Sunday, 21 July 2013

Le Tour 1994-2004

The Tour de France is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The sheer physical toll this bike race takes on it's competitors is greater then any other competition. As we celebrate the 100th edition's completion this evening, I decided to reflect upon my own memories of 'Le Grand Boucle' and as if by fate, this will be my 20th edition to follow.
I have compiled my most vivid memories from each Tour not necessarily a defining moment when a champion was crowned or an incident that you would see on the back pages of tabloids in this country, and I've delved a bit into the archives to help set the scene for the events of each Tour. I've decided to omit certain achievements or victories which have been proven to be tainted by doping, but have included others which may be under suspicion. That said, it would be impossible now to go back and analyze every rider's performance at the time for the use of doping and to a certain extent, we should let those moments be. Cycling is vastly different to what it was in 1994 and we should be thankful for a much cleaner, exciting sport and not dredge through the past on a witch-hunt looking for people to blame. If you want to comment on this article, please do, but please don't point the finger at riders who may or may not have doped so many years ago. If you want to have that discussion, send me a tweet.

So, here it is, the first half of my list of 20 of my memories from Le Tour from 1994 to 2013:

1994 – 'The Crash'

The Tour has an innate ability to create drama, whether that be from a blistering attack in the mountains or a hectic sprint finish after 200km on the flat. My first moment occurred during the latter.
The 94 Tour route was strange, starting in Lille with the prologue then after a swift Tour of Northern France, a jaunt across La Manche for two stages in England. The first stage proper of the race was to finish in Armentieres and upon closer inspection, it looked perfect. A nice wide road, a gentle right hand bend to finish where none of the sprinters would have to worry about using their breaks in the final kilometer. This would be a straightforward bunch sprint, or at least it would've been until there was Police involvement.
As the sprinters were about to unleash their final efforts for the push to the line Wilfried Nelissen, who had held the yellow jersey for a few days in the previous year's Tour, crashed and brought down a handful of riders in a nasty looking crash. (every crash looks pretty nasty at 60 kph, but this one especially so) Upon further viewing however it did not appear to be his fault, as a police officer brought in to control the crowd and prevent them hanging over the barriers taking photographs, thus endangering the riders' safety was himself standing out from the barriers taking a photograph of the riders. Nelissen admittedly had his head down and was not looking in front of him as he sped towards the officer, but given that he could see the barriers, he knew where he was on the road, and should not have expected anything other than a bicycle to appear in front him.
There was an official police investigation and it was found that the police officer was not at fault in any way whatsoever for the crash and there was no camera involved. The officer broke his leg after being hit by Nelissen, and presumably was never deemed fit enough to marshal the crowd at the finish of a stage again.
Nelissen was never the same as a rider and after a brief battle with injury, he admitted defeat at retired a few years later at the age of 28. Of the other riders involved in the crash, the most seriously injured was an exciting French sprinter and previous green jersey winner Laurent Jalabert. Jalabert never regained his speed in the bunch sprint and was forced to adapt his style to survive in the race, but more of him later.
The Tour has since worked tirelessly to eliminate most of the risks is sprints finishes, and now there is no-one between the barriers at the finish except the riders themselves and perhaps the odd support vehicle, so if anybody crashes during the finish, they only have themselves or another rider to blame and that's how it should be.

