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The Ghosts of Tours Past

How Lance Armstrong and a 1998 drug test could ruin this year's race

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The April bombing of the Boston Marathon raised an uncomfortable thought at this year’s Tour de France: What if Corsican separatists attempted some violent outrage? They have a habit of blowing up supermarkets and setting fire to houses they don’t like the look of, and have killed plenty of people. Here was the chance for a real terrorist “spectacular.”

Now that the Tour has passed its first three days in Corsica without incident—or at least, that kind of incident—and crossed to what Corsicans call le continent, I can say what had occurred to me but would have been tempting Providence to write before. The Tour plays an almost sacred part in French life, more than the World Series and Superbowl together, if only because so many millions have seen it close at hand. The separatists are nasty and silly, but they knew what the reaction would have been had a French cyclist—or any cyclist—been hurt: The large Corsican communities in Marseilles and Paris would have trembled with fear. And so they confined themselves to hoisting a big “Corsica Libera—Corsica is not France” banner on railroad bridge high above the road as the cyclists went beneath.

Then again, “without incident” scarcely tells the story. At a press conference in Porto Vecchio on Thursday, Sir Dave Brailsford, manager of the formidable Sky team, said that this Tour would be won by the rider and team making the fewest mistakes. Sad to say, the race began with an excruciating mistake, albeit not by a rider. In Bastia on Saturday, I made my way to the finish, marked by a white line across the road and a metal gate topped with a banner advertising Vittel mineral water, which contraption also holds the gadgetry for measuring times and snapping the photo-finish.

I was hoping to see Mark Cavendish, the greatest sprinter of the age, cross the line first and take the race leader’s yellow jersey, one of the few prizes he’s never claimed. What I saw instead as I vaguely gazed at the line was a grotesque event now celebrated far beyond the ranks of those who follow bike racing. The Orica-GreenEDGE team bus tried to drive under the banner, but either the bus was too tall or the banner was too low, and there was a ghastly crunching sound as the bus jammed against the metal overhead. The full story, and the question of responsibility, has been exhaustively analysed by L’Equipe (though I do wish that admirable sports paper hadn’t called the incident “Busgate”—oh please!), but the best comment was by Richard Williams of the Guardian, who tweeted, “[I] didn’t know M Hulot was taking his holiday in Corsica this year.” In the ensuing pandemonium, the finish line was moved out, then back, and panicky crashes ruined Cavendish’s chances, before the stage was won by Marcel Kittel, a German supporting rider with Argos.

Happily the next two days in what Chris Froome, the race favourite, rightly calls the “sublime island” of Corsica were about good bike racing rather than slapstick farce. A second stage across the mountains from Bastia to Ajaccio was won by the Belgian Jan Bakelants of RadioShack. More to the point, Froome attacked alone on one of the climbs, just to remind the others what he can do. On Sunday, what may be the most scenically beautiful stage the Tour has ever known, along the precipitous coast road from Ajaccio to Calvi, saw Peter Sagan surprisingly pipped by the Australian Simon Gerrans, who rides for none other than Orica-GreenEDGE, which won an even less expected victory in Tuesday’s team time trial in Nice to give Gerrans the maillot jaune.

And yet with all these thrills and spills, there have been too many ghosts at the feast—for the Tour, and for France. Nicolas Sarkozy, the last president, is engulfed by resurfacing scandals, and heartily glad that he enjoys legal immunity for anything that happened while he was in office. The administration of his successor, President François Hollande, is tainted by its own scandals. And a French Senate hearing on the economy has just heard evidence from a man who once hoped to be president, although Dominique Strauss-Kahn won’t now be contender, and nor will he be checking into many New York hotel rooms for a while.

As for the Tour, we have seen the disgrace of the hugely popular Laurent Jalabert; we’ve heard Jan Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997, admit that he engaged in the ghoulish practice of blood-doping, gaining extra energy by reinjecting a quantity of blood previously extracted; and, as if that weren’t enough, on the day the Tour began, Le Monde ran a long interview with Lance Armstrong. I can’t resist quoting from that austere newspaper’s description of how it was rebuffed when it tried earlier for an interview with Armstrong: “il a, de son propre aveu, d'abord pensé à nous répondre ‘fuck off’." Even if your French is shaky, you may get the drift.

But really, I didn’t think I could dislike or despise Armstrong any more, until reading this utterly contemptible bleat of evasion and self-pity. Yet again he snivelled that "I didn't invent doping. I simply participated in a system. I am a human being." I suggest that readers could try a logical experiment, adapting that defence for persons accused of any other offence, from rape to racketeering to war crimes. He also said that the devastating report last fall from the the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency "did not draw a true picture of cycling from the end of the 1980s to the present day. It succeeded perfectly in destroying one man's life, but didn't benefit cycling at all"—his life, that is, rather than those ravaged by the scourge of doping.

On July 18, the last Thursday before Paris, the Tour goes not once but twice up the awesome Alpe d’Huez climb in the Alps, where a chemically-fuelled Armstrong used to crush the field—and on that day, the ultimate time bomb will be detonated. In 1998, the “Tour de Farce”, when the Festina scandal revealed the extent of doping, there were more than a hundred tests, none of which was positive. The obvious conclusion was that there was then no adequate test for the blood-boosting drug EPO. But samples from all the riders were frozen and locked away, until the time, which duly came, when there was such a test.

In 2005 L’Equipe broke the story that Armstrong’s specimen had retrospectively shown EPO, which began the long story of his downfall. And now the French senate has announced that it will release the results of all the tests from 1998—on July 18. To be sure, these are interesting times.