Unmasked and besieged, international cycling still refuses to break off its incorrigible affair with drugs.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, October 1998

We Are Shocked. Shocked. Now Pass the Hypodermic Needle.
Unmasked and besieged, international cycling still refuses to break off its incorrigible affair with drugs.
By Russ Spenser

An American in Paris
"I've always believed that politics and sports don't mix, but I still had an incredible race," says Bobby Julich, whose ferocious climbs and crisp time-trials had him breathing down the necks of the finest riders in the world during this year's Tour de France. "It was a phenomenal comeback for me." That, if anything, is an understatement. Having finished a respectable but somewhat staid 17th in last year's Tour, Julich shocked even himself when he circled the Champs Elys‰es on August 2 locked into third place, just behind Italy's Marco Pantani and Germany's Jan Ullrich. In the process, Julich became the first American since three-time winner Greg LeMond to stand on the race podium in Paris.

Though this year's race will be remembered primarily for its midnight police raids and sit-down rider protests, 1998 will also be marked as a season that produced one of the strongest crops of American riders ever — a group that includes Julich himself and his Cofidis teammate Kevin Livingston, as well as U.S. Postal Service riders George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, and Marty Jemison. When the members of the Class of '98 clip into their pedals next year, they may do more than log some exciting performances; they could also rekindle the passion for American cycling that was first sparked by LeMond's legendary career. "Bobby and Kevin both have the ability to make the podium for the next four, five, or six years running," says Jim Ochowicz, who has directed teams for 7-Eleven and Motorola. "The future has tremendous possibilities."

It was impossible not to feel a stab of compassion on July 17 for Jean-Marie Leblanc, director of the Tour de France, as he emerged shaken and exhausted from the Chez Gillou caf‰ in provincial Correze and declared, "They are out of the race. Period!" Once a noted racer himself, Leblanc had just completed the unenviable task of informing Festina, the most popular French team, that it was being booted from the world's grandest cycling race less than 48 hours after setting off the most incendiary drug scandal in Tour history.

Even more dismaying than the Tainted Tour itself, however, is the possibility that cycling authorities may have failed to embrace this crisis as a unique opportunity for reform. A stricken Leblanc did issue a halfhearted proposal to institute a "good conduct charter" for riders — but the notion was almost laughably meaningless, given the sport's desperate need for strict outside enforcement and sanctions with teeth.

At press time, the Union Cycliste Internationale had yet to put forth a single noteworthy initiative, prompting one French government official to propose stripping sports federations of the responsibility for drug testing altogether and handing those powers over to a state-run council. Meanwhile, the UCI's torpor has forced observers to conclude that the most accurate reflection of its sentiments toward the abuse of the performance-enhancing drug EPO was the response of its president, Hein Verbruggen. On vacation in India when the scandal broke, he made no effort to return early. "The most powerful man in the sport should have been around," opined retired British cyclist Paul Sherwen, who raced in the Tour seven times. "It's telling."

There are, however, encouraging signs that the debacle may have sounded a wider call to arms within the International Olympic Committee, which has scheduled a world-wide antidoping conference for January in Lausanne, Switzerland. The conference's mission will be to accelerate the development of conclusive drug-testing methods and sanctions not only in cycling, but also in swimming, track and field, weight lifting, and cross-country skiing. Despite the failure of similar initiatives in the past, insiders hope this could be a watershed moment. "There's a chance," says Philip Milburn, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee's anti-doping committee, "that things will start to shake up."

Like Cognac, It's a Venerable French Tradition
Cheating in cycling, the purest of sports? Incroyable! In fact, drug abuse, chicanery, and unsportsmanlike behavior have been fixtures of the Tour since its inception. Below, a few highlights.

1904. Three months after the conclusion of the second Tour de France, the three top riders are disqualified. One had improved his time by catching a ride in an automobile. The others had hopped a train.

1938. Gino Bartali, the legendary Italian cyclist known as the Tuscan Lion, attributes his Tour victory in part to his doctor's advice to smoke "a cigarette a day" while training. Sticking to this counsel, he wins again in 1948.

1967. British cyclist Tom Simpson collapses on the road in 110-degree heat, his jersey pockets filled with amphetamines. His last words are, "Put me back on my bike." Later that evening, he dies of heart failure.

1978. Belgian Michel Pollentier, who has just earned the yellow jersey by conquering the notoriously brutal climb to Alpe d'Huez, is found to have a small bulb of drug-free urine strapped under his arm. A tube runs from the bag to a spot just under Pollentier's penis. He is immediately disqualified.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!