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Tour the doping

The whole point of the Tour de France is to push the riders to the extreme, and preferably a little further.


[essay] July 13, 1967. In a wild, fever-like intoxication, Tom Simpson winds upward along the glowing gray tarmac leading to the top of the infamous Mont Ventoux. Several times his zigzag run is so uncontrolled that he is about to crash over the mountain side. Two kilometers from the summit, he pours into the ground.

Martyr. Professional bike riders are not the type to give themselves if they face some adversity. Despite scattered protests, Simpson's orders to help him get back on the bike were therefore followed. "Up, up, up," he murmured as he resumed his rattling mad zigzag ride up the mountainside. After another 500 meters, Tom Simpson's heart stopped beating. Tour de Frances's rider, Pierre Dumas, came running and immediately began a resuscitation attempt. From pure experience he also checked what was in the rider's back pockets, in this case he found three arrow glasses, two of them empty and one half full of amphetamine tablets. "If you die by ten doses, I'll take nine," was Tom Simpson's relationship with doping.

Despite being obviously a cheat, Simpson stands today as the undisputed greatest martyr of cycling. In the place where he sacrificed his life for cycling, there is today a huge bauta to his memory. His last words, "up, up, up," and the more well-known paraphrase "put me back on my bike," say very much about the nature of cycling, and especially the stage-ridden France round. Simpson's tragic fate tells simply and brutally what has made the tour an institution worldwide. Nothing tests human physiological limits like Le Tour de France. This year's race starts July 7.

The inhumane aspect. Among the riders themselves, since the beginning in 1903 there has been a remarkable consensus that the tour is so long, so hard, so brutal, that it is difficult, almost impossible to ride the ride without the help of "medicine". "They are dipping because they are going to ride 3500 kilometers in 20 days," said the now deceased Tour general Jacques Goddet with a slight shrug for a few decades back. This is not only the simple reason for the tour de doping, but also much of the reason for the huge popularity of the ride. The aim of the ride, Henri Desgrange, was to make the ride so hard that the riders should cry blood.

Early in the history of cycling, it was common to pepper the body with, among other things, heroin and strychnine, in addition to cocaine, cortisone and other things. Among the first riders to respond to the media's doping charges was the French folk hero Henri Pelissier. During the tour in 1924, he had had enough, and literally put "the cards" on the table. "Do you want to see how we endure? Here's cocaine, to the eyes. Here is chloroform, to the gums. And pills? Want to see pills? Voila, here are the pills. ”Incidentally, Pelissier's doping concessions received far greater proportions than anyone had dreamed. His loud demand for improved working conditions for the cyclists started a wave of worker rebellion across France. In 1924, millions of workers worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, under conditions that prompted many to quickly see the parallel of the weary Pelissier and tour riders going through. Twelve years later, the French parliament passed 40 hours of work week and paid vacation. For the tour riders, however, the working conditions remained just as before, ie quite inhumane. Everything else would be contrary to the basic idea of ​​the ride.

Post-war time – amphetamine time. Undoubtedly the most famous rider of the post-war period was the shrewd and long-legged Italian Fausto Coppi. Coppi slid up the winding gravel mountain roads with a radiance and elegance the world had never seen before. It is true that Coppi was the first to introduce more scientific training methods, but even Il Campionissimo could not win without "la bomba". "How often do you use it?" The journalists asked. "Only when necessary," Coppi replied. "How often?" "Almost always."

The main ingredient in "La bomba" was amphetamine, which in fact, in the post-war period was a very widespread drug, a drug that could also be found in ordinary people's medicine cabinets. During the war, British troops alone were handed over 72 million tablets.

The man who took the doping a notch further, which almost scientifically revealed the intake, was Jacques Anquetil, who won the Tour five times between 1957 and 1964. The tour he chose before the decisive stages has set the standard for all subsequent riders. The so-called Anquetil cocktail consisted of a refined mix of uppers and downers. Mainly amphetamine and cocaine to keep up, and heroin, morphine and other for pain relief. Anquetil defended his extensive drug abuse by doing everything within reasonable limits, pointing to his excellent state of health. By the way, Anquetil died of cancer when he was 53. A type of fate he shared with a number of his competitors.

Mont Ventoux. The 1912 meter high limestone cliff called Mont Ventoux lies like a huge mound far northwest of Provence, in a relatively flat landscape. For a cyclist on their way from one place to another, there is really no reason not to make a slight turn or cycle around. The mountain thus symbolizes well the whole point of the Tour de France. The aim is not to show that it is actually possible to cycle the entire hexagon which constitutes the nation state of France. The goal is to test the outer limits of the riders, physically and mentally.

How deadly Mont Ventoux could be was seriously discovered on a Christmas day in 1955. In the scorching heat, as many as six top trained riders had to give up before reaching the top. Since they were all full of different preparations, the limit was to become dangerously close to fainting. The worst was going over Jean Malléjac, who overturned his bicycle just after he crossed the tree line and cycled up into the glowing lunar landscape that makes up the upper half of Ventoux. Lying on the ground, with zombie-like glass-clear eyes, Malléjac continued to tread the pedals around. Soon after, he was unconscious. Just an extra dose of rejuvenating stimuli injected by a quick-thinking race doctor saved the rider's life.

