2006 – 2007 The King is Dead – Long Live The Tour!

2006 THE TOUR IN THE MIRE

It started before a pedal was turned in anger and lasted long after the barriers were cleared from the Champs Elysees. The eventual ‘winner’ wasn’t known until September 2007 when Oscar Pereiro was eventually declared the victor of the 2006 race.

The top 5 on GC missed the 2006 TourArmstrong had retired, Basso, Ullrich and Mancebo were excluded because of a breaking doping scandal in Spain that would become known as Operacion Puerto and that rumbles on to this day and Vinokourov, the great hope of Kazakstan would have to withdraw because he didn’t have ebough teammates to make up the minimum team. In all, 13 riders were out of the race. It was the biggest scandal to hit the race before it had actually started bar none. The team bosses met and decided to abide by the Pro Tour code of ethics that states “No team will allow a rider to compete while under investigation in any doping affair.”

Extraordinary to think that there were still those who believed that Armstrong and his team had pedalled clean through this cesspool of doping….which didn’t stop a lot of talk about George Hincapie being a favourite to win the race. But then it was probably the most open Tour of the modern era, moreso after Valverde (stage 3) Julich (stage 7) and Mayo (stage 11) either crashed out or abandoned.

In the end it was another ex-Armstrong teammate that did it and in the most dramatic fashion imaginable – Floyd Landis, who bounced back from a defaillance on stage 16 (when he lost 10 minutes and plummeted to 11th on GC) to unleash one of those epic rides we’d all read about but seldom seen on stage 17 to get within 30” of the race lead. The time trial was a formality and it was Landis that captured the golden fleece from Pereiro and took it to the Champs.

Except that, according to the official race record, he didn’t do any of it even though the evidence of your own eyes said that Landis attacked with 70 kms to ride on a 200.5 km stage and crossed the Aravis, the Colombiere, the cote de Chatillon and then ascended the final climb of the Joux-Plane alone, to finish 5′ 42” ahead of Carlos Sastre in Morzine. It was brilliant, a display of sheer balls that was worthy of the greats – like Coppi in 1952 or Gaul in 1958 or Merckx in 1969. But the official record shows that Sastre won the stage after Landis was excluded from the race for doping.

Landis is now simply excluded from the race – there is no trace of him, his grand exploit no longer exists, as if we’d watched a phantom from another age. Oscar Pereiro Sio ‘the Buffalo’ has his name in the history books as the winner of the race. Pereiro has 1 stage win to his name in 2005, though it wasn’t the stage he deserved to win – that was the etape reine to the Pla d’Adet where he’d hauled George Hincapie through the mountains only to be outsprinted for the victory. Pereiro was the most combative rider that year – he richly deserved the red dossard – and it was his panache that put him in the Yellow Jersey in the 2006 Tour. Getting into an echapee fleuve with, amongst others, fellow baroudeur Jens Voigt (who was the winner that day), Pereiro crossed the finish line with 30 minutes in hand over the peloton. It was a blindingly hot day that took the riders 230 kms from Beziers to Montelimar across a series of cat 4 climbs that sap the energy and end up breaking the legs. A typical transition stage where a breakaway might be expected to be allowed to have their fun but 30 minutes worth? A similar move had gained 35 minutes over the peloton in 2001 but that was on one of those epically rain drenched, frozen stages that traditionally cause mayhem in the race. In 2006 it was as if the peloton had taken a collective siesta.

Jens Voigt had told cyclingnews in 2005 “Of course, it’s great publicity to do long solos, it gives you a lot of sympathy from the public and it great TV time for your sponsor. But an unspectacular victory is better than a spectacular death. So that’s the new strategy: attack later to stand more chance of actually winning.” Seems Voigt forgot to take his own advice.

But another rider – who confirmed his 2005 form in the mountains to take the Polka Dots again – simply has his name crossed through. There’s no reattribution of results. Michael Rasmussen‘s name is struck from the record.

And that’s where it gets messy: some of Landis’ results are also struck out, as are Armstrong’s, with no new winner designated. Yet in 2006 he is simply expunged and the second place rider takes the glory. Pereiro said he felt like the winner, that he deserved to be viewed as the winner, yet he had his own doping issues with 2 positive tests in the race for salbutamol, an asthma medication, for which he was granted a post dated therepeutic use exemption (shades of Armstrong’s 99 corticoid positives). No further action was taken against him – it seems the French anti-doping agency AFLD were satisfied with the paperwork he provided – but it raises questions about how the official record best deals with doping positives and their effect on the results. Is the strike through and the asterisk a more effective statement about the scourge of doping or should the sport simply pretend that Ullrich (implicated in several doping scandals himself) won all those Tours where Armstrong stood on top of the podium?

