Get SI's Duke Championship Package Free  Subscribe to SI Give the Gift of SI
Posted: Wednesday July 8, 2009 11:15AM; Updated: Thursday July 9, 2009 11:49AM
The Bonus The Bonus >

Tour de France a clash of cultures (cont.)

Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
American Greg LeMond endeared himself to French fans after winning the Tour in 1986.
Sports Illustrated

In the early years many American riders, especially those on American teams, felt exempt from the guild's encouragement to dope. "We were willing to talk to journalists about doping," Hampsten says. "While Europeans within the sport were telling us to shut up, our attitude was, 'F--- you, it's our sport too.'"

But by the end of Hampsten's career, crude fixes like pot belge had given way to more systematic stuff. It was one thing to be a member of "the League of Ceiling Starers," as a Dutch rider once described the sleepless aftermath of an amphetamine episode, and quite another to overhaul one's entire cardiovascular system with the banned blood booster EPO. Because of its risks -- EPO can turn blood to sludge, and is suspected in the sudden deaths of dozens of riders, usually in their sleep -- the drug requires a comprehensive "medical program," and thus deception on an institutionalized scale. But the 10 to 15 percent advantage in output that EPO can deliver, and the substance's undetectability 20 years ago, didn't merely present a temptation. It ensured the competitive exile of the clean rider. And so, like innocents abroad in a Henry James novel, American riders reached a moment of reckoning. You can leave Colorado or California with your water bottles and Clif Bars, but eventually you'll discover, as Mart Smeets of NOS Dutch TV puts it, "If you want to dance, you put on your dancing shoes."

For Americans, doping is entwined with questions of character, with goodness and evil. For Europeans, doping is simply something that cyclists are known to do. C'est le métier, the French say: It's the job. ... [It's] the same divergence that occurs when a politician is caught out with a mistress: Americans get outraged -- How could he? While Europeans shrug -- But of course.

-- Daniel Coyle, in Lance Armstrong's War

For the longest time the peloton sang a chorus of but of course. It staged work stoppages to protest doping controls, and you can still hear the bien sur dripping from the lips of five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil of France, who once said: "You'd have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants." Britain's Tom Simpson, who died in 100-degree heat on a Provencal hillside during the 1967 Tour with amphetamines in his bloodstream and his pocket, had only a year earlier said, "If it takes 10 to kill you, I'll take nine." And Coppi, once asked if he doped, replied, "Only when I have to." Which was? "Almost all the time." A legendary chronicler of that era, Antoine Blondin, wrote in the French sports daily L'Equipe of "a certain nobility in those who have gone down into lord-knows-what hell in quest of the best of themselves. We might feel tempted to tell them they should not have done it. But we can remain, nonetheless, secretly proud of what they have done. Their wan, haggard looks are, for us, an offering." In Europe the rationalizations can come like merchandise at Target -- cheap, but of pretty good quality.

Cycling's tacit acceptance of doping persisted even after European legislatures began to pass anti-doping laws during the mid-Sixties, and the Gallic shrug remained the default setting of riders, officials and fans. After Americans Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis got caught doping during the past decade -- Landis only days after having apparently won the 2006 Tour -- both tried to exculpate themselves with pseudo-scientific theories, cloying Web sites (,, and denials so reflexive and convoluted that, by continental lights, each man appeared to be an imbecile and a hypocrite. Whereas Europeans rarely protesteth too much. Oh, for two years in the aftermath of the 1998 Festina Affair, in which police seized EPO, steroids and syringes from a car driven by a Festina team soigneur on the eve of the Tour, Richard Virenque of France gave stonewalling a try, even publishing a book called My Truth before eventually confessing through tears in court.

But it's difficult to imagine Americans reacting like Alex Zuelle of Switzerland, another rider caught up in the Festina case, who told Germany's Suddeutsche Zeitung: "It's like being on the highway. The law says there's a speed limit of 100, but everyone is driving 120 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the speed limit? So I had two alternatives: either fit in and go along with the others, or go back to being a housepainter." Or like another Swiss, 1998 World Champion Oscar Camenzind, whom drug testers caught up with during a training ride along Lake Lucerne in 2004. Camenzind told them on the spot that he had used EPO, and that he'd just as soon not wait for his samples to come back from the lab. Whereupon he hung up his bike and did indeed return to his previous job -- not as a housepainter, but as a mailman.

American teams -- first 7-Eleven, then Motorola, eventually U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel -- weren't likely to set up shadowy doping programs; American sponsors would never take the chance. But by the Nineties individual U.S. riders, with no more stomach for losing than any European, had begun to weigh that calculated risk. They too knew the open secrets of the peloton, the dodgy doctors, flim-flam testing procedures and dubious soigneurs, a.k.a. chargeurs and dynamiteurs. Everyone knew -- or everyone but dilettante fans back in the States content with their Pollyanna storylines.

"Any 7-year-old Flemish schoolchild," Bob Roll has written, "knows 100 times more about cycling than all Americans combined." They know the sacrifice -- that, simply to train, a pro will log enough mileage each year to circumnavigate the earth. They know the suffering -- that Rene Vietto's toe, lost to sepsis during the 1947 season, sits in embalming fluid in a jar over a bar in Marseille. They know the fate that four Tour winners have wound up suicides, and that 1998 champion Marco Pantani shot himself up vocationally and avocationally and, finally, tragically. Moreover, they know the positives, raids and confessions that have implicated at some point during their careers half of the 18 men to win the Tour since 1974. They've read the corpus of European journalism devoted to doping in cycling, some of which implicates Armstrong, and find it more human and persuasive than any clinical positive test. They've heard the testimony of repentant dopers like France's Philippe Gaumont, who rubbed salt on his testicles until they bled so he could get a prescription for otherwise-banned cortisone; Ireland's Paul Kimmage, who after describing a drug-riddled sport in his book Rough Ride returned to the Tour with a press credential and was advised to leave because organizers couldn't guarantee his safety; and Spain's Jesus Manzano, who after an against-the-rules transfusion mid-Tour, which turned out to be of someone else's blood, suffered a seizure that nearly killed him.

1 2 3
Hot Topics: NBA Playoffs NHL Playoffs NFL schedule LaMarcus Aldridge Michael Pineda Phil Jackson Tiger Woods
TM & © 2013 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved. Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint