Tour de France

For 111 years the epicentre of professional cycling has been found etched into everyone’s calendars in the month of July, Le Tour de France.

The Tour de France has rolled through the ages and left behind it a trail of history littered with feats of human strength, advances in science and all the shades of grey that ethics has to offer.

Le Tour de France is a powerful tool for marketing and attracts vast sums of money in the form of sponsorship and acts as a significant part of the calendar year for many businesses.

Le Tour has evolved into a monstrous global event that will be watched by 3.5billion people across 190 countries, but just how has that evolution taken place?

What is the Tour de France? How did the Tour de France Start?

Starting at the very beginning, the Tour wasn’t much more than a PR stunt to sell extra newspapers. This may sound strange in a modern context but, since the dawn of cycling, road racing has been used to circulate news.

Newspaper companies would often sponsor the events and without the benefit of TV or widespread radio they would effectively create the news and then sell it to people.

This was the way of the media world for many years before the 20th century and, after a major split and subsequent vendetta between two newspaper outlets, Le’ Auto decided to stage the first Tour de France and attempt to put their rivals, Le’ Velo, out of business.

Then came widespread radio and the game changed somewhat. Before, there were newspapers to sell but with the new technology we were introduced to bikes, tyres, jerseys and hats.

TV followed later and that was followed pretty quickly by the internet. The French spectacle had started as a PR stunt for newspaper sales has evolved into a global stall where highest bidders can sell their wares.

For the huge crowds who line the roads at races, there is even a caravan of sponsors that drive along the route, around an hour ahead of the cyclists, just to further smack their product into the minds of fans.

What started as an audacious attempt at beating a competing newspaper has now become a global force for selling products each year.

It is an unfortunate side of le Tour de France as we would much rather consider it a feat of human endurance and a testament to character and grit, but at the essence of the race is a businessman holding a big bag of cash.

Tour de France Winners

The stars of the show are the riders themselves. As is now and has always been with The Tour de France, the riders are the main attraction. Despite all of the advances in technology and the beautiful scenery there is no greater pull to the race than the big names.

Starting with the very first winner, Maurice Garin, there has been an evolution in the type of cyclist that has been required in order to take, what has now become, the yellow jersey.

Maurice Garin won the first ever Tour de France, in July 1903, by a margin of 2hrs 59mins and 21secs, a margin that has not since been beaten.

With an average stage distance of 400km and only 6 stages in the entire tour, there can’t be any surprises that only 21 riders finished the Tour with an average speed of 25.7km/hr.

The following year was a fiasco with the first four riders disqualified for cheating and the youngest ever winner of le Tour de France, Henri Cornet crowned at 19 years and 11 months.

In these early years, the winner of le Tour de France had to have as much luck as they did grit and determination.

Mechanical problems would cause so much disruption that even the strongest rider would find themselves out of contention and the immense length of each stage (although more, shorter stages were established as time progressed) meant that the winner was the rider who could persevere the most.

By the time the First World War had broken out, specialists had begun to emerge. The strong climbers such as Rene Pottier won stages that involved the Alps or Pyrenees ranges and the longer stages were dominated by the sponsored team riders.

The Tour wasn’t run during the war years but it returned in 1919 and it’s believed that the general classification leader, Eugene Cristophe, wore the first yellow jersey on stage 10, before a mechanical issue saw him lose the race.

The yellow jersey winners continued be decided by who suffered the least mechanical issues rather than any particular differences in the quality of cyclist. Until the mid 20’s that is.

Ottavio Bottecchia took consecutive wins courtesy of economical riding and the introduction of the domestique. The domestique riding style would employ one or a team of riders who would sacrifice their own chance of winning by riding in front of their chosen rider.

This style would offer an aerodynamic advantage for the rider behind but came at a heavy cost to the rider in front. Despite it’s great success, the style didn’t really develop as an overall strategy at this stage and so the race continued to come down to the rider who persevered and suffered the least mechanically.

By the 30’s there was clear distinction between riding styles. Some were sprinters while others climbed and in 1933 the first ever KOM (King of the Mountains) competition was added.

Vicente Truebe, a non-team rider took the polka dot jersey that year and le Tour had evolved to showcase a different type of rider.

The following year, the first time-trial was introduced but the highlight of the race was Rene Vietto. Sacrificing his own chances in the race, he twice gave a wheel in the Pyrenees to eventual winner, Antonin Magne.

Not only had the race format evolved to showcase the different riding styles, it had also evolved so that, without a team of riders support, it would be almost impossible to win the Tour.

Team racing had become the dominant approach to the Tour and usually the leading men were the stronger climbers and picked up their time through the mountains.

