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The out-of-control spectacle that was last year's Tour de France confirmed once and for all what really makes the riders go: drugs and more drugs and an unbreakable habit of covering up. So, despite the arrests and the confessions and the vows to reform, will this year's race crash and burn?
The diminished peloton blasts through Denain
The Palace of Justice in the French city of Lille doesn't quite live up to its lofty name. It's much less a palace than a modern, workaday courthouse. No grand neoclassical stairs, no ornate entryway. Just a pair of plate-glass doors at street level and, to the chagrin of the mob of reporters gathered outside on this raw April morning, a gated, underground parking garage.
At 9:28 a.m., a blue sedan bearing cyclist Richard Virenque zips around the back of the courthouse and disappears into the garage, catching the journalists flatfooted. No statement, no photo op.
The reporters snap shut their notebooks and sheathe their minicams. They mutter curses as they turn their backs to the damp wind blasting off the nearby English Channel. Why couldn't this mess have started in the sunny south of France instead of the gray north?
It began early in the morning of last July 8, after Willy Voet, a trainer for the Festina road-racing team—of which Virenque was the star rider—loaded a logo-plastered team car with the usual tools of his trade: 250 doses of erythropoietin, or EPO, 100 doses of anabolic steroids, and an assortment of other illicit performance-enhancing substances. Then he set out from Belgium for Ireland, where the 1998 Tour de France would begin. He left the main highway a few miles east of Lille, deciding to cross the French border on a secondary road. Unfortunately for Voet, authorities keep close watch on the smaller road, which is often used by international drug smugglers. Customs agents were there waiting.
Voet's arrest touched off a dizzying, disastrous series of drug-related revelations and detainments, and weeks of international headlines. The scandal brought the mighty Tour to its knees, embroiling dozens of top riders, warping the competition, and decimating the field. Festina, named for the Spanish watchmaking company that sponsors the French team, was disqualified for doping, and all its members were taken into police custody for questioning. Six other top teams voluntarily withdrew after staging chaotic slowdown protests in support of their castigated fellow riders. Of the 21 teams that started the race on July 11, only 14 finished at Paris's Arc de Triomphe 22 days later.
But not just the Tour was bloodied. The "Festina affair" blew the lid off European pro cycling, exposing the sport as the global fountainhead of doping. Even more important, the scandal wedged an opening for the courts and police to enter the war on drugs in sports.
Race-day respite: saddling up for a pre-Tour warm-up in Denain,
a few miles south of Lille and a world away from courts and police
"In the beginning the officials were friendly, but then the horror show began," Festina rider Alex Zülle said after his arrest. "I was put in an isolation cell and had to strip naked. They inspected every body cavity. The next morning they confronted me with compromising documents they had found. They said they were used to seeing hardened criminals in the chair I was sitting on. I wanted out of that hellhole, so I confessed."
Voet also confessed. The team director and team doctor confessed. One by one the other Festina riders confessed. They confessed to shooting up EPO and blood thinners that shielded EPO's presence; steroids and steroid-masking agents; amphetamines, testosterone, and human growth hormone. Voet confessed to infusing a sodium solution into the riders' bloodstreams to reduce red blood cell density and beat the tests, and to administering pot belge, a ballistic compound of cocaine, caffeine, heroin, and cortisone.
They all confessed that the illegal substances were procured through sophisticated black-market networks involving physicians, attorneys, and team officials in league with drug traffickers. They confessed to contributing portions of their salaries and prize winnings to dope funds and to observing major sums of money changing hands. They confessed, finally, that virtually every other team relied on doping as heavily as they did. Festina merely had the bad luck of getting caught.
Toughing it out:
beleaguered Tour director
hero or villain
One rider, however, confessed nothing: Richard Virenque, Festina's team leader and the darling of French cycling fans. He was one of the sport's premier hill-climbers, four-time "King of the Mountains" in the Tour de France and overall runner-up in the '97 race. At age 29, Virenque, a darkly handsome Frenchman who grew up in Casablanca, was at the height of his powers, poised to finally win the Tour and thus claim a place in the French sports pantheon. "Richard the Lionhearted" was adored for his competitiveness, panache, and dash. He was a heartthrob for teenagers from Calais to Marseilles.