1995 – Fabio Casartelli

Fabio Casartelli was the Olympic road race champion in 1992 in Barcelona and was a member of a young a promising Motorola squad at the Tour de France. Sadly tragedy struck and on the 15th Stage of the Tour, Casartelli was riding in a small group on the descent of the Col de Portet d'Aspet in the Pyrenees when there was a crash. Dante Rezze fell down a ravine, but was pulled out by spectators with relatively minor injuries. Dirk Baldinger broke his leg and was out of the Tour, but those injuries were minor compared to Fabio. Casartelli fell and struck his head on a cement bollard at the side of the road. Pictures and video show him lying in the fetal position with blood streaming down the road from his head. The doctors were on scene within 10 seconds and he was immediately airlifted to Tarbes to a hospital. His heart stopped three times in the helicopter and although he was revived twice, he succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at the hospital. This was a huge shock to the peloton and I even get emotional when thinking about that day. Casartelli as was the custom in racing at the time, did not wear a helmet, only a cloth cap to protect him from the sun. The coroner who inspected his body at Tarbes concluded that although he still would have been seriously injured, if Casartelli had been wearing a helmet he would have avoided some serious injuries and could have survived. A memorial is built to Casartelli on the mountain and is visited regularly by cyclists of all ages and abilities. The following days' stage was neutralized and Casartelli's Motorola team-mates crossed the line together pointing to the sky and the memory of Fabio. Casartelli was the first rider to die on the Tour since Tom Simpson perished on the slopes of Mont Ventoux almost 30 years before.
Stage 18 was won by Lance Armstrong after a long breakaway and although he dedicated his victory to Fabio, perhaps the more important legacy left after the Italian's death is that helmets are now mandatory in most cycling races and have save countless lives on the roads all over the world.

1996 – Big Mig Cracks

Miguel Indurain was a machine in the early 90s, famously overtaking 2-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon in a time trial in 1992 en route to becoming the first and now only five time consecutive winner. The Spaniard had been flawless, gaining large amounts of time in the time trials and marking his opponents in the mountains, with the occasional attack a la Hautacam 1994. He never seemed vulnerable and looked set in 1996 to overtake Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault at the top of the all time winners list.
1996 would be the Basque's undoing, and it would be spectacular. He entered the 7th stage in 8th overall, 4:17 behind the yellow jersey, but only 12 seconds behind another pre-race favorite in Alex Zülle after the participants in a previous day's breakaway occupied the top spots in the general classement.
During the stage, there were no warning signs, Indurain stayed safely with the rest of the favorites, Zülle, Yevgeny Berzin and Bjarne Riis. He repeatedly repelled attacks from the select group with his usual vigor and they had even distanced themselves from former sprinter and now re-invented all-round rider Laurent Jalabert.
Suddenly Tony Rominger, Berzin and Riis upped an already frenetic pace set by Indurain's former team-mate Aitor Garmendia. Indurain dug into his well and tried to respond, but this was not to be a fairytale finish for Mig, he had pushed his Spanish V8 engine into the red-zone and far beyond any sustainable effort.
In a scene that was repeated this year on the double ascent of Alpe d'Huez, Indurain signaled to the team car that he needed more fuel and a full bidon. Even that could not arrest the slide of the great rider. Perennial polka dot jersey winner Richard Virenque summed it up best, “When the other broke, he just appeared to cycle on the same piece of road. Truly, it is the most remarkable sight I have seen on the Tour”
Indurain could count himself lucky, the commissars decided not to punish him an additional 20 seconds for his illegal feed, the fate the befell Froome and Porte on Thursday, instead allowing the natural course of events to play out. At the end of the stage, the man who had dominated the previous five Tours, the man who had consumed so many French mountains had been defeated, demoralized and destroyed. He only lost 3:23 to new yellow jersey Berzin and Riis who would go on to win the Tour. He would never get any closer in the following stages, and when the peloton arrived in Paris, he was over 14 minutes behind. He left the Tour like so many former greats, broken by the toughest race, never to return.

