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The truth about the Tour de France

L' equipe and the Tour's leak regarding Lance Armstrong's "B-sample test" this week might score points among the natives. But the truth on doping is not a pretty story for the Tour. From Geoffrey Wheatcroft in today's WSJ ($, registration required):

Although the Tour is a wonderful event, from the very beginning the cyclists have dosed themselves with narcotics. In the early days they drank lashings of alcohol, not in truth performance-enhancing, though it does dull the senses. So does cocaine, the drug of choice in the 1920s and '30s, succeeded by amphetamines in the '50s and '60s. Cocaine gives a lift, amphetamines hold fatigue at bay; both are dangerous. In 1967 cycling suffered a moral shock when Tom Simpson, the first Englishman to have worn the yellow jersey, collapsed and died on the stage up Mont Ventoux, chock-full of amphetamines. Until then, this had been the open secret of cycling, as even the greatest riders admitted. After his retirement from the Tour, two-time champion Fausto Coppi was asked if he had used dope. "Only when necessary." When was that? "Almost all the time." And five-time winner Jacques Anquetil suggested that no normal human being could ride the race unaided: "Do they expect us to ride the Tour on mineral water?"

After the horror of 1967, cycling began to make a real effort to clean up its act. And yet by unhappy timing, this coincided with the arrival of anabolic steroids and EPO (erythropoietin). For the first time there were drugs which did enhance performance, measurably so, but are even more dangerous. Like steroids, EPO is a synthetic version of a natural metabolic product, which is one reason they were for so long difficult to detect. And it is much more insidious. By enhancing the red blood cells it increases energy: The startlingly fast times in some stages of the Tour in recent years do not have any obvious innocent explanation. At the same time, by thickening the blood, EPO makes it harder to circulate. Its arrival as a clandestine drug is all too easily and grimly dated by the fact that between 1987 and 1990, 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists died from otherwise inexplicable nocturnal heart attacks. There has been a continuing death toll ever since.

Without doubt EPO use was rife in the 1990s, and Mr. Armstrong has been regularly accused of doping. On July 21, 2002, I watched him climb Mont Ventoux, past the memorial where Simpson fell. High above on the lunar landscape of that Provencal peak was a compatriot holding the Stars and Stripes, and I thought of another Armstrong making a step for man 33 years to the day before. But that Yank was outnumbered by the French fans all around us screaming "Dopé!" at the champion. It didn't seem to them contradictory to cheer Richard Virenque, the great villain of the 1998 "Tour de Farce" when the Festina team car was found packed with drugs and needles.

Interesting. I knew doping in cycling was common in recent years, but not that it traces back to the roaring 20's! Wheatcroft is the author of Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France, which on the basis of his WSJ essay looks worth reading.

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