Virenque denied everything. At first his resistance seemed brave, as if he were keeping faith with the riders' traditional solidarity and code of silence. But then, as the scandal widened and hardball police tactics shattered the riders' formerly inviolate code, his repeated denials began to seem disingenuous, then disloyal, and finally ludicrously self-serving.
Festina's team doctor, Eric Ryckaert, admitted to presiding over a long-term doping regimen that involved the whole team. Voet enumerated in detail the times he'd administered drugs to Virenque. The trainer charged that besides being one of the team's heaviest dopers, Virenque was instrumental in supplying EPO to his teammates. When Virenque joined Festina in 1993, Voet said, the rider told him, "I will try anything."
"Virenque clearly knew what he was doing," Voet added in his book, Massacre à la Chaine, or Assembly-Line Massacre, a dope-and-tell exposé published in France this spring. "He was the leader. He was the chief and spokesman. Nothing could be decided without consulting him. In the period leading up to the Tour...he was the person who pushed the use of banned substances the most." Blood, urine, and hair analyses suggested that Virenque had been using steroids, steroid-masking agents, and human growth hormone as well as EPO during the Tour.
Confronted with this evidence, Virenque continued to deny, dissemble, and stonewall. He only took what his doctors gave him, he said. They told him they were injecting vitamins. He had never failed an International Cycling Unionsanctioned doping test.
Nearly a year after Voet's bust, the criminal inquiry into the Festina affair grinds on. Today's court appearance in Lille will be Virenque's first since he was placed under formal investigation. If there is a court trial, however, it won't begin until September at the earliest, well after the '99 Tour de France.
Virenque's case has thus evolved into an excruciating dilemma for Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Tour's beleaguered director. Leblanc has vowed that no rider involved with drugs will compete in this month's race. While involved up to his eyeballs, Virenque has never admitted using any illegal substances, has never been found guilty of a crime, and, as he claims, has never failed any official doping tests. For all his difficulties, he remains France's most popular—and now most ridiculed—cyclist.
At 10:35, a clerk announces that Virenque's interview with the investigating judge has concluded. The cyclist and his lawyer should soon be exiting the building. The journalists scramble for microphones and cameras and take huddled aim at the door. They lean forward excitedly, fighting for position like basketball centers posting up. But only dismayed citizens, recoiling at the thrusting mass of paparazzi, appear at the courtroom door.
Where the devil is he? Now there's movement at the corner of the building. Reporters running and gesturing. They're making an end run through the garage! The blue sedan screeches up from the lot and fishtails away, a pair of photographers snapping futilely in its wake. There's a certain seamy frisson to this moment—one can't help thinking of Princess Di.
The photographers walk back, breathing hard and shaking their heads. "Virenque was lying down in the backseat with a coat over him," says one disgustedly. "I couldn't get a damn thing."
Navigating the narrow streets of Denain
On July 3, the Tour de France riders will line up outside a historical theme park in the Vendée town of Le Puy de Fou for the start of the race that will carry them 2,400 miles in 22 days. (Twenty days of cycling and, for the first time in four years, two rest days; the extra day tossed in with a laughable assertion from Tour officials that it will save riders from having to dope.) Each year the precursor to this rolling spectacle is a series of daylong races held throughout the spring. Today it's the Liège-Bastogne-Liège "classic" in Belgium. In the predawn an icy rain has fallen over Liège, a rust-belt city on the fringe of the Ardennes mountains, the Continental equivalent of Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Now sunbeams lance the piled clouds, illuminating thousands of commingling fans and cyclists and the stolid bulk of the Lambert castle, overlaid this morning by a garish film of sponsor logos.
The only cops around are beefy, benevolent guys in uniform, directing traffic and keeping an eye out for lost kids. There are no narcs evident. It appears that the riders can spend the day in the saddle rather than in police custody. The relief will be short-lived, however—about six and a half hours, the time it will take the athletes to pedal the round-trip between here and Bastogne—and then the clouds of paranoia and rage will regather, as they have unceasingly since last July.