1997 – Ullrich the Phenom

In 1996, Jan Ullrich was a promising young rider and loyal team-mate to winner Bjarne Riis, he won the white jersey for the best rider under the age of 26 and was touted as a future winner of the race. Riis had returned to defend his title, but he could not compete with the East German diesel possessed by Ullrich. That isn't necessarily a slight on Riis though, as no-one could compete with Ullrich in 1997.
After 8 flat stages and a prologue, Ullrich sat 2:56 off yellow and 1:03 ahead of Riis, a further 27 seconds in front of Virenque and 4:21 in credit of Marco Pantani. On stage 9, only Virenque and Pantani could stay with Ullrich on the road to Loudenvielle with all three finishing with the same time and taking 27 seconds off Riis. This had allowed Ullrich to close the gap to yellow jersey holder Cedric Vasseur to just 13 seconds and surely it was a matter of time before he took his place at the head of the peloton.
Such is the petulance of youth that Ullrich went out the very next day and on the climb to Andorra Arcalis, he blew the field away on the longest mountain stage on the Tour, effortlessly cruising up the slopes to lead the field home by 1:08 an with it a secure hold of the yellow jersey with a cushion of nearly three minutes.
Riders were quick to heap praise on the young star. Lance Armstrong preached, “It's not so surprising. He's a talented young guy who was world champion as an amateur. He could win many more Tours”
Ullrich himself summed it up best, “I made the break, then I looked back and saw no-one coming with me so I thought, this is it and pressed on”
This seemed to be his mantra for the remainder of the Tour and after a brief respite for the competition with a bunch sprint into Perpignan and a rest day, Ullrich resumed his demolition of the field on stage 12, an individual time trial around St. Etienne. He beat the field by over three minutes, catching Virenque on the road and extending his overall lead over the Frenchman to 5:42. He had not completely silenced the peloton however, as Pantani won the following stage up to Alpe d'Huez albeit with a new record time, but again Ullrich took time from Virenque, this time 40 seconds. Pantani reclaimed 1:17 into Morzine, but this was too little, too late and Ullrich hammered the final blow on his Mickey Mouse opposition in the penultimate stage, another time trial this time at Disneyland Paris. He finished 2:47 ahead of Virenque with Pantani a further 1:03 behind. Ullrich cruised up the Champs Elysees to complete his crushing victory, in the end 9:09 ahead of Virenque and 14:03 in front of Pantani. Defending champion Bjarne Riis finished 7th, 26 and a half minutes behind Ullrich. Such was the domination of victory, only 15 of the 139 finishers were within 1 hour of Ullrich at the finish line of the Tour. The era of Ullrich was upon us.

1998 – Festina

In 1998, the Tour began in Dublin, but the drama had already started well before 'Le Grand Depart'. 3 days before the Prologue in Dublin, Festina soigneur and Richard Virenque's personal carer Willy Voet was stopped by customs on the Belgian-French border. His car was searched and officials found anabolic steroids, EPO syringes and a whole host of doping paraphernalia. Voet was arrested and taken into custody. Police then searched Festina team headquarters in Lyon and seizing more doping products including perfluorocarbon, an artificial carrier of oxygen suspected to have caused many riders to collapse on the road due to it's instability as a doping product.
Two days later in Dublin, Festina directeur sportif Bruno Roussel maintained his innocence and claimed Voet was acting as a lone wolf and had nothing to do with the team at the Tour. Meanwhile in France, a judicial inquiry had been called to investigate the matter and Voet would be imprisoned for two weeks for his possession of the doping products.
On the first day of the Tour, French police announce that Voet's car had contained 250 bottle of EPO and 400 bottles of other substances including steroids. They also announced their intention to question Virenque, Alex Zülle and Laurent Dufaux once they returned to France.
On the day of the fourth stage, Roussel and Festina team doctor Eric Rijckaert were arrested and taken into custody in Cholet. The Festina team hotel was also searched by police and the following day Roussel was stripped of his license to run the team by the UCI. Despite this, Festina intended to continue and team officials Miguel Moreno and Michael Gros would take over. Virenque called a press conference with a few of his fellow riders to assure fans that they would continue.
The following day however, the charade was up. Roussel admitted to systematic doping on the team and explained that riders were paid a premium to dope on the team and that all but one of their Tour team had been doping during the race. That one rider was crucial however, his name was Christophe Bassons.
Race organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc expelled Festina from the Tour and they did not start the seventh stage on the race the following day. Richard Virenque spoke to reporters in tears and left the race to face the French authorities.
Almost a week later 12 members of the Festina team were taken into police custody. 8 of the 9 riders in the team for the Tour along with another rider and three team officials were to be charged by the French authorities, but Bassons was exonerated from charges as he was the only rider not implicated in the doping program.
During the seventeenth stage of the race, the riders refused to race due to the scrutiny being placed on doping. When they eventually started riding, they cruised along the road very slowly in protest. Laurent Jalabert pulled out of the race followed by his entire ONCE team, Team TVM were also called under suspicion of doping and several riders were ordered to take blood tests.
The following day, the Kelme and Vitalicio Seguros teams also pulled out and reports surfaced the the drugs found in Voet's car were to be shared by three French teams; Big Mat, Francais des Jeux and Casino. It was also reported at the time, that during interviews with police, the Festina riders had corroborated this story.
Team TVM then pulled out prior to Stage 19 of the race, and now less then 100 of the 189 riders who start the Tour remained. The Tour, in case you'd forgotten bout the racing, was won by Marco Pantani. The era of Ullrich was over.

