakob Piil (Marseille), Carlos Sastre (Toulouse), Servais Knaven (Bordeaux), David Millar (Nantes), Jean Patrick Nazon (Paris). Accumulated placings gave Stuart O’Grady the Centenary prize.

There were 10 new vehicles in the Caravan, each one representing a 10 year period and tracing the history of the Grande Boucle.

The race passed through the French Basque region on its way to Bayonne and the Tour was forced to reach an accord with the Basque separatist group Batasuna who were recognised in France but not by the Spanish Government. All race signs and commentary were to be in both French and Basque. The Spanish Government accused the race of a “failure of civic courage”. Leblanc hit back: “It’s clear that the Tour has no sympathy for a terrorist organisation. We act in good faith and we’ve given out agreement to measures that were already put in place in 1996 when the race finished at Hendaye. We don’t want the Spanish to think that we’ve given a concession to a criminal organisation.”

The race started with a prologue round the centre of Paris between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire. The first man off the start ramp? Hermann Meier, the double Olympic skiing champion. He’d asked to be able to ride the prologue in 2002 but had been refused. This time he was allowed to ride with a following car complete with a plaque bearing his name.

Sammy Dumoulin took the rider’s oath at the start of stage 1 in Montgeron, although Vladimir Karpets was actually a month younger. He succeeded Laurent Lefevre (1999), Florent Brard (2000), Sylvain Chavanel (2001) and Jerome Pineau (2002) in reading out the oath of loyalty: “Speaking on behalf of all my colleagues as the Tour’s youngest rider, I undertake to respect sportsmanship and the ethic of the great competition we are going to take part in and to display loyalty in all circumstances. We ask spectators, media representatives, organisers and sponsors to trust us.” Dumoulin was a last minute replacement in the race for Eddy Seigneur.

There were two notable absentees: Mario Cipollini’s Domina Vacanze team weren’t selected for the race (despite the fact that the Lion King was the reigning World Champion) so he was sunning himself in Egypt instead. The fragile talent that was one of the greatest climbers the race had ever seen, Marco Pantani, was also sitting out the Centenary Tour – he had just left the Parco dei Tigli clinic in Padua where he’d been undergoing treatment for depression. His team had also not been selected for the race and there was some speculation that he might join the new Bianchi team alongside Ullrich. The deal never materialised and Pantani would never return to the Tour. In February 2004 he was found dead in a hotel room in Rimini. Another angel of the mountains brought low by doping and depression – his death is one of the great tragedies in the sport.

Laurent Jalabert was already carving out a post Tour career as an analyst and commentator, and he wrote about the life of a Tour rider for the special Centenary l’Equipe:

When you’re a rider, the start of the Tour is a deliverance. Beforehand it’s too tiring. We shuttle around…a medical visit, a press conference, a team presentation…and between all that we have to find the time to get a massage, rest, stay focused on the race. So we can’t wait for the prologue. Though for the crowd it’s basically a spectacle, for the riders its the start. Finally. It’s a very long day for an effort of 7 or 8 minutes. First, you need to recon the course. A prologue can be won or lost on the way you negotiate a bend. You need to pick your line. The roads here are very wide but you need to know where to pass, where the manhole covers are because you can slide on them if it rains. There are all kinds of little details to master. Me, I imitate skiers. In the morning I go and do my recon and in the afternoon I go over the course again in my head, eyes closed, lying on my bed. If the distance is short it’s easy to remember. I go over the points of reference. I tell myself “There, at that sign, I brake; there, I need to change gears, there, change again”. I do the same even on a course like today which is completely flat and not very technical.

Then we arrive at the start and see what happens. I preferred riding prologues in the years when I was a ‘modest’ rider. You’re among the early starters, it’s over and done with. Being among the late starters you wait a long time, you finish late, you only get a short massage or none at all because the next day the race will continue.

At heart a rider likes to ride and sleep. And above all no walking. The blood doesn’t circulate properly, your legs quickly get heavy. It gets on your nerves, puts you in a bad mood. Newcomers to the Tour need to pay attention to that. At the start of this enormous test, you want to see what’s going on around you, at your hotel, chatting to the mechanics, you don’t feel tired. In the Tour, everything counts. Half an hours extra sleep a day, that takes on huge significance after three weeks. At heart, the Tour means living like a monk. If you’re not on the bike, you ought to be in bed. To live to the full this intense ordeal.”

The stage was set for what would be the closest run of Armstrong’s 7 ‘victories’. The Bianchi jersey suited Ullrich – he came to the race looking bronzed and relaxed and he made a real fight of it, trouncing Armstrong in the first long time trial and fighting tooth and nail through the mountains. But it was the American’s superior preparation (and yes I do mean it in that sense – in the battle of the doping doctors, Ferrari always came out on top) that prevailed, though the race was still finely balanced coming down to the final time trial.

Ullrich needed to make up just over a minute on Armstrong on the 49 kms between the lovely little seaside town of Pornic and Nantes, the capital city of the Pays de la Loire region and one of the original six villes etapes from 1903. I remember driving up to the course through torrential rain, the sky leaden. We stopped for a roadside pee and me and my mum got back into the car drenched to the skin after being outside the hermetically sealed, toasty interior of the trusty old citoen for all of 45 seconds. It was a beautiful day in the pays de la Loire – ha bloody ha. I muscled the car into an available slot on the verge and we made our sodden way to the roadside. The gloom was intense – it was like being under the shadow in Lord of the Rings. My long suffering soon to be husband smiled glumly. My precious copy of l’Equipe was a sodden, useless rag within seconds. We improvised a coat for the dog from a plastic bag. Despite our best intentions he spent the next few hours looking alternately pathetic and baleful.

And then the riders arrive and we forget the rain, the discomfort, the way the clothes are sticking to our skin as if we stepped into a power shower fully clad. You never get a buzz like seeing the Tour come to town – the diffused glare of the motards headlights, the expectant roar of the crowd. But I’ve never been on a roadside with such a sense of expectation, where what might happen mattered quite as much as during that time trial. David Millar powered through, clearly on an exceptional ride even in those conditions. But it was the ‘match’ we were waiting for – the straight fight between Armstrong and Ullrich – a duel to be played out in properly apocalyptic conditions, on slick roads, through roaring crowds.

I remember the way Ullrich’s Bianchi jersey glowed in the murk, the way every muscle was tensed and straining with the effort. Was he making time on Armstrong? About a minute later we had our answer. A great roar went up on the road ahead – half excited, half shocked – I ran to the nearest group of men (always men) clustered round a radio. What happened? Chute! A crash – Ullrich, it’s Ullrich, Ullrich has crashed!

I didn’t wait to see the last rider on the road. I turned my back on him. 5 years after I’d sat with my American friend in a little town sweltering under the canicule I had no desire to see the Yellow Jersey. I denied my mum the opportunity to yell ‘dopeur’ one last time. We moved back to England the following year and our roadside adventures at the Tour de France were over.


2 thoughts on “1999 – 2003 The Asterisk Years (Part One)

  1. Thank you for one of the most wonderfully written fans eye view of any sport that I’ve had the pleasure to read.
    Spent the last two days absorbed in this.
    Once again thank you.

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