Tour de France a clash of cultures (cont.)
Are you, gentle American reader, prepared to be baptized into the reality of European pro cycling? Are you ready to go from Cutter to continental, to travel the path that Dave Stohler did in Breaking Away when that Team Cinzano rider jammed a frame pipe into his wheel? My own Henry James moment came while covering the Tour for the first time, in 1987. After an early stage a strapping Italian sprinter turned up positive at doping control. Claude the press chief, his mouth framed by mustache and ascot, explained that the rider had been fined several hundred Swiss francs. He would go into the books as finishing last for that day's stage. And he would be subject to a ban if he were to test positive again.
Surely that wasn't the end of it, I thought. A rider had been caught doping in the Tour de Friggin' France ... and he would start the next morning? Over time my astonishment would gradually yield to something else: a sense of being unsophisticatedly and irredeemably American.
A week or so later a British journalist decided to introduce me to the Tour's most storied stage finish, L'Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 switchback turns to the top. "After I covered this for the first time," he told me, "I never again used the word 'heroic' to describe an athlete in any other sport." Sure enough, Ireland's Stephen Roche clinched the Tour that day, clawing back seconds in the final meters before collapsing from the effort. He had to be revived at the finish, whereupon he oh-so-continentally pronounced himself "not ready for a woman just yet." Years later it emerged that Roche's Carrera team had been in the medical care of Dr. Francesco Conconi, whom an Italian magistrate would conclude had supervised the systematic administration of EPO to riders, Roche included.
I returned the next summer, when with the Tour only days from Paris word leaked that the yellow jersey, Spain's Pedro Delgado, had turned up positive for probenicid, a masking agent for steroids. Enter Claude, brandishing another communiqué: Probenicid would not be formally added to pro cycling's banned list until a week after the conclusion of the Tour, meaning that Delgado was in the clear. My question then -- How could this be, when the substance was already prohibited by the IOC? -- waited more than a decade for a satisfactory answer. In something close to a deathbed confession, Jacques Goddet, who supervised the Tour for 51 years, explained in 1999: "The controls we developed after Simpson's death were a lie, covered up by the highest scientific and medical authorities, and I condemn them."
Time would solve another mystery from that 1988 Tour: the puzzling equanimity of the runner-up, Steven Rooks of Holland. Asked if he begrudged Delgado the title, Rooks had said, "Pedro has been the strongest rider. It is he who deserves it." A dozen years later the reason for that graciousness emerged, when Rooks admitted that he had used testosterone and amphetamines throughout his career. An honor among thieves apparently prevailed, but it was a kind of honor nonetheless, and by accident of nationality I would never fully understand it.
I had begun to appreciate the suffering, however, and grasp the sport's place in the culture. In 1987 I would miss LeMond's comeback from his near-fatal hunting accident, the Tour in which he made up nearly a minute on the final day to beat France's Laurent Fignon by eight seconds. But after SI named LeMond our Sportsman of the Year, I found myself sitting around the kitchen table of the American sports fan, as a guest on WFAN Radio's Mike and the Mad Dog, where co-host Chris Russo took up the cause of the jocks and cheerleaders. How could SI possibly choose Greg LeMond? Cycling was "a yuppie sport," he said, as if anybody could "tour France," and LeMond had done it on the modified American plan. I would have thrown up my hands, but the gesture is generally lost on listeners to sports talk radio.
I swung off the beat just as Armstrong emerged, but not before covering his domestic coming out, an impressive second in the Tour du Pont in the spring of 1993. It was easy to see how he would rock the guild as soon as he hit the continent. In Europe a truck driver who sees cyclists out training invites them to grab hold of his rig for a tow; Armstrong could recount many times that pick-ups and semis in Texas literally ran him off the road. What made Armstrong different -- what would make him a seven-time winner of the Tour, when you get right down to it -- is that he would flip those truck drivers the bird.
Armstrong touched off a couple of low-grade diplomatic incidents soon after his arrival in Europe that summer. By prearrangement with his American Motorola team he dropped out of his first Tour de France with a week to go, only to hear Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc decry his absent "sense of duty" to finish the race. Then in October, invited to meet Norway's King Harald after winning the Worlds in Oslo, he insisted on bringing along his mother, Linda. Armstrong carried the swagger prized by every high school football coach in Texas, and in him Europeans found an American of their imaginations -- "Like from the old TV show Dallas, affluent, arrogant and dismissive of the old style," says John Wilcockson, the British author of Lance, who points out that as a kid Armstrong actually cycled past South Fork Ranch on training rides. "[Eddy] Merckx, Hinault, even LeMond, didn't ride the Tour until they'd been pros for years, while Lance the impetuous kid just wanted to do it."
Armstrong went on to subvert the guild even more than LeMond had. "It wasn't just that he had one goal, the Tour," Gilley says. "He built a team around himself. He used the latest in science and technology. He commanded a superstar salary. And he talked about conquest and battle and manifest destiny, all American concepts."