And must we accept that all those exploits, stretching right back down to the earliest years of the race, were fuelled by something more than willpower and anger and feu dans les jambes? Are there degrees of doping that mean Coppi’s amphetamine fuelled ride is more acceptable than Landis’ testosterone fuelled one? If riders aren’t tested, or use of a product is simply unethical rather than illegal, or it isn’t on the banned list yet are we right to turn a blind eye? The general consensus is that there must be a line – but should it be an historic one or a strike through a rider’s name?

In his book “The Normal and the Pathological” Georges Canguilhem spoke of the ‘physiological bravado’ of athletes who embody the desire for “life to go beyond the codified biological constants” and into unknown territory – just how much suffering can one man take on a bike when weather and terrain and the limits of his endurance are against him? I’m as guilty of romanticising the cruelty of cycling as the next (wo)man but is it the romance of the sport that motivates a Dr Ferrari or the clients he gathers round him? Winged cupid may be painted blind but those involved in the multimillion dollar sport that cycling has become are pure pragmatists.

The record shows that Floyd Landis, the Mennonite with osteonecrosis in his right hip that he described as “bone rubbing on bone, like an arthritis pain”, did not win the Tour in 2006 – only the second Yellow Jersey wearer to be stripped of the title after Garin’s expulsion in 1904 for taking the train. The thread that connects them – and so many others – down the years is the desire to win the Tour de France, whatever it took, whatever the cost.

2007 LONDRES EN FETE

Were you there, that glorious day when the modern, grown up, professional Tour de France hit the heart of the capital? When London’s streets were closed and the barriers went up and, just for a little while, the heart of cycling beat a little louder on English soil?

2007 saw the Tour back in Britain and with the sport enjoying a higher profile than ever before thanks to the Armstrong effect – all those yellow wristbands even though the kids had no idea what they represented – but above all the extraordinary success of Team GB in track cycling and an increasing British presence on the road.

There had been British cycling heroes at the Tour before – Robert Millar, the brilliant Scottish climber who had just missed the podium in 1984 and had snaffled the King of the Mountains jersey with 3 stage wins; Barry Hoban with his 8 stage wins, including back to back victories in the 1969 Tour (unequalled until a certain young Manxman rocketed onto the scene); Tom Simpson the first Briton to lead the Tour and wear its mythic golden fleece in 1962; Chris Boardman whose prologue abilities netted him a handful of them – but all of a sudden it seemed like cycling actually belonged on British roads.

The crowds were immense – Transport for London (who’d been the prime movers behind the bid to bring the race to London) estimated crowds of 3 million for the London prologue and stage through Kent. One of their stated ambitions was to prove that London could bid for and win major sporting events, that it was capable of hosting a world class phenomenon like the Tour. With the Olympics in the capital’s pocket, it was an outstanding opportunity to show what London could do and it didn’t disappoint. I loved the official team presentation in Trafalgar Square, the atmosphere at the prologue, the crowds 4 and 5 deep. And it had changed so much since Brighton – the knowledgeable throngs of spectators were loud and proud with their informed predictions and stopwatches. Sure, there were still throngs of noisy kids with their flags and klaxons but they were embraced rather than tolerated – and some of them were even English. London was en fete, in thrall to men in lycra and enthralled by the greatest free sporting spectacle on earth.

I didn’t go roadside for the stage through Kent to Canterbury. I was too busy sulking and feeling sorry for myself, ruing the day when an internal email had dropped into my inbox advertising a job as project manager for the Tour’s visit to Kent. I had the skills and more importantly the knowledge of the race and the passion for the sport. But I also had a year old baby and a mortgage and it meant a 6 month paycut. I hit delete and tried to convince myself it wouldn’t be that exciting a job anyway. As I watched the cavalcade of the Tour passing through the leafy lanes of rural Kent, the throng at the roadside, the patchwork peloton and imagined myself in the heart of it I knew I hadn’t kidded myself one bit. Time to shrug the shoulders, tant pis. I’ll get my ride in a team car one day.

