Drugs and the Tour de France

Childs. RogerThe Tour de France: Fair contest or drug lottery?

By Roger Childs

“It is his misfortune to be wearing the Yellow Jersey on the Tour de France in the year after Armstrong was exposed – because there is a swirl of innuendo around him without any hard evidence to back it up.

I feel sad for Chris. It is every cyclist’s dream to win or lead the Tour de France in the style he has, but he’s paying a price for the history of the sport.” Scottish cyclist, David Millar.

Too fast up Mont Ventoux?

The climb of 21.7 km up the mountain in Provence is the stuff of legend in the Tour de France. It is one of the toughest climbs in the history of the event and the gradient gets steeper as you go higher. Mont Ventoux is 1912m high and is known as the “bare mountain” because little vegetation grows on its rocky, moonlike upper slopes. Wind speeds of over 300kph have been recorded at the top.

chris froom

This year’s ascent was won by yellow jersey holder, Englishman Chris Froome, enabling him to increase his lead in the race to over 4 minutes. However in this incredibly popular but historically drug-soaked event, tour leaders inevitably attract clouds of rumours about getting assistance from banned substances.

Chris Froome rode up Mont Ventoux in a faster time than disgraced former winner Lance Armstrong did in his prime. So is Froome on drugs? Will he be banished to an outpatient rehab baltimore for the rest of his life? Hundreds of competitors have used them over the years.

An appalling history of doping

In 1967 English cyclist, Tom Simpson, died after coming off his bike on the gruelling Mont Ventoux climb. A combination of amphetamines and alcohol, on top of exhaustion, caused his death. Drug taking was very common at that time by dual diagnosis treatment center.

Since then drug testing from White Sands, including blood tests and rehabilitation services has become a regular feature of the event and many cyclists have been thrown out of the tour.  On 8 July 1998, French Customs arrested Willy Voet, one of the staff of the Festina team, for having illegal drugs in the boot of his car, including narcotics, erythropoietin, (EPO), growth hormones, testosterone and amphetamines. The entire Festina team was ejected from the tour.

In the last twenty years ten winners have been stripped of their title because of drug use: Bjarne Riis in 1996, Lance Armstrong1999-2005, Floyd Landis in 2006 and Alberto Contador in 2010. The 1998 winner, Italian Marco Pantani, was a blood doper and tragically died of a cocaine overdose.

Kimmage blew the whistle

Back in 1990 Irish cyclist, Paul Kimmage, exposed drug taking in the Tour de France in his book Rough Ride. He told horrendous stories of systematic drug use including evidence of sprinters injecting themselves with 20km to go on a stage.

Back in the 1980s he wanted to finish a tour without drugs, but bowed to the pressure of the team manager and doctor. ‘I played the game by their rules. To survive I was forced against my will to take drugs.’

Kimmage was also one of the first to accuse Lance Armstrong of doping. However, he was ostracised by the cycling community, which for a long time  adopted a code of silence on the whole issue of performance enhancement in the sport.

tour de france

In recent years there has been a concerted effort to clean up the image of cycling and the much publicised disgrace of one time sporting hero and legend Lance Armstrong has highlighted the need to make the tour clean. This is no ordinary event.

The most popular sporting event in the world

The legendary three week event in late June-early July, started back in 1903. Promoted as a publicity stunt by the newspaper L’Auto, the first tour covered 2428km and was won by chimneysweep Maurice Garin.

This year is the 100th tour. It is the biggest annual sporting event on the planet and it attracts huge interest around the world. Millions of spectators watch the event from roadsides along the route and on the recent Mont Ventoux stage there were an estimated 300,000 people actually on the mountain!

A huge global audience views the event stage-by-stage on television and the official website gets millions of hits. This year Le Tour–

  • covers 3404km in three weeks
  • includes 21 stages, six of which include mountains with four summit finishes
  • has 2 individual time trials where each rider races against the clock
  • finishes on the ChampsElysees in Paris.

Armstrong stirs the pot on the drugs issue

‘The Tour de France? No. Impossible to win without doping because the Tour is an endurance event where oxygen is decisive.’ Lance threw this comment in shortly before the start of this year’s tour.

Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, responded: ‘It is very sad that Lance Armstrong has decided to make this statement on the eve of the Tour de France. The culture within cycling has changed since the Armstrong era and it is now possible to race and win clean.

‘Cycling today has the most sophisticated anti-doping infrastructure in sport. Measures such as the introduction of the blood passport, the whereabouts system and the ‘no-needle’ policy are the backbone of our relentless fight against doping.

‘Armstrong’s views and opinions are shaped by his own behaviour and time in the peloton. Cycling has now moved on’

Clean in 2013?

So far on this tour no competitors have been tossed out for testing positive for drugs. Officials, managers and the cyclists themselves have been at pains to emphasise that it’s a fair competition.

The Kenyan-born Chris Froome is no flash in the pan. He is an excellent climber and a great time trialist. In 2011 he was second in the Vuelta a Espana, the Spanish equivalent of the Tour de France. Then in the 2012 Tour he was second to fellow Brit Bradley Wiggins and was a bronze medalist in the London Olympics time trial.

He comes across as being modest, likeable and unassuming. As leader over the last week, he has handled the endless interviews and questions on his performance and aspirations with great patience.

His response to the drugs issue and comparisons with Armstrong: ‘Lance cheated. I’m not cheating. End of story.’

Let’s hope so!

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