Authors: Jeremy Whittle
About the Book
For Jeremy Whittle, there isn’t much in life as spectacular as the Tour de France: sweat-streaked, taut and burnished athletes toiling across vast and ancient European landscapes, hundreds of thousands of fans lining the route. The twisting Mediterranean roads, the jerseys, the peloton in full flight – these have become as familiar to him as the lines around his eyes. And then there are the riders: men of almost superhuman capabilities, men who have become his friends, men whose stories he has written day in day out for the past decade. But even the biggest fan can one day wake up to find that he has lost his faith.
We all want to believe in our heroes. That’s why Jeremy got into cycling. But what happens when you can’t? When you’ve seen too many positive dope tests, when you’ve been lied to too many times, when your sport is destroying itself from within?
is the story of Jeremy Whittle’s journey from unquestioning fan to Tour de France insider and confirmed sceptic. It’s about broken friendships and a sport divided; about having to choose sides in the war against doping; about how galloping greed and corporate opportunism have led the Tour de France to the brink of destruction. Part personal memoir, part devastating exposé of a sport torn apart by drugs and scandal,
is a love letter to one man’s past, and a warning to cycling’s future.
About the Author
Jeremy Whittle is a former founding editor of
magazine and has written about cycling for
International Herald Tribune
. He has appeared on BBC, NPR and CNN and is the author of
was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2008.
Also by Jeremy Whittle
For D and E
THE TRIAL OF MILLAR AND GAUMONT
On 6 November, 4, British cyclist David Millar went on trial in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre for doping offences
Initially, Millar faced a heavy fine and the remote possibility of imprisonment. Not for the first time, Millar, who had already confessed to doping, was contrite and plain-speaking. The prosecution was sympathetic and dropped a demand for a custodial sentence
Across the room, his estranged former Cofidis teammate, Philippe Gaumont, also facing charges, looked on. Gaumont, once an elite athlete, now ran a bar in Amiens and smoked heavily
In January 2004, after he had first been interviewed by the French investigating judge, Richard Pallain, Gaumont returned home to his wife and two children. The Frenchman knew that what he had told Judge Pallain about rampant doping practices within cycling had made him unemployable. He had broken the
the law of silence over doping that reigned within the sport. He was finished, cast out, his career as a cyclist over
All day, as his arrest and its repercussions gathered pace, Gaumont’s face had featured in TV news bulletins across France
As he closed the front door behind him, exhausted by his ordeal, his five-year-old son ran excitedly into the hallway
I saw you on telly, Daddy!’ he said. ‘Did you win again? Can I see your medal?
In the cupboard under the stairs in my house, I have a shelf crammed with frayed old maps. Most of them are of Europe, although there are some of the Lake District, the Brecon Beacons, the north Cornish coast and the South Downs.
One of them is a tattered French map, Michelin 245 (Provence-Côte d’Azur). It is torn from being stuffed hurriedly into the glovebox of hire cars, or into the back pocket of a sweat-soaked cycling jersey. It has been wrinkled by summer storms on hot evenings, frayed and ripped by the Mistral wind sweeping across the hills of the Vaucluse and stained by coffee spilt at unsteady pavement tables.
The many roads, criss-crossing vineyards and olive groves, tracing mountain passes and high gorges, are marked in red, yellow and white. They have become as familiar to me as the lines around my eyes. My Michelin 245 is now so well worn that it is falling apart, but it has particular sentimental value. This is not just because favourite routes, driven and ridden but now known by heart, are picked out in highlighter pen, but also because in the bottom corner, written in a precise and delicate hand, are directions to a discreet address in the smarter suburbs of Nice.
For a foreigner, with – certainly, back then – little grasp of the culture of his adopted home, Lance Armstrong’s spelling of French names was precise:
Take the Grand Corniche, after 600m there is a road called Boulevard des Deux Corniches also there is a sign for a
called Institut de Blanche de Castille, then go to Ave Dillies.
Armstrong scribbled his address on my map in March 1999, three months before he won his first Tour de France. We were about to make a short film together to promote the Lance Armstrong cancer foundation, and the second issue of
magazine. He wrote the note as he sat in a hotel lobby in Sisteron, describing the renovations to his new home while cursing standards of French workmanship. We planned to film a couple of days later at his villa, perched on a wooded hillside overlooking Nice’s jumble of red roofs. The house had spectacular views over the Côte d’Azur. In the distance, beyond the promenade des Anglais, planes took off from Nice’s international airport, spinning out across the Mediterranean before they turned north towards the Alps. From the terrace, there were panoramic views towards a chain of morning-blue mountains rising up from the coastline.
After six years’ collaboration on magazine stories, newspaper articles and ghosted columns, this was to be our final meaningful alliance. Within a year, his spiralling stardom and our differing stances on cycling’s war on doping had irreparably tainted our relationship. Estranged from the French, his villa was soon sold and he had moved on, to Girona in Spain.