There was a new TT specialist on the block and he didn’t disappoint. Fabian Cancellara aka ‘Spartacus’ repeated his 2004 prologue victory and held the Maillot Jaune right through to the Alps. He even won stage 3 in the Yellow Jersey. But it was soon on the back of Michael Rasmussen and the race was back in the mire.

Did l’Equipe invoke their now wearily familiar ‘Extraterrestre‘ headline over images of the almost skeletal Rasmussen? He won a stage in the Alps, another in the Pyrenees and took the lumpy mid race time trial, catching Valverde in the process. Not normal. It was the ability to generate such power from such an emaciated frame that had tongues flapping.

Sure enough, Rasmussen was excluded from the race before stage 17. Not for doping. Instead Rasmussen was thrown off the race for a bizarre incident centred on a false declaration of whereabouts.

All riders are required to let testers know where they’ll be will be living, training and competing during each quarter of the year, so that they can be located for testing at any time during that quarter. They must further specify one specific 60-minute time slot where they’ll be available at a specified location for testing. Failure to comply is seen as a missed test. There’s a particularly heart rending story about testers approaching Kevin Van Impe at the crematorium where he was organising the funeral of his baby son.

Rasmussen filed that he was training in Mexico, when in fact he was in Italy – to escape the press, he claimed. Italian commentator Davide Cassani smelled a rat and revealed that he’d seen Rasmussen training in the Dolomites on June 13, 2007. The row intensified and Rabobank were forced to withdraw their rider. Subsequently ‘the Chicken’ admitted he’d been systematically doping throughout his career, specifically by his trainer and team doctor Geert Leinders: “I used [transfusions] for the first time in 2004, and it was done by Dr. Leinders. The courier dropped the blood bag off, he picked it up and took it to my room and infused it.” Rasmussen also alleged that Leinders had stored performance enhancing products such as DynEpo on the Rabobank tour bus and further dropped the team in it when he declared: “[They] knew that I was always having a time before the Tour without any racing so I could prepare myself with EPO and other medicines.”

The Dutchman’s exclusion on a doping technicality reminds me of the strange case of Ludo Dierckxsens. Dierckxsens was a late blossoming rider – he didn’t turn pro until 29, after spending 8 years painting trucks in the DAF factory. It was steady money and he had a family to support but when the opportunity came, he grabbed it with both hands – and DAF offered to keep his job open for 3 years if the cycling didn’t work out. Dierckxsens won a stage in the 1999 Tour and became a popular hero – the public loved his story, the grin plastered on his big bullet head. And then Ludo took a dope test and told the testers he’d used synacthen in the Tour of Germany. It was all above board – he had a prescription – but his Lampre team hadn’t known about it and so he was politely removed from the race. The final irony? The test came up negative.

Vinokourov and Moreni were kicked out for doping and their Astana and Cofidis teams went with them. 27 year old Bradley Wiggins, days away from finishing his 2nd Tour, told the Daily Mail: “Probably five people have tarnished the Tour out of 200 who started in London. It is a minority, but unfortunately they win stages. You can’t blame people for doubting the Tour’s credibility for years ahead. No one’s got any faith now, and the whole thing for me is null and void this year. There have to be life bans for the cheats. The rewards of winning are so high, they are ready to take these risks. I couldn’t care less about the result now. We need to get it done and dusted, then try to start restoring credibility. It’s not the end of the Tour, but they need a re-think about who rides in future. A lot of riders are angry. We’re determined to prove there can be clean winners. The minority who cheat seem to be over 30, coming to the end of their careers. That shows a generation thing.”

Out of the wreckage climbed a skinny 24 year old from Pinto, Madrid, Alberto Contador. El Pistolero may have the single most annoying victory celebration in sport – a fingerbang gesture that was once almost goofily charming and now seems so much teeth aching cheese – but his pure climbing talent and ability against the clock made him a hot young talent to watch. He took the Maillots Jaune et Blanc. Before Levi Leipheimer was struck off, it was the closest podium the Tour had ever seen – 23″ back to Evans, 31″ to Leipheimer.

Could Contador be the saviour the Tour had been looking for? If he was, the Tour wasn’t going to be in a happy place for long.

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2 thoughts on “2006 – 2007 The King is Dead – Long Live The Tour!

  1. Rasmussen did not win the mid-Tour time trial. That went to Vinokourov who would be kicked out a few days later. Rasmussen was about 5th I think, which was still a massive shock. The stage was later awarded to Evans. Minor factual error, but otherwise a great article. Highlights the grey areas regarding doping beautifully

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