The ramifications of the Festina affair continued and it was not until 2000 that they reached a French courtroom. Of the nine riders taken into police custody after their expulsion from the Tour, 8 tested positive for EPO, the ninth tested was Christophe Moreau who although his results were borderline, had already admitted to using EPO. Voet then gave an interview with Le Parisien where he revealed only three of Festina's riders were clean, Patrice Hagland, Laurent Lefevre and Christophe Bassons. Virenque maintained his innocence to the point where he had a heated confrontation with Voet and Rijckaert.
The courtroom trial had ten defendants, amongst which were Virenque, Voet, Roussel and Rijckaert. During the trial, Virenque admitted to doping as did team-mate Pascal Herve. 8 of the defendants were found guilty and given suspended prison sentences and heavy fines. The charged against Rijckaert were dropped due to his poor health and his death a month later from cancer. Inexplicably, Virenque was cleared, but was banned a week later by the Swiss cycling federation and was vilified by the press.
Cycling was in tatters, widespread allegations of doping implicated almost the entire peloton. Cycling would have to provide a new hero to alleviate the depression caused by the so called 'Tour de Dopage'

1999 – Cipo and Bassons

Super Mario, the Lion King, Pretty Mario or simply just Cipo. Mario Cipollini embodied the superstar popularity cycling has in Italy. The larger than life character had already appeared during stages wearing zebra and tiger skins suits racking up more than his fair share of fines before he arrived at the 1999 Tour. During that race however, he cemented his legendary status in the pantheon of Tour sprinters. Belgian Tom Steels had won stages 2 and 3, but was denied a famous hat-trick by Cipo on the run-in to Blois. In doing so, Cipollini set the fastest ever average speed for a mass start stage at a mesmerizing 50.355 kph. His team Saeco had implemented and perfected the lead-out train and time after time Mario was delivered to the front with uncanny efficiency. Famed for his movie-star looks, Cipollini rode the majority of stages with his gelled, slicked back hair on display for the cameras. It was said that at the time the hardest and most dangerous job in the sports was to be the rider tasked with returning to the Saeco team car to retrieve Mario's helmet with 10km remaining. His date with destiny approached as Cipo won stages 5 and 6, blasting past rivals with his customary nonchalance while completing his own memorable hat trick. Thionville would be his defining moment and he was once again launched by his team with just over 200m to go. As he had with allegedly over 1000 women in his prime, Cipo sealed the deal and repeated his victories of the previous three days, completing the first four-timer at the Tour since Charles Pelissier in 1930. Super Mario celebrated in his typical style, dressing as Julius Caesar during the first rest day, and despite a valiant effort, abandoning during the first mountain stage just as he had on every previous Tour.
The legend of Cipollini was always entertaining, but this was his crowning moment in Le Tour. He won 12 stages in his career, and we have someone else coming up later who may have a couple more.

