When Lance Armstrong was forced into admitting that he’d doped to win his seven Tour de France titles, it added yet more fuel to the fire — the biggest log of all— for those who view the race as little more than a competition between those riders who employ the best doctors.
Yet today’s peloton is undoubtedly cleaner than it’s ever been; testing for illicit substances has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, meaning that it’s become that much easier to identify those trying to pull a fast one. The moral compass of the younger pros has swung with it, too — if they’re to be believed.
Since the Tour’s very beginnings — in 1903 — those taking part in the race have sought every possible advantage to try to conquer the roughest roads and the highest mountains France could throw at them. While a blind eye was often turned by the organisers when it came to the various stimulants ingested by the riders to stay awake and alert during stages that often ran over more than 400 kilometres, the race regulators had to keep the eaglest of eyes open to spot other infractions.
Cheating, you see, comes in forms other than a syringe or little white pill: looking back, some of the ruses used over the years verge on the hilarious, although they were the height of creativity at the time.
As early as 1904, and the second edition of the Tour de France, the first four finishers overall in Paris were disqualified for various tricks — the most serious of them being taking the train along parts of the route, which was what defending champion Maurice Garin and younger brother César lost their first and third places, respectively, for.
Fourth-placed Hippolyte Aucouturier was that bit more creative: he used a piece of string tied to the back of a car at one end, and a cork at the other, which he gripped between his teeth. Victory was instead handed to 19-year-old Frenchman Henri Cornet, who had finished fifth. He remains the youngest winner of the race.
Perhaps those 1904 cheats were simply trying to avoid another beating dished out by fans of local riders as the race made its way around France, which the Garin brothers had been on the receiving end of, or steer clear — literally, by taking the train — of the tacks ‘fans’ threw onto the roads to puncture riders’ tyres. Clearly, the spectators weren’t above a bit of bad behaviour, either, and, as recently as the 2012 Tour de France, one disgruntled local came over all ‘old skool’ and demonstrated his dislike for the race by sprinkling drawing pins on the race route.
But pity poor Eugène Christophe at the 1913 edition, whose forks broke on the descent of the Col du Tourmalet, forcing him to run with his bike the rest of the way down the mountain until he could find a blacksmith willing to let him use his tools to effect repairs. No outside assistance was allowed in those days, so the Frenchman toiled away on his own, eventually getting on the road again. And yet on top of this long delay, he was also handed a time penalty: the blacksmith’s young assistant had operated the bellows for Christophe; his race was all but over.
When it came to drugs, things only began to change after 1967 when amphetamines were found to have contributed to British rider Tom Simpson’s death while climbing Mont Ventoux during that year’s race.
While tests were carried out from 1968 onwards, the number of riders caught was small. Even worse was the fact that the token slap on the wrist for infractions wasn’t exactly a deterrent. Today, the standard ban is two years.
Come the 1978 Tour de France, there was proof that Simpson’s death and the organisers’ testing of riders was clearly still doing little to put riders off trying to gain an advantage. After winning on Alpe d’Huez, Belgium’s Michel Pollentier was found trying to dupe a doping control using a bulb of a clean team-mate’s urine in tandem with a hidden length of rubber tubing… Again, it would border on amusing if it wasn’t quite so underhand. No pun intended.
Only in 1998 — when a member of staff from the Festina squad was caught with a car-boot-load of performance-enhancing drugs, including EPO — did things really begin to change, and the likes of Armstrong and friends had to be more careful than ever when charging up for the Tour.
The seismic shift in understanding just how widespread the problem of doping in bike racing really was instigated a gradual clamping-down in the shape of increased, and increasingly more reliable, testing.
Developing the tests was the biggest battle — trying to stay one step ahead of the cheats while keeping the finger on the pulse of what they might try next.
Today, thanks to those efforts, it’s harder than ever to cheat the anti-doping procedures in place at the Tour and other races. Is it worth the risk? Some riders clearly still think so, but massive strides forward have been made to try to ensure that cheating — dope-fuelled or otherwise — can be reduced and, in an ideal world, eradicated from the world’s greatest race.
MAPPING LE TOUR: 100 Tour de France race route maps, with photographs by Ellis Bacon with a foreword by Mark Cavendish, is out on 23rd May, published by Collins
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