War broke out again and the Tour didn’t return until 1947. Many of the same faces were still racing, as at this stage in the Tour’s development, age wasn’t a dominating factor. Gino Bartali who, 10 years after his first win, took his second yellow jersey proved this.

Coppi, Bobet, Koblet and Kubler became the established riders through the 50’s and the Tour’s riders took their next step in development. The ride had become dependant upon team riding and the eventual winners would need to be exceptional climbers in order to gain the most time in the mountain stages.

The winner of the yellow jersey at this stage of the Tour would also need to be of a certain age bracket and so every few years a new potential champion would arise each year.

Jacques Anquetil replaced the retiring Bobet and Robic and the aging Coppi do take the throne as the dominating force in le Tour during the early 60’s and Gimondi rose to the challenge in the later half of the decade.

The Tour had grown in popularity and at this stage the riders were gaining a level of fame that had previously not existed. Advances in technology meant that the tour received more coverage and as a result, a greater calibre of rider began to emerge from all over the world.

Gimondi and Anquetil were the stars of the show and their names buzzed around Europe as national hero’s and fierce rivals.

The future looked bright for the pair of them and the 1970’s looked like the pair would dominate it, until a new youngster appeared on the Tour. Eddy Merckx.

To this day, there hasn’t been a more feared rider or arguably a more dominant athlete. With a genetic heart defect, Merckx was riding with a larger heart than the other riders. Going against the advice of medical professionals he continued to pursue the sport that he loved.

His competition recall the torturous moments when racing when they would hear Merckx attack. They described the churning of the gears and the whirring of his wheels as he cranked up the pace and the inevitable was coming.

In 1969 he won the yellow jersey for the general classification, the green for the points classification and the polka dot for the mountains classification. No other rider has won the triple classification of the Tour de France, and only Tony Rominger and Laurent Jalabert have matched it in any other grand tour.

Merckx dominance was further demonstrated as he also won the combination classification and the combativity award.

Leading the race from stage six to twenty-two, he won with a 17-minute 54-second margin of victory over second-placed Roger Pingeon; a feat that hasn’t been matched since.

It was the first time a Belgian had won the Tour in 30 years and, like Sylvère Maes, Eddy Merckx became a national hero, who would one day become a Baron.

In the 1970 Tour de France, Merckx thrashed his way the yellow jersey in the prologue. As he did in the previous year, he let the yellow jersey pass to a teammate.

This time it was Italo Zilioli, before taking it back at Valenciennes, seven stages later. He won the prologue, the road stages, the final time trial and the race up and over Mont Ventoux.

He pushed himself so hard over Mont Ventoux that he collapsed as a journalist was trying to speak with, saying “No, it’s impossible!” as he was carried to an ambulance for oxygen.

His wins in 8 stages equalled the record set by Charles Pélissier in 1930 and won the general classification by 12m 41s over Joop Zoetemelk. He also won the King of the Mountains (KOM) classification and finished second in the sprinter’s classification too.

Merckx won again in 1971 and 1972 making it 4 consecutive Tour de France wins under his belt. And with those four wins, Merckx was approaching Jacques Anquetil’s record of five, which turned the French public hostile.

Having already been whistled at crossing the finish line in Vincennes in 1970, there was concern that something more aggressive might be in order. For that reason, and possibly the desire to have a French winner, the Tour organisers asked Merckx not to start in 1973.

He only managed one more Tour win in his career and it came in 1974, after which his dominant reign ended. In the process though, he had become the most decorated Tour rider in its history and to this day is still a legend in the cycling world.

Probably the most incredible facet of Merckx dominance was the lack of support he had from fellow riders. So fierce was the jealousy or ‘competitiveness’ of his rivals, that he would rarely get support in races.

It is a testament to his riding ability as he completely broke the mould of the previous winners. No longer did the rider with the best team win, it was now entirely the rider with the best genetics. He decided to retire in 1977, allowing a new rider to take the mantle.

After Merckx the Tour de France was in need of a new superstar, and up stepped Bernard Hinault.  Winning the Tour de France five times, he is one of a small elite group of 5 cyclists to have won all three Grand Tours, and the only cyclist to win each of them more than once.

He took the yellow jersey at the Tour de France in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1985, coming second in 1984 and 1986. He managed to amass a total of 28 stage wins, of which 13 were individual time trials.

His reign lasted through the 80’s and was quickly followed by Miguel Indurain, who also won an incredible 5 consecutive Tour de France titles between 1991 and 1995. The two riders, both exceptional cyclists, were very different men.

Hinault was famed for being the ‘boss of the peloton’. He would impose discipline and cooperation to the other riders, once famously deciding, “there will be no attacks today, because tomorrow’s stage will be difficult”.