Through the winter the sport was shaken by repeated Festina-affair aftershocks. The court inquiry in Lille kept deepening and expanding. Thirteen people are now being formally investigated, including not only athletes such as Virenque or factotums such as Voet, but officials such as Daniel Baal, vice president of the ICU and head of the French cycling federation.
In Denmark, Bjarne Riis, who became a national hero when he won the '96 Tour de France, waged unremitting war against a TV network that aired a multipart exposé on his purported doping. In Italy, judges continued investigating two doctors generally regarded as the godfathers of EPO abuse in European cycling. The cases involved several top riders, including Axel Merckx, son of Belgian five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx.
Virenque, meanwhile, battled on two fronts. Besides being criminally prosecuted, he lost his job when Festina fired all of its veteran, scandal-ridden athletes. Judged damaged marketing goods and a pariah on the circuit because of his betrayal of former teammates, he was passed over by every other elite professional team, even those from France. Last December, a tearful Virenque, still claiming his innocence and petulantly threatening retaliatory lawsuits, retired from the sport.
The retirement lasted a month. In January, Virenque signed an estimated $1.5 million contract with the Italian team Polti, which decided that the French cyclist might be an OK investment after all. Franco Polti, an extremely wealthy manufacturer of home appliances, cheerfully acknowledged he was hiring Virenque to boost his company's exposure in the lucrative French market.
A rider from Mapei-Quick Step meets the press before the Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Staggering under its burden of scandal and prolonged crisis, the circuit resumed in March. Active competition, however, brought no relief. On April 1, two miles into a race in Kortrijk, Belgium, the police stopped the peloton and brought all six riders for MapeiQuick Step, the top-ranked team in the world at the time, in for questioning. The athletes and managers were hauled off to a local police station, where they were grilled about a videocassette stuffed with amphetamines that had been uncovered in the DHL terminal in the Brussels airport. The package had been shipped by a Mapei staffer to the father of a former professional cyclist living in Italy.
The riders were released when the trainer confessed that the amphetamines were for his personal use (a ploy that the hapless Voet had tried unsuccessfully the previous July), but the message sent by authorities was clear: The jailhouse strong-arming and 2 a.m. hotel raids that terrorized the riders in 1998 would continue in '99.
Then, in early May, the French criminal justice system lobbed another bombshell, when police apprehended 15 members of the cycling community in a doping sting in Paris. Among the detained was 24-year-old Belgian Frank Vandenbroucke, the most talented young rider in the sport.
The alleged doping ring was led by Bernard Sainz, a horse breeder with longtime ties to the cycling world, and a prominent sports lawyer, Bertrand Lavelot. Police raided Lavelot's house and his office and found doping paraphernalia and $60,000 in cash. Agents tapped Lavelot's phone, recording damaging conversations with many of his rider-clients, including Richard Virenque.
Yet again, Virenque spent a day under interrogation, this time in a Paris police station. Initial reports had the cyclist caving in and admitting everything. But then Virenque's attorney in the Festina case, Gilbert Collard, arrived on the scene and the story changed. Collard insisted that Virenque had only acknowledged receiving "vitamin injections" and "homeopathic substances" from Sainz. "He did not admit to having ever been doped," Collard said.
Vandenbroucke launched a similar defense, protesting that he'd been "naive, not criminal." He was suspended by his French team, Cofidis, pending results of the investigation. Virenque, by contrast, escaped with a fine from Polti and a warning not to consult outside doctors.
The Paris bust drove the peloton, already badly spooked, close to the breaking point. Two prominent Spanish teams threatened to boycott the Tour unless the French cops laid off. Leblanc called a press conference to confirm that the race would go on regardless of how many teams participated. Riders fluctuated wildly between terror and rage, horrified at the thought of going to prison, furious at their perceived sellout by the sport's power structure.
"I am searching for another job," snapped French rider Stéphane Corlay, one of the athletes arrested in the bust. "There is too much hypocrisy in cycling."
