Tour Scandals

Forget about Lance Armstrong. These ten scandals rocked cycling to its core.

French hero Raymond Poulidor. (Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo)

The Biggest Scandals in Tour de France History

While the 100th edition of the Tour de France has been blessedly free of scandal so far (despite insinuations that Team Sky was suspiciously dominant on the mountain stages), throughout its history La Grande Boucle has had more disgrace and drama than the Kardashians. Although it remains one of the world’s most beautiful sporting events—a grand showcase of athleticism, grit and courage—since its earliest days the Tour has been sullied by epic displays of cheating, stupidity, and generally bad behavior. With that fact in mind, we offer the following short tour of some of Le Tour’s lowest points.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 1904—The Last Tour

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The Tour's first winner. (Nationaal Archief/Wikimedia)

"The Tour de France is finished and I'm afraid its second edition has been the last.” So wrote race founder Henri Desgrange following the conclusion of the scandal-plagued 1904 Tour. During the race, nine riders were disqualified for hopping trains or taking rides in cars and trucks.

Along the route, overexcited fans showed their support for their favorite competitors by beating up their rivals. When the race finally reached Paris, it appeared that inaugural Tour winner Maurice Garin had triumphed again. But after ongoing complaints to the French Cycling Union about cheating, the top four finishers were all disqualified, making Garin the first Tour winner to be stripped of his title.

In the modern era, three cyclists have been stripped of their titles post-race: Americans Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis, and Spaniard Alberto Contador. All had their victories revoked for doping violations.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 1910—The Assassins

Octave Lapize at a six-day race in Paris. (Rol Agency)

Today, a Tour de France without brutal climbs snaking over snow-capped peaks would be unthinkable. However, in 1910, when Tour organizers announced the race route would include the Pyrenees, more than two dozen cyclists withdrew from the starting list in protest of what the considered a dangerous stunt.

Stage 10 of that year’s Tour included ascents of the Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque. Only one rider, Gustave Garrigou, was able to conquer the Tourmalet without dismounting his bike (for which he received a prize of 100 francs). At the top of the Aubisque, eventual overall winner Octave Lapize shouted, “Assassins!” as he rode by race organizers, who’d driven to the top to watch the suffering cyclists from the safety of a car.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 1966—The First Drug Tests

French hero Raymond Poulidor. (Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo)

Widespread use of performance enhancing drugs was common since the first days of the Tour de France. In an effort to control drug use in sport, France passed a national anti-doping law in 1965 and introduced drug testing at the 1966 Tour. The first doping control was carried out following the eighth stage, with several riders being ordered to submit to testing.

Among those told to provide a urine sample and submit to an examination by doctors was French hero Raymond Poulidor. The following day, the entire peloton protested the tests by walking their bikes for the first part of the ninth stage in Bordeaux while shouting, “No to pissing in test tubes!”

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 1967—The Death of Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. ( Tour de France 100: A photographic History of the World's Greatest Race.)

In 1962, Tom Simpson made history as the first British racer to don the yellow jersey as the Tour’s overall leader. He lost it the next day, but the feat signaled he was a rider to watch. Indeed, more success followed, including victory at the 1965 World Road Race Championships, stage wins at the Vuelta a Espana, and the overall at Paris-Nice.

In 1967, Simpson entered the Tour hoping for a podium finish and to wear yellow for a portion of the race. He started well but unfortunately got sick as the race passed through the Alps. By stage 13, weakened and unwell, Simpson was determined to fight on. That day’s route went over the infamous Mont Ventoux, the feared “Giant of Provence,” a hellish climb snaking over barren, moonscape-like slopes to a brutally exposed summit. Simpson hit the Ventoux with the leading group but then fell off the pace, slipping back though the shattered field of riders.

Soon he started zigzagging erratically across the narrow road. A kilometer from the summit, he toppled over. Helped back on his bike he road another few hundred meters before again nearly crashing. Caught and held upright by spectators, Simpson was now unconscious, still sitting on his bike gripping the handlebars. The Tour’s medical staff was unable to revive him and he was airlifted to a hospital in Avignon, where he was pronounced dead.