His rivals respected him, but they feared him more, because of his temperament. If he felt insulted by another rider then he’d use his position to humiliate the offender. The public saw Hinault as arrogant, distant, and aloof to the publicity afforded to him.

When it was suggested to him that he devoted more attention to fans during an interview, Hinault replied, “I race to win, not to please people”.

In contrast, Indurain was modest and quiet, governing his troops without ever being demanding. A Spanish journalist, frustrated that he could find nothing interesting about him, asked “I wonder if his wife knows who this man is who sleeps beside her.”

A team-mate, Jean-François Bernard said: “When he comes down for his meal, you don’t even hear him move his chair.” 

Procycling wrote of Indurain: “His five straight Tour crowns paralleled Spain’s coming of age following decades of repression under the dictatorship of General Franco and his face became a symbol of a new, more assertive Spain stepping confidently on to the European stage.”

Philippe Brunel in L’Équipe called him “humble and sublime, taciturn some days. But who was this robotic athlete who, in his streamlined helmet and his Plexiglass visor, dominated the time-trials like no one before him except perhaps Jacques Anquetil?”

Then the magazine Cycling Weekly wrote: “He seems to do everything very slowly, as though he is trying to conserve energy even here. His eyes blink at half-speed but the gaze from his brown eyes is steady. He looks as relaxed off the bike as he does when he is on it, but you are aware that you are in the presence of a great bike rider.”

Indurain said the man who most impressed him was Pope John Paul II, whom he gave a yellow jersey from the Tour de France and a pink jersey from the Giro d’Italia.

Indurain was the gentle giant among the pack, while Hinault took the role of bully. These two riders again demonstrated the genetic requirements needed to win the Tour but Indurain was a game changer.

At 80kg and over 6ft tall, he was written off, initially, as being a competitor due to him not being suitable for the mountains. His incredible speed in the time-trials and power on the hills saw him change, once again, the requirements of a yellow jersey winner.

Would Lance Armstrong have won all or any of his Tour de France titles had he not used performance enhancing drugs?

Then we come to the Lance Armstrong era; the famous American who is now the infamous cheater. But, behind the drug-fuelled victories was, and still is, an immense athlete. Although stripped of his records, Lance took the yellow jersey in 7 consecutive Tours and was a legend for over a decade in the sport.

His greatest victory however, didn’t come in the Tour de France. In October 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain, lungs and abdomen.

His cancer treatments included brain and testicular surgery as well as extensive chemotherapy. In February 1997, he was declared cancer-free and that same year he founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

In 2012 he was stripped of all of his titles after being found guilty of one of the largest scaled cheating operations that sport has seen. Armstrong admitted to cheating on the Oprah Winfrey show, confirming what many had already suspected and rocking the fans that had stood by him throughout the denial phase.

After Armstrong the sport moved into a different era again. Advances in drug testing and policy led to lower levels of cheating and, as the average speeds of the tours dropped off, the event became more about the riders ability, and less about the juice that he put into his body.

Chris Froome picked up the yellow jersey to complete two consecutive Tour wins for Team Sky in 2013. In 2012, Froome played a pivotal support role as he guided Sir Bradley Wiggins to the yellow jersey.

Wiggins began as a track cyclist but made the move to focus on road cycling in 2009. Now out of favour, his previous support rider, Froome, is the new leading man and winner of the 2013 Tour.

Both riders represent the latest version of rider who is capable of taking the yellow jersey. The final stage in the evolution of tour winner is the combination of winning the genetic lottery and being supported by the best team.

In previous years we have seen champions that possessed one of those qualities, but in this modern era both are essential requirements.

Tour de France Ethics

Winning is the primary objective. For many though, how you get there was by taking any advantage possible. There have been accusations of corruption by the race organisers, many of which have merit, but doping has always been the bigger problem.

There have been allegations of doping in the Tour de France since the race began in 1903, and the process of doping has evolved throughout the years. Early Tour riders drank alcohol, used ether and many other substances; all as a means of taking the edge off of the pain while competing in extreme endurance cycling.

It took a long time before riders began using substances as a means of increasing performance rather than dulling senses, and at that stage organised bodies such as the the International Cycling Union (UCI), as well as government bodies, began to form and enact policies to combat the doping problem.

Drug use was completely acceptable during the early years of the Tour. Between 1903 and the 1940’s the strongest drug used was strychnine. Other than that, riders would take anything to survive the tedium, the pain and the exhaustion of stages lasting 300km or more.

The drugs included alcohol, which was already strong in France and was occasionally purer than the water, particularly in the years following World War I; after the destruction of water pipes polluted water and ether stores.

There are numerous photos of early riders with handkerchiefs drowned in ether in their mouths or knotted under their chin. They would use the fumes to deaden the pain in their legs.