Allez, allez, allez! Undaunted by scandal,
crowds gather for the start in Liège
With considerable justification, the athletes howl that they are taking the fall for an entire corrupt establishment, a system of doping so vast and ingrained that suppliers and users alike scarcely regard it as corrupt any longer. "Long-distance cycling," points out John Hoberman, author of 1992's Mortal Engines, the definitive history of sports doping, "has been the most consistently drug-soaked sport of the twentieth century."
In sports such as track and field and soccer, use of banned substances became epidemic only when the demands—and rewards—of performance grew so great that unaided athletes could no longer compete with those who doped. In cycling, many contend that doping was there from the beginning. Some even believe that the Tour was designed with drugs in mind.
"For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves," observes German sports journalist Hans Halter. "No dope, no hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because, not despite the fact, there is doping."
Five-time champion Jacques Anquetil's "you don't win the Tour de France on mineral water" comment has become boilerplate in any history of the race. In 1967, British cyclist Tom Simpson died of a heart attack while climbing one of the highest passes on the course on a brutally hot day. It was later revealed that Simpson's system was riddled with amphetamines. Instead of being reviled as a cheater, Simpson became an underground hero, his death construed as a sacrifice to the implacable gods of the Tour. A memorial now stands on the spot where he fell.
"I've been in this business for a long time," Festina's Alex Zülle told reporters after his arrest last summer. "I know what goes on. Everyone knows. The riders, the team leaders, the organizers, the officials, the journalists. As a rider you feel tied into the system. It's like being on the highway. The law says there's a speed limit of 65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the limit?"
One of the saddest effects of the doping contagion is that guilt is now assumed. The day before the race in Liège, I spoke with Jonathan Vaughters, a second-year rider with the U.S. Postal Service team. Largely because of U.S. sponsors' lack of tolerance for scandal, the handful of American cyclists on the circuit have always had a reputation for being clean—or at least cleaner than their European counterparts. Andy Hampsten, for instance, a top American rider in the 1980s, is widely rumored to have retired early because he could no longer compete equally with the dopers.
"Since Festina, it's pointless for me to say that I don't dope, that it's not worth it to me to risk my health or spend a few years in a French jail—all of which happens to be true," Vaughters told me. "After all, plenty of confessed dopers made the same claims before they were caught. People are going to believe what they want to believe. And given all that's happened in the last year, who can blame them?"
As the starting time in Liège approaches, I move to the curb and wait for the police to brusquely clear the plaza of spectators, as would certainly happen before any event of this caliber in the States. Liège-Bastogne-Liège marks a turning point in the season, the beginning of the progression toward the big-money, multistage tours of Italy, France, and Spain. In the Tour de France alone, riders compete for a $2 million purse, with $300,000 going to the overall winner. Winning any one of its daylong stages, however, can make a rider's season, assuring him a million-dollar contract and lucrative promotional deals.
The police sweep never occurs. The riders move lazily toward the line, still chatting and laughing with their fans. The starting gun never fires. The race begins as if by telepathic agreement, the riders pushing gently, almost reluctantly, away from the crowd.
But within a few slashing pedal strokes, the cyclists settle in to their work. Their faces harden. They seek teammates and, pair by pair, clump into tight formation. Team Polti forms a blurred, yellow-shirted mass in the heart of the peloton, sheltering its new leader, Richard Virenque.
Tour de France Director Jean-Marie Leblanc stabs a cold cigar into an ashtray on his office desk, crosses thick fingers across his barrel chest, and stares broodingly out at the rain.
"The fate of Richard Virenque," he says, "is not the issue here. The issue is the future health and underlying integrity of the Tour de France."
Leblanc leans forward, lowering his voice confidingly. "Although personally, I don't think he could have been a dealer. The judge tries to identify Virenque as a source of drugs because he was the star of the team. He hopes Virenque will give him more information and implicate others."
He leans back in his chair, the silence broken only by the rain ticking against the window. It's past seven in the evening and the building is deserted for the day. With its mirrored office towers and skyscape of jutting construction cranes, Issy les Moulineaux, an American-style industrial park taking shape just outside the Paris city limits, personifies the new, borderless Europe and its royalty of multinational corporations. Take out one or two zinc-barred tabacs, add some no-smoking signs, and you could be in Lubbock, Texas, as easily as the City of Light.