The official cause of death was heart failure due to dehydration and heat exhaustion. However, traces of amphetamine were found in Simpson’s body and medical officials said the drugs were a contributing factor to his death, as they likely allowed him to push his body too far. A memorial on the Ventoux near where Simpson collapsed is a popular pilgrimage site for cyclists from all over the world.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 1986—Hinault vs. LeMond

(BeWePa/Flickr)

After three weeks of torture, only one man stands on the top step of the podium in Paris as the overall winner of the Tour de France. But no one gets there without the help of teammates. In 1986, Greg LeMond was poised to become the first (and to this day the only official) American champion.

To accomplish that feat, LeMond was counting on the assistance of his French teammate Bernard Hinault, whom LeMond had helped to victory the previous year. Hinault, still a great rider and a five-time winner of the Tour, repeatedly pledged that he and the entire La Vie Claire team were on board to help LeMond. However, Hinault’s actions out on the roads seemed to indicate otherwise. Hinault repeatedly attacked LeMond, forcing the American into the awkward position of chasing down the aggressive Frenchman.

On stage 18 of the ’86 Tour, one of the most memorable stages in history, with LeMond already wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, the putative teammates went mano-a-mano up the switchbacks of the legendary climb to L’Alpe d’Huez. Hinault could not crack LeMond and the two men crossed the finish line side by side. Five days later, LeMond rode into Paris the overall winner. Hinault finished second and then retired from pro racing.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 1998—The Festina Affair

Forget about the Lance Armstrong. These ten scandals rocked cycling to its core.

Richard Virenque would go on to
Richard Virenque would go on to stand trial in 2000 for his role in the Festina Affair. (Numerius/Flickr)

While doping had been an omnipresent seamy underside of the Tour since its first days, the tawdry ugliness of banned performance enhancing drugs exploded into the spotlight on a grand scale in 1998. The scandal known as the Festina Affair began when an employee of the Festina team, Willy Voet, was arrested by police three days before the Tour at the Belgian-French border.

A search of Voet’s car turned up EPO, banned steroids, syringes and other doping-related products and paraphernalia. Eventually, Festina’s team director, team doctor and nine of its riders were all arrested. Under questioning, the doctor, Bruno Roussel, admitted Festina operated a systematic doping operation. French police, suspecting doping wasn’t limited only to Festina, conducted raids on other teams throughout the Tour.

The raids incensed the racers, who felt they were being treated as criminals, and tensions reached a height on stage 17. First, the peloton held a sit-down strike at the start of the stage. Once on the road riders agreed not to race and dawdled along at a slow tempo. Stopping again, riders threatened to withdraw from the race en masse. Finally, they walked across the finish line in Aix-les-Bains and the day’s stage was nullified. By day’s end, French national champion Laurent Jalabert and all of the race’s Spanish teams had quit. Of the 189 starters, just 96 finished in Paris on August 2.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 2006—Le Tour de Dope

Forget about the doping. These ten scandals rocked cycling to its core.

Floyd Landis went on to win the but was later disqualified for
Floyd Landis went on to win the 2006 Tour de France, but was later disqualified for doping. (Dodo/Flickr)

Seventeen years on from the Festina Affair, if anyone had hoped cycling had made progress regarding its problems with banned substances they were in for a rude awakening. The 2006 Tour de France was bookended with doping scandals.

Beginning in May, a Spanish police investigation dubbed Operación Puerto uncovered an alleged massive doping ring involving several top cyclists. Due to the unfolding investigation, on the eve of the Tour’s start in Strasbourg, nine riders with ties to Puerto were kicked off the start list, including the 2005 edition’s 2nd through 5th place finishers: Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Francisco Mancebo, and Alexandre Vinokourov (2005 “winner” Lance Armstrong had retired).

Once underway, the Tour was enthralling, with American Floyd Landis eking out a victory in an excruciatingly tight three-way battle with Spaniard Oscar Pereiro and German Andreas Kloden. Landis wore yellow into Paris, but his victory celebration was short, as four days after the Tour wrapped up it was announced that his urine sample following his epic win on stage 17 had tested positive for banned synthetic testosterone. Landis claimed innocence, but after exhausting the appeals process his title was stripped in September 2007.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 2007—Firing Michael Rasmussen

Forget about the doping. These ten scandals rocked cycling to its core.

