7 of Cycling's Biggest-Ever Controversies, Excluding Lance Armstrong (Sort Of)
Historically beset by scandal, the sport of cycling faces an uphill struggle to shake off the controversies of the not-so-distant past.
As Lance Armstrong refuses to comes to terms with being stripped of his Tour de France titles, I look at seven of the most shameful episodes since professional bike-racing began—the repercussions of which could yet overshadow next year’s centenary edition of the greatest event on two wheels.
The question, as always, remains: is that all they are on?
7. Pollentier Exposed
The Tour de France is, perhaps, synonymous with one mountain peak above all others—Alpe d’Huez.
When bent-over Belgian Michel Pollentier winded his way up to claim a stage victory there in 1978, and take a grip on the yellow jersey, it seemed one of the race’s great rides.
But the little man with the painful-looking style, who’d won the Giro d’Italia the previous year and was the main threat to eventual winner Bernard Hinault, would soon enter cycling infamy.
Having taken amphetamines to help him win, in dope control Pollentier tried to pass a team-mate’s urine via a condom/tube contraption hidden under his armpit. He was rumbled when the tester caught another rider attempting a similar ruse.
Yet it didn’t stop him claiming: “I put out such an effort … I pissed my pants while still on the bicycle … I had a hard time filling up the bottle.”
Comedy value notwithstanding, he would continue to have a hard time for years afterwards. Expelled from the Tour, his reputation in ruins, Pollentier subsequently suffered from depression and was never the same rider.
In Seigneurs et Forcats du Velo by Olivier Dazatems, Pollentier attributed his—and others’—psychophysical problems to the prolonged use of performance-enhancing drugs.
6. Dose of Reality
In 1991, whilst occupying the top three placings, Dutch heavyweights PDM became the first team to pull out of the Tour de France for medical reasons. A food-poisoning story was spun. The truth was somewhat less palatable.
Among seasoned observers of the peloton, PDM were always regarded as borderline dodgy, with Greg LeMond’s view on the suspect death of Johannes Draaijer adding a morbid edge to the fascination.
It emerged team medics had given its riders legal but ethically-questionable injections of a liquid-food substance called ‘Intralipid’, whose legitimate uses include feeding comatose patients.
In this instance, whatever came from the syringes was contaminated, causing the cyclists to go down in a feverish, agonizing heap. The nine who took ill included such illustrious names as Jean-Paul van Poppel, Erik Breukink, Raul Alcala, and Seán Kelly.
Team bosses strenuously denied drugs were involved, citing salmonella. As things became clearer, The New York Times reported, “The shadow of the syringe has fallen across professional bicycle racing.”
That shadow grew darker in 1997 when Dutch daily ‘De Limburger’ went public with the details of a two-year-old tax-avoidance case against Wim Sanders, the PDM doctor at the time of the ‘Intralipid’ fiasco.
It was alleged he had supplied steroids, EPO (yes, even then) and other drugs to riders, on a vast scale.
Tarnished, PDM quit the sport in 1992, selling the franchise to—wait for it—Festina.
5. Tyler Tells All
Tyler Hamilton was once best known as the insanely-tough guy who rode to an epic fourth-place finish in the 2003 Tour de France, having fractured his collarbone on the opening stage.
A little over a year later he became a pariah after testing positive for a foreign blood transfusion at the Tour of Spain.
It was the second time that year he’d been detected carrying someone else’s cells. He had also shown two blood types in the wake of winning Olympic time trial gold, but got off on a testing technicality.
Fighting the Vuelta finding, Hamilton waged a two-year legal battle, but lost. And rightly so. For his life, we now know, was a lie.
It documents their wholesale use of drugs, including the endemic EPO, and routine transfusions before and during races.
The reliance on ‘Blood Bags’ (or BBs, to use Hamilton’s shorthand) proved his downfall. It appears a cock-up was made by his over-active Spanish aide (Fuentes: see Slide 3).
Connected to the ‘Operación Puerto’ case, Hamilton failed a drug test during his final comeback due to a depression medicament, and retired, wholly disgraced. So when Federal agent Jeff Novitzky came calling in 2010, the man from Massachusetts had nothing left to lose.
Hamilton got everything off his chest, and cooperated with the follow-up USADA inquiry too; also revealing all on CBS flagship show ‘60 Minutes’. He even handed back his gold medal from Athens.
His book is a cautionary tale of talent, ambition, and deception. Ultimately, though, it’s a searingly and endearingly honest realization that “the truth will set you free.”
4. Festina Car Carnage
The Festina Affair led to the 1998 edition of France’s pride and joy being dubbed the Tour de Farce—belatedly bringing cycling’s sickly state into mainstream focus.
It all started when eponymous team masseur, Willie Voet, was stopped by French customs officers on a back road near the Belgian border.
En route to catching a ferry to Dublin for the start three days later, his car boot was weighed down with enough controlled substances to stock a small hospital.
In his 1999 book Breaking The Chain, Voet confessed all he knew about doping (not confined to his own team, nor the 90s), just as he’d done while in police custody.
Though initially denying the obvious, Festina were forced to come clean, and swiftly sent packing; though their leader, French pin-up Richard Virenque, brazenly pleaded probity.