This is the story of how the schism over doping ended not only that friendship, but many others, as scandal after scandal robbed European cycling of its credibility. As the polarisation over doping took root, several of Armstrong’s teammates, rivals and associates were casualties of this war.
Between 1999 and 2005, cycling entered a period of unprecedented wealth as Armstrong himself constructed a parallel universe of power and affluence. Yet the Armstrong era was bookended by the two great doping scandals of modern cycling: the Festina Affair of 1998 and the Kafkaesque confusion of the unresolved Operacíon Puerto investigation in 2006. The Texan was
iconic figure of these boom years, both as a cancer survivor and also as a survivor in a bitter ethical war that claimed careers and even lives.
The casualties of that conflict, lone voices who stood up against a culture of cheating, were driven underground, bullied out of their jobs and out of their sport. This is a story of those collapsed friendships, of back-stabbing and double-dealing, of polarised positions in the fight to purge sport of its ethical malaise. Finally, this is about my own journey from wide-eyed and unquestioning acceptance to dejected scepticism, as I witnessed opportunism, greed and bumbling bureaucracy reinforce the casual deceit of a generation of athletes and crush the hopes for redemption of a sport crippled by moral decay.
At first, following Europe’s cycling circuit is a thrilling ride, a glamorous, multilingual, gypsy-like existence, a blur of airports and hotels, taxis and check-in desks; a road movie shot under blue skies in stunning locations, in pursuit of lean, tanned and beautiful athletes.
There is the seduction of each setting: Tuscany, Provence, Andalusia, California; the breakneck visits to Geneva, Bordeaux, Naples, Cordoba, San Francisco; the thrill of closed roads and cheering crowds; the snatched intimacies with those on the outside, who look, longingly, into the bubble, while cursing the tedium of their daily routines.
Yet, the European cycling circuit is so all-consuming that, even as a journalist, it can make a prisoner of you. In my case, it gave me a feeling of belonging, something that was missing from my life at the time. The real world slipped away; slowly but surely, I was seduced and became immersed in the sport. All that mattered to me was The Race. There are so many races, and some of them are so long – over three weeks for each of the ‘grand tours’ of France, Italy and Spain – that they develop a world of their own. When they end, you feel wrung out, battle weary, divorced from reality.
Even less important stage races such as Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour de l’Avenir, usually last at least a week. Many journalists live and travel in this bubble with the teams and their personnel. Slowly but surely, the lines become blurred.
Journalists develop an intimacy with the riders that is rare in other sports. They catch the same flights as they shuttle from race to race; they stay in the same hotels; they bump into them in lifts or at breakfast buffets, exchanging greetings and a word or two of encouragement. They share their successes and failures, wince at their injuries, develop friendships with their families and – in one case I know of – transport their drugs for them.
Many of them suspect and often know far more than they reveal. Soon the
, the law of silence, governs their existence, just like it governs that of the riders. It is a closed, self-serving culture, a secret society, with its own unspoken rules. These rules are not those of the outside world.
It took a while for me to realise that doping was all-pervasive. For a long time the only evidence was anecdotal – a story of a coat borrowed from a team manager with a discarded syringe in the inside pocket, the nods and knowing smiles at an exceptional performance.
But then, all of the gypsies in the caravan are eking out a living from the sport, as riders, team personnel or media. Some are wealthy, but many are surviving, simply pleased to be there, cushioned from reality. On the road, everyday obligation – families and children, mortgages and bills, ethics and morality – slowly recedes.
That isolation is one of the motors of the strange siege mentality that surrounds cycling – the continuing attitude that the sport is almost beyond reproach, whatever happens, because unless you too have suffered through the Tour and the Giro, through Flanders and Roubaix, you ‘wouldn’t understand’.
For those whose long absences have caused cracks to appear in their domestic relationships, the sense of escape is what is
appealing. Cycling can be a solitary pursuit, embraced by those who dream of escape and freedom. Some of that sense of longing and loneliness is manifest in the hotel corridors and at the dining tables, where ex-pros, reluctant to let go, prolong the dream long after their own athletic careers have ended, hanging on as if they can’t bear to leave. Cycling’s escapist appeal is never better expressed than in the mountains and perhaps that is why they remain the most evocative terrain. The long climbs to each summit encapsulate the struggle to shake off the humdrum shackles of responsibility; the swooping frenetic descents into the valleys, the crazed exultation of freedom and escape.
Despite its romance, European cycling has never been able to penetrate the mainstream consciousness in the English-speaking world consistently. Interest flickers on and off, peaking in July when the Tour de France holds centre stage. Of contemporary stars, only Armstrong has become a household name and, stateside at least, that has been as much for his iconic and patriotic persona in the post-9/11 climate, as for his achievements on a bike.