The more famous Swiss Fredi Kübler also had a tough day up Ventoux this summer day in 1955. In a make it or break it attempt, he attacked early on the over 20 km long climb. After three falls and lots of rallies in "circus French", Kübler finally staggered over the top, XNUMX minutes after the first man. Well down at the back of the mountain, he disappeared into a bar and emptied himself of an unknown amount of draft beer, before he stumbled out and cycled on – the same way he came from. Friendly spectators eventually got to turn Kübler's nose in the direction of the finish line, but the man never recovered from the hardships he had been through. From the hospital bed, he reported to the journalists the same evening that he withdrew from the race. "Ferdi too old… Ferdi has killed himself on Mont Ventoux," Kübler reported.

Equestrian strike against anti-doping police. The first comprehensive doping check in the Tour de France was carried out in 1966, the year after the anti-doping regulations were introduced. The riders responded to the end of the ninth stage of getting off the bikes in protest. The story's first rider strike was thus not about poor pay or miserable working conditions, but opposition to the anti-doping police being able to show up unannounced and request a urine test. "Was it really a riot? No, it was a confession, ”wrote the newspaper Le Parisien Libéré after the stage.

Since then, the riders' fight against the doping controls has been uneven. For although the riders' consumption dropped a few notches after Tom Simpson's death at Mont Ventoux in 1967, in no way did doping disappear from the cycling sport. The riders' attitude remained the same: No ordinary mortal can drive the Tour de France without the help of chemical stimuli. For those of us who do well through the workday without doping, such an attitude is of course completely ridiculous and completely unethical. However, given that the riders under a hard mountain stage burn four to five times as many calories as one does during a marathon, the argument is actually not quite on the ground.

It would be ten years after the Simpson tragedy before the tour got its next big doping case. 1977 was a year filled with exclusions. However, despite the revelations of widespread abuse, the punishment was often no more than a month's quarantine. A real deal with the bicycle circus's widespread doping abuse was obviously far away.

Changed physiology. In my own youth, one of the great heroes was the perennial Spanish farmer Miguel Indurain. Of course, many wondered how such a big guy as Indurain, at 188 centimeters and 80 kilos, could ride the mountainsides so fast. The explanation they pointed to was a huge oxygen uptake, 50 percent higher than that of an ordinary well-off person, and a resting heart rate of well under 30 beats per minute. Today it is known that both are sure signs of EPO abuse. EPO is a drug that increases the proportion of red blood cells and thus gives very positive effects on oxygen uptake and the body's overall performance. The negative consequence is that the substance gives the blood about the same consistency as crude oil. In the early days of the EPO, several lesser-known cyclists actually joined because the blood-thinning substances they were taking did not do their job. When the heart insisted on beating only a few times a minute to pump the red viscous grease through the body, young, apparently healthy, men simply fell asleep.

Just like the aids of the past, the pharmaceuticals of the 1990s also changed the physiological appearance of the riders. In his fabulous Tour chronicle, Le Tour, Danish Joakim Jakobsen provides a fine summary of the historical tour rider's attributes: The amphetamines, which dominated up to the 1960s, made the top cyclists run, and censored, the steroids that took over the 1970s and 1980s. The number made them compact muscle bundles, while the EPO helped make the 1990s heroes bigger and heavier.

The happy 90s. The widespread use of the EPO became apparent in all its splendor and humiliation during the 1998 tour. After finding a small pile of illegal drugs in one of the cars of the world's leading cycling team, Festina, the police decided to take a few extra checks. Again the riders responded with a strike. They felt insulted and persecuted, in fact, another collective admission that doping continued to flourish throughout the field. The 1996 winner Bjarne Riis himself never got pissed, but his concessions a month ago did not come as much of a surprise. In 1998, just over half of the riders reached Paris. The rest of the field was either sent home in shame, or dropped out of the ride because of "illness."

Clean now? It is undoubtedly legitimate to ask whether it has ever happened that a 100 percent pure rider has won the Tour de France. Was the phenomenon of Jan Ullrich pure? Merckx at his best age? Armstrong?

As for the latter, his story simply seems a little too spectacular to be true. Bicycle technology has, of course, advanced. The roads have often gotten a notch better. But this is nowhere near enough to explain how the former cancer patient Lance Armstrong in 2005 was able to cycle the Tour at an average speed almost 2,5 km / h faster than the well-doped Bjarne Riis managed less than ten years earlier. Armstrong has on several occasions given exactly the same answer Riis used to give when he was confronted with the doping accusations: – I have never tested positive. (Which is probably just a long rewording of the short word: yes).

What about today's top riders? Are they clean? On the one hand, it can only be said that little indicates that the speed in the professional cycling field is on the way down. That it is the "repentant sinners" from the happy EPO days of the 1990s that today control many of the top teams also says theirs. Last year's homecoming of Ulrich, Basso, Mancebo and others, and the subsequent father around Floyd Landis, may soon prove to be just the tip of a new huge doping iceberg.

On the other hand, cycling in our day seems to be closer to settling with a hundred years of doping than ever before. Maybe for the first time in history, the Tour de France will be won by a pure rider in 2007? Maybe Vinokourov is just one of those incredible oatmeal people?

Having said all that and said: The countless revelations so far have not even come close to threatening the popularity of the ride. In a way, the revelations seem like ever-new confirmations that the Tour is retaining its function. No sporting event is harder, no sporting event requires more from the athletes, no sporting event is so beautiful and at the same time so brutal. Year after year, the winner of the Tour de France provides everything a human body can provide, and with the help of "medicine" is happy to add even more. And: "The sound of le Peloton is the most beautiful in the world," as an old French villager told with a wide-open eyes to a television camera a few years back. Which petrol riders go on doesn't change that. ?

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