It is the summer of 1999 and my American friend and I are by the roadside in a small French town just outside Poitiers. The road leads straight through town and out and whoever rides it fastest will win the last time trial of the 1999 Tour de France. My American friend snoozes in a camping chair. Fans brandish stopwatches as the riders pass and scribble notes in the margins of L’Equipe. Children dart across the road in the brief pause between each blur of moto, rider and team car. The day is warm and still and drowsy, now fragmented by the wave of noise that surges towards us with each new rider, now settling into torpor, stillness, anticipation…
My American friend is here to see the last man out on the road, the man in Yellow, the Survivor. The man who, 11 days ago, crushed the race under his wheel on the climb to Sestrières with the kind of performanceL’Equipe would come to call ‘Extraterreste’. The man who looked death in the face and lived. The man who will win the 1999 Tour de France and every Tour for the next 7 years. Lance Armstrong.
The helicopter noise turns from bee buzz to angry wasp to full on war zone drone. The roar starts, builds, moves in a raucous wave towards us. My American friend stirs and puts down his book. He leans forward expectantly in his chair. The crowd is yelling full bore, the moto whines into view. I crane my neck to see if he is approaching, this would be giant of the road. And he is there. And gone. And past. Taking the noise and the buzz and the anticipation and the excitement with him. Young lads run to the nearest bar to see him cross the finish line. Families finish their picnics. Children and old ladies are once again free to cross the street. “Wow, he was booking it!” says my American friend.
In 1993, 21 year Lance Armstrong rides his first Tour de France. He will concede over 6 minutes to Miguel Indurain in a 59 km time trial around Lac Madine and afterwards he will tell David Walsh – a man who will describe him as “an ambitious, intelligent, interesting kid” – “If I can get a minute a year, a minute a year isn’t that much. .. When you’re 30 you’re not gonna be 9 minutes faster than you are at 21”
But being 9 minutes faster than he was at 21 is exactly what Armstrong will be, finishing the 57km stage 19 time trial in the 1999 Tour in 1’ 08”, already a stunning 10 minutes faster than his time around Lac Madine. And he will continue to blitz the time trials, continue to ride minutes faster than the 21 year old self that made that prediction.
Standing by the road that day in 1999 did we know we were witnessing the birth of a myth? The Comeback King. The Man Who Lived. Nobody wanted to admit that Lance Armstrong might not be Prince Charming. That he might be the ogre in the fairytale not the hero. Not even when L’Equipe exposed his hurriedly backdated TUE despite the fact that, in an interview to that paper, he had denied having any TUEs in his medical book. Not one. Not even for EPO. Even though he was a cancer survivor and might legitimately have claimed its’ therapeutic use.
The TUE didn’t make sense but then it wasn’t anything the UCI under Hein Verbruggen were strangers to. It is 1997 – the year that Tyler Hamilton says he started doping – and Laurent Brochard has just burst out of the peloton in San Sebastian like a mad dog chasing a train and lifted his arms in the eternal V of victory to claim the World Championship jersey for France. Hein Verbruggen will announce ‘if a doctor wants to cheat, he can do so before or after the race’. To hell with the UCI rule 43 that stated a post dated TUE cannot be accepted. And to hell with it again in 1999. Today UCI rule 46.6 allows for a back dated TUE for ‘emergency treatment’ or ‘exceptional circumstances’. The current UCI leadership are covering their backs.
But Verbruggen, some feel, has always placed himself above the law – he will corner Bruno Roussel in a hotel corridor in 1993 and remind him “Si vous ne faites pas le nécessaire, je peux vous faire un coureur positif…” Words that Willy Voet will confirm. Words that resonate when, in 2011, Tyler Hamilton tells us that ‘Lance’s people and the people from the other side, the governing body of the sport [the UCI], figured out a way to make it go away.” If you have the power to make a rider positive then do you also have the power to make a positive disappear? Especially if that rider decides to ‘fais le nécessaire’ by making two large donations to the UCI?
It is summer 1999. Sestrières has been an extraordinary display of power, on the limit of what you could accept as possible even when you later hear the tales of sniggering in the press room. Even when L’Equipeuse their code words for doping to report it, just as Hamilton and Armstrong are using their own secret code for Edgar Allen POE. Secret boys clubs both in their own ways enforcing the Omerta.
But it is on this particular blazing summer afternoon in July, after you’ve watched the inevitable result in the local bar, after your American friend has got drunk on beers and pastis and wine bought for ‘notre copain Americaine’, after he has been practically carried shoulder high into the streets on a wave of bonhomie and alcohol, that you realise you know, and will always know, that those extra 10 minutes didn’t come from cadence, or training harder, or better nutrition, or weight loss or cancer, they came from a syringe or an eye dropper or a patch. They came from the desire to do whatever it took to win, enabled by a governing body that desperately needed a ‘Tour of Hope’ after the debacle of 1998 and the fallout of the Festina affair. They came from the complicity of journalists content to publish the feelgood story and never look too long or too hard at the facts behind the myth.
They came from the recognition that ‘you’re never gonna be 9 minutes faster than you are at 21’ on bread and water.
This first appeared on the Flammecast website www.flammecast.com