But in one critical respect Armstrong did go native. Arriving in Europe just after EPO had presented American riders with that Hobson's choice, Armstrong in 1995 hooked up with a guild-approved personal doctor, Michele Ferrari, who had trained at the knee of the infamous Dottore Conconi. A year earlier Ferrari had publicly said that EPO was "no more dangerous than orange juice," and that "anything that can't be found in drug tests isn't doping." Armstrong has said he consulted with Ferrari only on benign training matters. But until 2001 he concealed their relationship, even from many within his own team, and he would insist on an arrangement whereby the Italian could work with no other Tour contender. After their connection became public Armstrong defended it, though Ferrari then stood trial in Italy on charges of directing cyclists' doping programs. Armstrong broke with Ferrari following the doctor's conviction in 2004 for "sporting fraud" and "abuse of the medical profession," and has kept his distance even after that conviction was overturned on procedural grounds.
Armstrong has never wavered in his denial of having used performance-enhancing drugs. But Armstrong teammates Landis and George Hincapie would go on to work with Ferrari too, and at least a half-dozen of Armstrong's most trusted support riders over the years have now been implicated in doping. The cases of Landis and Hamilton may come closest to classical tragedy: European fans admire both for their Blondinian offerings, in Hamilton's case a fourth-place finish in the 2003 Tour despite a broken collarbone, and in Landis', brief glory as the first to Paris in 2006 despite a degenerative hip. If they were only Basque or Bavarian, alas, their positive tests might be but-of-course blips.
Armstrong has long broadcast on two frequencies -- one to the European peloton, another to cycling-innocent followers in the States. A perfect example took place several months ago, after an out-of-competition tester from France's state-run anti-doping lab doorstepped him on the Riviera, and Armstrong, just back from a training ride, disappeared for 20 minutes to take a shower. Europeans know that the one thing a cyclist may not do under any circumstances is leave a tester's sight before providing a sample. They can recount the sport's colorful history of doping-control subterfuge, from hastily swallowed diuretics and blood-thinners, to stand-in urine delivered through concealed rubber tubing. When this departure from protocol briefly looked like it might lead to his suspension, Armstrong tweeted indignantly, Was winning the Tour seven times that offensive?!? That in turn cued up reactions Stateside of the "Of course they wouldn't let him take a shower -- they don't believe in showers!" variety. Not that Armstrong necessarily had something to hide; given his relationship with the French, he may have simply been up for a game of chicken, to dare them to expel from their great race its biggest name. The point is, he took them on and won, again.
Within the guild Armstrong has been a but-of-courser to the bone, bullying riders like Italy's Filippo Simeoni, who ratted out Ferrari, and France's Christophe Bassons, who earned a "f--- off" from Armstrong for flaunting his own unwillingness to dope. But he's careful to cover his how-could-you flank. At the outset of the 2000 Tour he denounced what he called "the myth of widespread doping," and when Irish journalist David Walsh, author of From Lance to Landis, first laid out the skeptics' case in 2004, Armstrong's response was, "Extraordinary accusations must be followed up with extraordinary proof." Europeans laughed at the first of these comments, and scratched their heads at the second, for it's hardly extraordinary to doubt a run of Tour victories that sits squarely in the sport's EPO era, bookended by the Affairs Festina and Landis. Millions of Americans with little knowledge of cycling are invested in the symbolism of Armstrong's clean, triumphant return from cancer, while Europeans simply hear American hypocrisy and prudery. And so the divide opens wider. Today the relationship between Armstrong and the French has deteriorated into schoolyard namecalling.
After Armstrong, the U.S. will likely continue to send innocents abroad. Gilley is studying attitudes toward doping among 18- to 23-year-old American amateurs, and of 116 confidential responses fielded last summer, only 13 percent of riders with professional aspirations said they would or might dope to win the Tour de France. But Gilley's research also indicates that young cyclists become more willing to consider doping as the potential prize escalates. "Americans who sign with European teams know within two days what's going on," says Smeets, the Dutch broadcaster. "It's not just taking dope. It's deeper than that. Cheat, lie, deny, survive -- it's a way of life. The truth is always different from what seems to be the reality. I always tell my viewers, lying is permitted in cycling. It's a constitutional part of the sport. The U.S. audience has no clue.
"Last year, when CERA hit" -- CERA is third-generation EPO -- "we were expecting fans to turn against the Tour. Instead it was more popular than ever. It doesn't seem to matter."
In the States we're not much for shades of gray in our heroes. But in Europe people take their riders as they are: Wan and haggard, "for us." If doctors and drugs can help a fellow human being survive cancer, Europeans dare ask, why shouldn't doctors and drugs help one contest the world's most difficult bike race? As its most dominant rider contests the Tour de France once more, it's worth pondering not just whether we Americans want the truth, but whether we can handle the truth.