Similarly, like any self-respecting fin de siècle corporation, the Société du Tour de France has shrewdly and aggressively diversified. Operating on a $50 million annual budget, the private company has added the Paris-Dakar auto race, the Paris Marathon, and a half-dozen other cycling races to its stable of events. One of the skeletal office buildings rising on the business park's horizon will form the society's new corporate headquarters.
But now, prolonged scandal and crisis threaten the profitability of the firm's core product. Festina, a Tour sponsor as well as team patron, saw sales growth slow last year in the wake of the affair. Television networks in France and Spain reported shrunken viewer shares for their '98 Tour telecasts. Leblanc must regain the sponsors' confidence, feed and pacify the media, reassure the public, and keep the riders from openly revolting. The longtime director must also cover his own exposed flanks. He has threatened to resign if this year's Tour proves as dirty as last year's.
The cynical view is that Leblanc, a former professional rider, knew everything about doping and passively condoned it. The more charitable interpretation is that, like an affectionate but distracted père, he looked the other way while his kids played with matches.
"In my day as a rider we had dope, sure," he reflects, relighting his cigar. "But it was nothing like today. Nothing like EPO. For the riders," he smiles ruefully, correcting himself, "for everybody, EPO is like kerosene."
Unlike such earlier doping choices as opium, heroin, amphetamines, and even anabolic steroids, EPO can be a wonder drug when used for legitimate medical purposes. Developed in the mid-eighties by Amgen, a U.S. company, EPO is a tourengineered hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells, thereby increasing oxygen delivery to the muscles. Before EPO, kidney dialysis patients, devastated by pernicious anemia, had to undergo difficult, dangerous, and often ineffective blood transfusions. Now, with regularly administered EPO, those same patients are living vigorous, virtually normal lives.
When the results of EPO clinical trials were published during the eighties, the state-of-the-art illicit procedure was blood doping, a technique in which athletes withdrew blood during training, refrigerated it, and then infused it before competition. Blood doping, however, was as inconvenient and unreliable for athletes as transfusions were for dialysis patients. Suddenly, with EPO, there was a drug that could tidily boost an athlete's oxygen-delivery capacity and therefore his endurance and ability to recover from exertion. Even better, since it stimulated production of a naturally occurring substance, EPO was as undetectable as blood doping.
EPO's first wide-scale use was reported among cross-country skiers in the 1988 Winter Olympics. The stuff then spread like a computer virus through the elite-athlete underground. EPO was a cheater's dream, boosting stamina during competition, shrinking recovery time afterward, and confounding all tests. But these wonders came at a price. Teams were said to shell out as much as $800,000 per year for EPO and various other drugs.
EPO is also hazardous. A healthy adult male's hematocrit, or the percentage of his blood made up of red blood cells, ranges from 43 to 49 percent; athletes shooting up EPO have sent their hematocrits skyrocketing into the sixties, at which point blood takes on the consistency of sludge. Since 1987, 18 young European cyclists have died from alleged EPO-induced heart attacks.
The hormone's combined efficacy, expense, and danger proved an irresistible challenge for the doping maestros of European professional cycling. An Italian doctor named Francesco Conconi is said to have developed a technique for balancing EPO, blood thinners, and human growth hormone in an explosively powerful mixture that athletes could take safely (at least in the short term) and that would pass doping tests. Conconi and his protégé, Michele Ferrari, were widely believed to be "treating" many of the top riders in the peloton. (In a graphic example of the corruption and ineptitude prevalent among cycling federations, at the same time that Conconi was reportedly perfecting his illicit cocktail, he was also employed by the ICU to develop anti-doping tests.)
Cycling's well-financed and organized team structure, meanwhile, promoted economical wholesale purchases and medically supervised administration of black-market EPO. Riders and teams typically shared costs, the athletes contributing a portion of their salaries and prize winnings to a "black box" maintained by the team's soigneurs, or assistants. It was Willy Voet who tended the black box for Festina.