One of the darker moments in the Tour's history also occurred in 1999. The so called Tour of Renewal after the previous year's Festina scandal, had been criticized by rider Christophe Bassons, an outspoken critic of doping who had referred to the return to cycling and ascent to the top of the sport by Lance Armstrong as having “shocked the peloton” in his daily column for newspaper Le Parisien. This had angered the peloton two-fold, firstly by accusing them of doping, which most of them were, and secondly by breaking the riders' Omerta on doping or 'code of silence'. On Stage 10 to Alpe d'Huez, they organized a go-slow for the first 100km with the co-operation of all riders except Bassons who was deliberately kept out of the loop. Bassons had a loyal mechanic in his team however and found out about the protest the evening before.
While the peloton were content to roll along the roads and protest their innocence, Bassons decided to take a stand. He continually attacked during this period and despite being brought back to the peloton every time, he would not give in. The only man who could force him to stop would be all-time villain on the Tour, Lance Armstrong. Bassons said in an interview with BBC Five Live in 2012,

. . . and then Lance Armstrong reached me. He grabbed my by the shoulder, because he knew that everyone would be watching, and he knew that at that moment, he could show everyone that he was the boss. He stopped me, and he said what I was saying wasn't true, what I was saying was bad for cycling, that I mustn’t say it, that I had no right to be a professional cyclist, that I should quit cycling, that I should quit the tour, and finished by saying fuck you. . . . I was depressed for 6 months. I was crying all of the time. I was in a really bad way.”

Bassons was exiled from the peloton and vilified for taking a stand. The other riders wouldn't even talk to him and his own team treated him like the enemy.
Especially in the light of the revelations of the last year or so, we should salute Bassons and the other riders who spoke out and whistle-blew on doping. Frankie and Betsy Andreu among many others had the courage to swim against the tide and stand up for a sport they love and principles they believe in. Cycling owes a debt of gratitude to Bassons, the Andreus and many other, a debt that it can never repay.

2000 – David Millar

2000 was a short and sweet Tour for me. We were treated to the rise of a new British hero on the opening stage. Following the history of Chris Boardman's prologue wins, an unknown Scotsman took the 16.5km time trial at Futuroscope. David Millar became only the fourth Brit to wear the yellow jersey after Tom Simpson, Sean Yates and Chris Boardman. Millar's margin of victory was only two seconds, but he claimed yellow and held it for the following two days before ONCE won the team time trial. Millar however would not be forgotten and after a drug ban in 2004, he returned to the Tour to become one of four British stage winners in 2012 and is the only few British rider to have won a stage and worn the leader's jersey in all three grand tours. Only Sir Bradley Wiggins has worn all three jerseys and although Mark Cavendish has won all three sprinters' jerseys he has never worn yellow.

2001 - “The Look”

In 2001, Lance Armstrong was arguably at his most dominant in the the Tour. He had won the previous two Tours by a combined 13:46 and despite conceding almost 36 minutes to a 14 man breakaway two stages earlier, the big, cheating Texan was going to make a statement on Stage 10, form Aix-les-Bains to Alpe d'Huez, the only Alpine stage in that year's Tour. Armstrong pulled the second biggest deception of his career. Riding at the back of the pack grimacing and looking ready to drop off the back and concede time to Jan Ullrich and the Team Telekom machine.
When the rider arrived at the foot of the Alp, only Laurent Roux was ahead of the group, 7 minutes up the road. Ullrich had shed most of his team-mates trying to drop the laboring Armstrong. When Armstrong's team-mate Jose Rubiera attacked, only Armstrong and Ullrich could respond and when Rubiera finally dropped off, Armstrong looked back, seemingly straight into the eyes of Ullrich, then he was gone. Armstrong suddenly had a rocket on his back, he flew up the climb in the second fastest time in history, only Pantani was faster. Ullrich who had put a lot of effort into the stage already was powerless to follow and limped slowly up the mountain as Armstrong set off after Roux. The German was broken, and when they arrived in Paris, he was nearly 7 minutes behind.
Armstrong stated in an interview after the finish that he wasn't looking at Ullrich, rather that he was looking back down the mountain to see who else was in the group. Given what we now know about Armstrong, how can we be sure.

