Triumph and tragedy
Heroic Armstrong would be ideal winner in centenary TourPosted: Monday June 30, 2003 12:01 PM
PARIS (Reuters) -- For a cancer survivor to win the Tour de France for the fifth successive time on the 100th anniversary of the world's most famous cycling race would be the perfect crowning to a century of sporting feats, drama and controversy.
The larger-than-life Lance Armstrong, who will start his quest on Saturday, is typical of the great names who have made Tour history since Frenchman Maurice Garin won the inaugural race in 1903.
For cycling fans and the French public in general, the Tour is part of the national heritage, a big summer festival reminiscent of childhood and holidays.
The leader's yellow jersey is the equivalent of a gold medal rewarding great sporting achievements in one of sport's most gruelling efforts.
But the Tour history has also been a tragic one and many of the race figures of the past 100 years have had gruesome destinies. Death has been a feature of the race's story, for the Tour has been closely linked to the bigger history around it.
Four winners died in World War One, killed on the battlefields of Europe.
Three riders died in the race itself -- Francesco Cepeda, who crashed in the Galibier Pass in 1935, Briton Tom Simpson, killed by exhaustion and amphetamines on the sun-drenched climb to the Ventoux in 1967 and Armstrong's teammate Fabio Casartelli, who crashed in the Pyrenees in 1995.
Others suffered violent deaths away from the race. Italian Ottavio Bottechia, the 1924 winner, was stoned to death in a vineyard in 1927 in a case that was never fully solved. Rene Pottier, the winner in 1906, hung himself the following year after his wife left him.
France's Henri Pelissier, the most popular rider of the 1920s, was killed by his mistress in 1935 with the gun his wife had used to shoot herself. Spaniard Luis Ocana, the 1973 winner, committed suicide after his farm went bankrupt.
Many other famous riders died of illness.
Frenchman Jacques Anquetil, the first rider to win the race five times, died of cancer at the age of 53.
Italian Fausto Coppi died of malaria in 1960, at 41. Louison Bobet, the winner in 1953, 1954 and 1955, was also killed by disease at the age of 58.
Swiss Hugo Koblet, crowned in 1951, and Jean Robic, winner in 1947, lived lives of excess and died in car crashes.
Some saw their careers ruined by history. Belgian Philippe Thys won three Tours, the first two before World War One, the third in 1920 and could have fared much better had the race not been suspended because of the conflict.
For many historians, Italian Gino Bartali, winner in 1938 and 1948, was arguably the most talented rider of all time. But World War Two stopped him from winning more than twice.
American Armstrong, who survived a near-fatal cancer in 1996, returned stronger than ever in 1999 and he will attempt to become the fifth rider to win five times and only the second to do it in succession.
The first five-times winner Anquetil, whose triumphs came between 1957 and 1964, set the pattern which would be followed by the other great Tour riders -- unbeatable in the time trials, he was content with just staying with the best climbers in the mountains.
Belgian Eddy Merckx is undeniably the best rider in the history of cycling. The "cannibal," who claimed his five Tours between 1969 and 1974, holds most of the race records -- he won 34 stages and held the leader's jersey for 96 days.
France's Bernard Hinault, a farmer from Brittany, imposed his strong will on the rest of the bunch to dominate cycling in the 1980s and passed the baton to American Greg LeMond in 1986.
Miguel Indurain, a model of consistency and one of the greatest time trial specialists ever, crowned years of Spanish presence on the Tour by becoming only the third Spaniard to win the race, after climbers Federico Bahamontes and Pedro Delgado.
The aloof rider from Navarre went on to win five Tours in succession in the 1990s, a decade in which doping and especially the use of erythropoietin (EPO) came close to ruining the sport.
The 1998 Festina scandal, revealing the widespread use of drugs in the peloton, was the peak of a doping problem which went back a long way.
In 1924, the Pelissier brothers, France's most popular riders, had shown renowned journalist Albert Londres the contents of their bags. Cocaine, strychnine and various pills were already part of the Tour rider's daily diet.
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