Meanwhile, police raided hotels and team buses. More teams ducked and dived, and riders staged sit-down protests.
Eventually the worthless race was won by Italian climber Marco Pantani, who would die in 2004 of a cocaine-related heart attack, his career having caved in under the weight of suspensions, suspicion, and depression.
During the Festina trial in the Fall of 2000, Virenque, having described himself as “an innocent victim”, finally admitted using PEDs when faced with incontrovertible medical evidence, and a possible perjury rap.
Unfortunately for the watchmakers, who are still the Tour’s official timekeepers, the Festina brand name is a byword for cycling’s doping zenith.
In truth, nothing changed, merely the methods of cheating, for at least another decade.
3. Floyd’s Flip-Flop
Two months before the 2006 Tour de France, news broke of a probe into a blood-banking Spanish doctor. Eufemiano Fuentes’ high-profile cycling clients included, among others, German powerhouse Jan Ulrich.
He and other riders implicated in ‘Operación Puerto’* were ejected from the Tour lineup by the sport’s governing body, the UCI. In their absence, Floyd Landis was in the ascendancy until he blew up on Stage 16, losing eight minutes.
The following day Phonak’s hip-carrying team captain produced the ride of his life—a sensational solo effort leaving him within seconds of yellow.
He duly assumed the lead following the final time trial and topped the podium in Paris—the eighth successive American winner.
But two days later came the bombshell. Landis had tested positive for synthetic Testosterone after his miraculous Stage 17 recovery. True to type, he protested his innocence and The Floyd Fairness Fund would raise almost $0.5 million from public donations to try clear his name.
With echoes of Virenque, he even published a book, Positively False—possibly the greatest work of fiction ever committed to print. (Although crusading journalist Paul Kimmage would award that status to a certain It’s Not About The Bike.)
The authorities upheld his two-year ban. Outcast and embittered, in 2010 Landis did a complete flip-flop. He sent dynamite e-mails to anti-doping agents, outlining his experiences.
The Pennsylvanian pointed the finger directly at his leader for three years on the US Postal Service team—Lance.
His claims sparked the aborted federal probe that preceded the US Anti-Doping Agency proceedings, culminating in all of Armstrong’s Tour titles being rendered null and void after he adjudged “enough is enough.”
*Dozens of cyclists are set to give evidence when the Madrid medic and five associates go on trial in late January 2013.
2. Contador: Meat/Cheat?
Previously associated with ‘Operación Puerto’—though he successfully denied incriminating seizures labelled ‘AC’ were anything to do with him—Alberto Contador’s career hit a cow pat after taking his third Tour de France victory two years ago.
Having held off his Astana teammate/rival, Lance Armstrong, the previous summer, the Spaniard—who won the maillot juane in 2007 and 09—had struggled to eventually overcome Luxemburg’s Andy Schleck.
But, a few weeks after that triomphe, it was announced that Contador had produced a positive test for Clenbuterol, an adrenaline-like stimulant. As per usual, he pleaded his innocence, claiming a residue of the drug must have been contained in meat he’d imported from his homeland.
If Spanish cattle farmers were livid at the slur, the authorities were even less impressed. Having been stripped of his third TdF title, and the 2011 Giro (which he competed in whilst his case was under appeal), he missed most of this season through a backdated suspension.
The 29-year-old marked his recent return by winning the Vuelta a Espana—steering clear of the local steakhouses, presumably—and holding up seven fingers in celebration: one for each of his grand tour victories, including the two taken from him.
In ignoring such sanctions he has something in common with his old adversary, Armstrong. Not to mention his Saxo Bank-Tinkoff director, Bjarne Riis—the Dane whose discredited 1996 Tour de France victory was achieved, by his own admission, through enough EPO to make a bacon rasher fly.
1. Tragic Tom Simpson
English cycling’s darkest hour arrived 45 years before Bradley Wiggins’ annus mirabilis.
The death of Tom Simpson on July 13, 1967, after he collapsed while zig-zagging, zombie-like up the Southern French slopes of Mont Ventoux during stage 13 of Le Tour, shocked the sporting world.
Aged 29, and a major continental star, Simpson had amphetamines in both his system and pocket. He’d also drunk brandy to try and settle a persistent stomach complaint.
The scorching heat—plus Simpson’s damaging willingness to absorb pain and take serious risks—completed a fatal combination.
The 2010 BBC documentary ‘Death on the Mountain’ (Dir: Alaistair Laurence) chillingly captures the Nottinghamshire native’s sorry, sudden demise.
Pierre Chany’s La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France (1988) told how the Tour doctor, Pierre Dumas, had predicted early that white-hot morning: “If the riders take something today, we’ll have a death on our hands.”
At the scene, he was unable to revive Simpson, who was airlifted to hospital before being pronounced dead.
The 1966 winner, Spain's Lucien Aimar, who was just ahead of him on the notorious climb, said it was “scandalous” that Simpson became an emblem of doping.
He blamed the person(s) who infused a clearly anemic rider with nightly nutrient drips to get him back on his bike each day.
Sadly, the granite monument on Ventoux has been passed many times since, with little or no heed paid to Tom’s tragic legacy.