"All the soigneurs on the various teams took care of each other," Voet told journalists last spring. "If I was out of EPO or steroids or some other stuff, I would just go to one of the guys on the other teams and tell him what I needed."
In the mid-nineties, Sandro Donati, an Italian physician and leading anti-doping advocate, estimated that 60 to 70 percent of pro cyclists used EPO. He now estimates that at least 80 percent are regular users. "It is completely impossible to be competitive at the world level without using performance-boosting substances," he says. Adds Gilles Delion, a former professional rider from France, "You couldn't be among the world's 50 best riders if you didn't take EPO, and it's been that way for quite a while."
The economic and pharmaceutical dictates of EPO, in short, necessitated a vast, lavishly financed, tightly organized supply-and-delivery system, one that professional cycling could easily accommodate. It was this new, big-business type of doping network that finally drew the attention of the French government and criminal justice system.
The movement toward government intervention in the doping issue had been building for years. "Sports people weren't taking any sort of leadership stand against drugs, so the governments had to," says John Hoberman. "Sporting federations, including the International Olympic Committee, are only interested in maintaining the status quo."
In 1997, Marie-George Buffet, a member of the French Communist Party, was named France's Secretary of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, a cabinet-level position. Warning that "doping in sports was no longer a cottage industry," she vowed to make the issue the centerpiece of her administration. France's new leftist coalition government supported Buffet's anti-doping campaign to the tune of $4 million per year. She was the force behind the nation's dramatically tough new anti-doping law, the first to make doping a criminal offense. Buffet then took aim at the Tour de France and its drug-tainted tradition. In the months prior to the '98 Tour, customs agents made three seizures of banned substances carried by cycling crews, the first since the Tour began in 1903.
Leblanc boasts of the Tour's reforms, stressing that the race now employs the most sophisticated and exhaustive doping tests in the world. Riders' blood and urine are tested four times annually. Tour competitors are also subject to additional, random testing. Baseline measurements of a range of physiological functions for each athlete have been established; any substantial deviation from those baselines, for whatever reason, will result in disqualification from competition.
On the surface, this system would seem to be airtight, incorporating blood as well as urine testing and judging results not on the presence of banned substances—all of which can be fairly easily masked—but on any deviation from the individual's physiological norm. But the program bears the same central flaw that has compromised all previous testing: It fails to adequately address the use of EPO. By accepting a hematocrit of 50 percent, the testing will in fact be permitting, even encouraging, continued EPO abuse.
"The great majority of healthy males have baseline hematocrit levels of about 42 percent," explains Don Catlin, a UCLA professor of pharmacology who served as director of the anti-doping program at the '96 Atlanta Olympics. "The only way you're going to get to 49.9 is by using EPO. Now if you know that every other rider on the starting line is doped up to a legal 49 level, are you going to give them an advantage by not doping?"
"The 50 percent level is a compromise, the best we can do at this time," Leblanc concedes. "It is set there more for the riders' protection than anything else. Guys were going overboard, going up past 60 percent, and having heart attacks."
Together with tougher criminal laws, relentless police enforcement, high-profile court investigations, and intense media scrutiny, the new testing procedure, with its subtle yet gaping hematocrit loophole, should be sufficient to give the appearance of order to the '99 Tour de France. The great majority of riders will still dope, but they will do so discreetly and, thanks to the loophole, with the tacit approval of the sport's governing bodies. Team doctors and trainers will be much more circumspect. Perhaps one or two careless athletes will fail a doping test—all the better to prove the efficacy of reforms and increased vigilance—but there will be nothing like the humiliating catastrophe of the Festina affair. Still, the root causes and underlying structure of doping remain intact.
The Tour de France has spent virtually the entire twentieth century getting into this mess, and even the most draconian testing and enforcement won't get it out overnight. In the tumultuous year since the Festina scandal broke, several members of the cycling community have suggested that the only sane way of dealing with doping is to legalize it.