Because of doping, my dream job, a job that gave me such a sense of escape, gradually imprisoned me. For a long time I refused to choose sides: it was easier, far easier, not to. Like others, I wanted to write about the glory and heroism of sport, but instead I became lost in the moral maze, an accomplice to the
, an accessory to the Big Lie.
Then, standing with my notebook and tape recorder, when a drugs ampoule fell at my feet, as a rider exhaustedly pulled his racing jersey over his head, my journey from fan to accomplice became complete.
‘You weren’t supposed to see that, Jeremy,’ he smiled weakly.
I stared at the floor. I didn’t know what to say.
Eventually, I lifted my head and said: ‘Don’t worry.’
Even now, it is easier not to name that rider, partly because he is not a thoroughbred but an also-ran who has never won
major race; partly because he is a ‘good’ guy with young children, who don’t deserve to have their father labelled a cheat or to have abuse heaped on them when they arrive at school; and partly because I am still surprised at my own naivety in thinking that, for some reason, he was too nice a guy,
, to be a doper.
One thing I have learned is this: nice, well educated and intelligent athletes, athletes with children and families, dogs and cats, athletes who give to charity and kiss babies, they lie and cheat too.
And then, I doped myself once, not for money, not for the pursuit of excellence or the purposes of research, but just to get to the finish. I was competing as a weekend warrior in the Paris-Roubaix cyclotourist event. This is not even a race, but a timed ‘challenge’, a test of endurance over 165 miles in northern France.
I’m not sure why that Paris-Roubaix felt so much worse than other similar events I’d ridden, up and down France, but it was. I remember the endless flat roads rolling north-east from Compiegne towards the Belgian border, the battle to pedal against a headwind over the cobblestone tracks crossing back and forth through the monochrome landscape, increasingly sharp stabs of tendinitis, a pulsating headache and then, finally, the desire to lie down on the pavement, thirty kilometres from the finish line in Roubaix’s old and shabby velodrome.
‘What’s the matter?’ the others asked, when we stopped at the final checkpoint.
‘I’m wasted,’ I whined, as I sat, head in hands, on the doorstep of a battered red-brick house somewhere on the Franco-Belgian border.
‘Here.’ An opened palm containing two small pills appeared in front of me. Without a second thought, without recourse to the ethical parameters of fair play that had been drilled into me by my middle-class parents and middle-class teachers at my middle-class school, I greedily popped the pills into my mouth. I can, in the style of Richard Virenque in a French courtroom,
innocence and say I didn’t know what I was taking, but that would be disingenuous. It would also be a lie.
Maybe it was the overall cheapness of the trip that caused my moral compass to spin out of control. But I can’t really blame the snoring and farting in our pre-race dormitory accommodation for my fatigue, nor my sacrilegious choice of the Italian national champion’s jersey for race day, which led to some multilingual and demoralising sledging from those who overtook me. Maybe like Laurent Fignon, whose ponytail once cost him the Tour de France, it was my Michael Hutchence mane, a tumble of tresses that no Adidas headband could contain, that created too much drag and proved my undoing.
Whatever, the amphetamines did the trick.
Five minutes later, the world was in technicolour again. I sped down the road at the head of our small group. I felt no pain. I was reborn. I was a tiger. I was ecstatic, joyful, like a child running out of class at the end of the school day.
The fireworks didn’t last long.
An hour or so later I pedalled, a spent force, into the Roubaix twilight, onto the banking of the old velodrome and, finally, across the finish line. As I slumped over the handlebars, I was mocked by another of our party, a pockmarked Yorkshirewoman with the physique of an Eastern Bloc shot-putter. That night I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, wide-eyed and dehydrated, waiting for dawn. I was a red-eyed zombie on the coach back home.
Because of its institutionalised reliance on performance enhancement, European road racing has been at the cutting edge of the doping experience; no other sport has made accomplices of so many of its followers. Football, tennis, even athletics should think themselves lucky not to have been so publicly humiliated by an environment in which dope cheats have for so long been accepted and, in fact, allowed to flourish.
This acceptance of doping can be attributed to the long-established
of professional cycling, the endless pursuit of success, the pressure from rivals, the dangers of racing, the anonymity of anybody other than The Champion. By its nature, it is a sport filled with losers and also-rans, controlled by a minority of winners, who are paranoid about protecting their own status, terrified of humiliation and haunted by that sudden inexplicable loss of power that spells The End.
Ironically, it is that brutality and cruelty that makes it so seductive. It was that tradition of sacrifice and pain that reeled me in when in July 1985 I sat entranced, watching Channel 4’s coverage of Bernard Hinault’s final Tour victory. As a sports fan, that year’s Tour was an epiphany. But in the two decades since then, and particularly in the aftermath of Greg LeMond’s three Tour wins, there was a unique opportunity for a more sinister culture of doping to develop. During my time reporting on the sport, cycling has demonstrated the ethics of a banana republic, with corruption and despotic behaviour on an unprecedented level. The technological extent of that chicanery has been painstakingly documented elsewhere.