Michael Rasmussen had a rough 2 but an even worse 2006.
Michael Rasmussen had a rough 2005 Tour, but an even worse 2006. (Gsl/Flickr)

Scandal continued to plague the Tour in 2007. During the race, three riders were expelled for doping violations and the entire teams of two of the three offenders left as a result. Then, after winning stage 16, race leader Michael Rasmussen, a Dane riding for the Dutch Rabobank squad, was sacked by his team management for violating team rules.

Rabobank claimed Rasmussen had lied about his whereabouts the month before the Tour started (teams must know where their riders are at all times in case anti-doping officials wish to conduct tests). Rasmussen said that he was training in Mexico, but was spotted by a former cycling pro on the road in Italy instead.

Rasmussen’s removal from the race was unprecedented. The only other Tour leader expelled mid-race—Belgian Michel Pollentier in 1978—was removed for trying to cheat a doping test. Rasmussen is the only leader to have been fired by his own team.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 2010—Chaingate

Forget about the doping. These ten scandals rocked cycling to its core.

Tour de France 2009 Mont Ventou
Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador in 2009. (charel.irrthum/Flickr)

On stage 15 of the 2010 Tour, Luxembourger Andy Schleck was riding in the yellow jersey when he attacked a group of his rivals near the summit of the Port de Balès, a high mountain pass in the central Pyrenees. But soon after Schleck darted up the road he came to a dead stop and hopped off his bike. He’d dropped his chain.

While he struggled to get it back on, Schleck’s closest competitor, Alberto Contador, who was trying to mark Schleck’s attack, rode past him in anger with two other riders. Contador looked back a few times to check on Schleck’s progress, but he did not slow down and wait for Schleck. A desperate Schleck tried to reconnect with Contador but failed, eventually losing the yellow jersey at day’s end and never regaining it.

The stage 15 incident will forever go down in history as “chaingate.” The reason for the controversy has to do with the unwritten rules of the road at the Tour de France—in this case the rule that the leader’s closest rivals should not attack him if he has a mechanical issue. The thinking goes that profiting from the leader’s bad luck is dishonorable, and that the battle for the lead should be held on an even playing field.

Never before has this “rule” been put to the test like it was in 2010. Footage of “chaingate” has been dissected as closely as any in history, and opinion remains split to this day on whether Contador should have waited for Schleck to fix the chain and rejoin the group, or since Schleck attacked first, whether Contador was “allowed” to drop him.

The Biggest TdF Scandals: 2011—TV Car Crashes Riders

Forget about the doping. These ten scandals rocked cycling to its core.

Johnny Hoogerland injury
Johnny Hoogerland after tangling with a barbed-wire fence last year. Expect more spills at the 2012 Tour. (Tim De Waele/Corbis)

Anywhere in the world, cars and cyclists can be a dangerous combination. But given that the Tour route is closed to traffic, it’s safe to say that few riders are worried about being toppled off their bikes by some distracted or dangerous driver. But that’s just what happened in 2011, when a car that was part of the official Tour caravan smashed into the day’s breakaway riders on stage 9.

Trying to pass on the left, a car from broadcaster France Télévisions inexplicably bumped rider Juan Antonio Flecha, knocking him violently to the pavement. Riding behind Flecha, Belgian Johnny Hoogerland was vaulted into the air and landed on a barbed wire fence marking a field alongside the road.

Amazingly, Flecha was OK—he remounted his bike and received treatment for a scraped and banged elbow by Tour medical staff. Even more amazingly, Hoogerland was able to finish the stage, despite sustaining deep cuts to his legs that required 33 stitches. Sadly Hoogerland’s bad luck with cars didn’t end there: in February 2013 he collided with a car while training in Spain, fracturing five ribs and injuring his liver and spine.

Filed To: Sports / Road Biking
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