2002 – Au Revoir Jaja

2002 saw the retirement of one of France's best loved cyclists, The Panda, Jaja, Laurent Jalabert. He had been a great sprinter and after his horror crash in 1994, he had re-invented himself as an all-round cyclist. In 1995 he repeated a feat that only Eddy Merckx and Tony Rominger had accomplished. He rode in the Vuelta a Espana and won the sprinters' jersey, mountains jersey and the overall race. He is also one of only five riders to have won the sprinters' jersey in all three tours along with Merckx, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish. The 2002 Tour was his farewell, a victory lap around France. The previous year, he won the polka dot jersey, and it seemed to suit him and he rode in as many breakaways as possible to mop up the points. He took his bow and all of France saluted him. Sadly for French cycling, they have not had much to celebrate since as Jalabert himself was the last French winner of the green jersey in 1995, Bernard Hinault was the last French winner of the Tour in 1986 and although Richard Virenque won 7 polka dot jerseys in his career, only two riders have won it since. How the French must envy Sir Dave Brailsford's rider factory now.

2003 – Beloki's thigh and a yellow bag

The 2003 Tour was defined by two moments, neither of which necessarily fueled by EPO and they highlight the best and worst parts of professional cycling.
Firstly the worst. Joseba Beloki had been impressing in the first week of the race and looked like Lance Armstrong's main competition for a then fifth Tour title. Stage 9 finished in Gap, a popular finishing town and although the hard work in terms of climbing had already been done for the day, the excessive heat and multiple breakaway groups up the road posed the biggest threats to the main GC contenders like Armstrong and Beloki. Alexandre Vinokourov, himself no stranger to doping scandals had attacked on the final climb of the day and during the descent of the Cote de la Rochette, it was a close call as to whether the chasing group could catch him.
Shortly after passing the Col de Manse, Beloki and Armstrong entered a right hand bend and possibly due to the aforementioned heat and a patchy road surface, Beloki slid his bike into the corner and was vaulted off his machine and onto the tarmac. He landed heavily on his hip and although initially he tried to climb back on board, he was unable to continue. He had broken his collarbone, possible some ribs, but most importantly and cruelly, he snapped his femur (thigh bone) and was out of the Tour. I can still hear his cries of pain when being helped up and into the team car on his way to a hospital on Gap.
The drama of the moment however was not over as Armstrong was following Beloki closely and after the Spaniard's crash, was forced to swerve to the left and take evasive action into an empty field.
What followed was almost surreal, he continued through the field, as though he was riding a mountain bike. As the road looped back following a left hand bend, Armstrong unclipped his pedals and hopped over advertising hoardings. The Texan remounted just as the chasing group turned through the left hander and he rejoined the pursuit of Vinokourov. The group would not catch the Kazakh and although he vaulted up to second overall, Armstrong was just glad to still be in the race, unlike the unfortunate Beloki, who like so many before him would never recapture his former form and retired under the cloud of Operacion Puerto a few years later.
The polar opposite moment of Tour riding came on Stage 15 to Luz-Ardiden when during the last 10km of the Stage, a group containing Armstrong, Ullrich, Iban Mayo amongst other were chasing down a two man break of Santiago Botero and Sylvain Chavanel. Just as Armstrong was beginning to accelerate, he got too close to a spectator at the side of the road, hooked his handlebars on a bag being carried by a child and the pre-teenager had taken down a then six time Tour winner. Armstrong was quick to get back on his bike, but Ullrich as the second placed overall rider ordered the group to stop and wait for Armstrong to recover and rejoin the group. Armstrong had waited for Ullrich and a crash a few years previous and such is the custom in the peloton that a rider doesn't attack when a rival has a mechanical issue or a small crash. Armstrong thanked Ullrich when he rejoined the group and repaid the German's sportsmanship by sprinting up the mountain and leaving Ullrich and Mayo 40 seconds behind him. If Ullrich had attacked when Armstrong crashed, then the American may not have rejoined the group, but that's how Lance operated and a cyclist and apparently as a person.