"We'll have to live with doping," says Francesco Moser, a former elite professional rider who was allegedly treated by Conconi. "Pure cycling is just an illusion. There comes a stage when a rider must be told the effects of a medicine. Then if he wants to, let him take it."
In effect, Moser argues for formal recognition of a gladiator class of professional athletes. Last winter, International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch was castigated for voicing a similar opinion. While legalizing banned substances makes sense on one level, its unintended consequences could be catastrophic. Drugs deemed relatively safe now might prove lethal after more definitive long-term testing. Worse, legalizing dope for professional athletes could tacitly condone drug use for amateurs, including children: Witness the spike in sales of the muscle builder androstenedione after Mark McGwire acknowledged he used the stuff. If doping is a battle that can't be won, it is also a battle we can't afford not to fight.
"We have to change the whole culture of sport," says Catlin. "We have to invest the money for more baseline testing. But instead of punishing athletes who stray from the baseline, we should reward those who keep on it."
Until such lasting, fundamental reforms are debated and adopted, we are left with the present culture of hypocrisy and denial. Rather than marking some climax or culmination of the sports-doping controversy, the Festina affair signals a mere beginning. The '99 Tour de France will be a race in transition. Whether the riders are pedaling away from or toward the precipice is an open question.
"Last year during the scandal, you said that the Tour de France could only continue under a new moral order," I say to Leblanc. "Has that order been achieved?"
He takes a long time to reply and then chooses his words carefully. "I think the future lies with the very young riders. The ones just starting out. I think with them there is hope."
The finish area at Liège completes a vast circle. The race that began in sunlit camaraderie at the Lambert castle has logged 175 exacting miles along the spine of the Ardennes, where late-spring patches of snow still cling beneath the fir trees. The race now concludes in evening sunshine in a residential suburb of the city. Here, as at the start, the citizens turn out to greet the riders.
The cyclists blast across the line and then filter into the finish area near the press center to meet their managers, handlers, and domestiques. A dues-paying rookie or role-playing journeyman, a domestique has the job of protecting and serving his team leader. Like disengaged booster rockets, these cyclists sometimes don't finish races, but return to base once their mission is accomplished. They watch on the press tent TV as Frank Vandenbroucke, the brilliant young rider who will soon be enmeshed in the Paris bust, lifts his arms in victory. The domestiques watch, hollow-eyed, clutching airline tickets to their next stop on the circuit and with God knows what raging through their bloodstreams.
After Vandenbroucke concludes his victory press conference, the reporters wander outside to the team trucks. There, the other top riders sign autographs and greet well-wishers while they ice their legs and walk off the first flush of lactic acid. Team Polti has claimed a remote corner of the lot, partially hidden by shrubbery. But half a dozen fans still find Virenque, who has finished a serviceable 35th in this early-season test, eight minutes behind the winner.
There's a cocksure gleam about him that's undiminished by his hard effort. He moves with the casual disdain of a man accustomed to being watched. Virenque's dark complexion and his high cheekbones make him seem at once boyish and piratical. His eyes are black and hard and unreflective. If the last year has frayed him, there is no physical evidence. He strips off his jersey and walks around bare-chested. A teammate mutters in his ear and he flashes a white grin. Four middle-school-age girls groan softly.
"Personally, since the Festina affair, I have lost respect for Virenque," says the girls' chaperone, a fortyish man from Liège. "But, as you can see, the ladies still love him."
Reacting to his grin, to the ease of the moment, I approach Virenque. We make eye contact, and for an instant his face softens. The corners of his mouth twitch. He's about to smile, to accept a fan's welcome after a fierce ride. Then he sees the press badge hanging around my neck. His face closes, but he stands his ground, waiting for the same question that he's spurned for the last year. The ritual seems pointless, but we go through it anyway. I ask Virenque to comment about the bust, and he refuses. The rider turns away. A soigneur hands him an apple as Vandenbroucke sweeps past, trailing a retinue of frenzied reporters, intent, for today, on a sports story rather than a drug story. Not one of them notices Virenque, who leans against the Team Polti truck munching fruit in the evening sun.
John Brant is a contributing editor of Outside.