The acceptance of drugs in the Tour de France was so rife that by 1930, when the race began incorporating professional, national teams that the rulebook sent out to the riders and teams by the then organiser, Henri Desgrange, pointed out that drugs were not one of the items to be provided to them by the organisers.

This started to change in the 1950’s as the ethics of the sport took a new turn. Pierre Dumas was the first doctor to campaign for the testing and removal of doping throughout the sport.

When the original Tour de France doctor pulled out, Dumas stepped in for the first time as the official doctor in 1952. Up until then, riders would take anything that they were given; even bee stings and toad extract.

Dumas described the doping situation as being of “medicine from the heart of Africa… healers laying on hands or giving out irradiating balms, feet plunged into unbelievable mixtures which could lead to eczema, so-called magnetised diets and everything else you could imagine.

In 1953 and 1954 it was all magic, medicine and sorcery”.  After this, the riders and their teams started reading Vidal, the French medicine dictionary.

In the following years, several high profile incidents occurred that pointed towards the dangers of doping and supported Dumas’ agenda for a clean sport.

On stage 12 of the 1955 Tour, the riders went over Mount Ventoux. 10km from the summit, Jacques Augendre described French rider Jean Malléjac as, “streaming with sweat, haggard and comatose, he was zigzagging and the road wasn’t wide enough for him…

He was already no longer in the real world, still less in the world of cyclists and the Tour de France.”

Malléjac collapsed on Mount Ventoux and, falling to the ground, still had one foot trapped into a pedal. The other leg continued to pedal through in the air. He was, said Pierre Chany, “completely unconscious, his face the colour of a corpse, a freezing sweat ran on his forehead.

Sauveur Ducazeaux, an official from another team hauled him to the side of the road and Dumas was summoned to the scene. Georges Pahnoud of the Télégramme de Brest reported:

“He [Dumas] had to force his jaws apart to try to make him drink and it was a quarter of an hour later, after he had received an injection of solucamphor and been given oxygen, that Malléjac regained consciousness.

Taken by ambulance, he hadn’t however completely recovered. He fought, he gesticulated, he shouted, demanded his bike, wanted to get out.”

Dumas had to strap Malléjac down for the journey to hospital at Avignon. Mallejac insisted that he had been given a drugged bottle from a soigneur, who he wouldn’t name, and said that while his other belongings had reached the hospital intact, the bottle had been emptied and couldn’t be analysed.

Malléjac insisted that he wanted to start legal proceedings and Dumas agreed that he would be prepared to call for a charge of attempted murder. The incident was never resolved and Mallejac returned for subsequent Tours, denying any wrongdoing for the rest of his life.

The next key incident came in 1960

Roger Rivière was second to the Italian Gastone Nencini. His plan was to beat him by tagging along in the mountains and break away on the flat, where he was stronger. The problem was that Nencini was lighter and as such, a better climber.

Even more importantly was that Nencini was such a fast descender that French rider, Raphaël Géminiani, described the situation as, “the only reason to follow Nencini downhill is if you’ve got a death wish.”

Rivière managed to stay with Nencini on the climb to the Col de Perjuret, which was an incredible feat that saw the pair crossing the summit together.

Then came a series of descending zigzags. Nencini, in his usual fashion, took the perfect line and Rivière tried to match him. He overshot a bend and fell into a ravine, breaking his back. It was in the ravine that his teammate, Louis Rostollan, found him.

Rivière quickly, and aggressively, passed the blame for his fall and his broken back on the team mechanic, accusing him of leaving oil on the wheels and also for the brakes not working.

Outraged, the mechanic fought back and it didn’t take long for the doctors to establish the real reason for the accident. There were so many painkillers in Rivière’s blood that his hands were too slow to operate the brakes properly.

He had taken a heavy dose of an opioid painkiller, Palfium, to help him stay with Nencini on Col de Perjuret and later, Rivière, admitted to being a drug addict.

He went on to tell a newspaper that he had also doped in order to beat the world hour record, admitting that he had been downing thousands of tablets each year.

Next, and possibly the most prolific incident, was the death of Tom Simpson.

He was the leader of the British team in the 1967 edition of the Tour de France. At the start of the 13th stage on Thursday 13th July, Simpson was suffering from the effects of a stomach bug he had caught earlier in the race. On a blisteringly hot day he was seen drinking brandy during the early parts of the stage.

At this time, the organisers set a limit of four bottles of water to each rider, about two litres, per day.  At this time the effects of dehydration were still poorly understood and, during races, it was common to see riders raiding roadside bars and cafes for drinks or filling their bottles from fountains.

About 2km from the summit of Mount Ventoux, Simpson began to swerve across the road. Eventually he toppled over into an embankment where he died and for the first time Manning, a well-respected journalist, made a formal connection between drugs and Simpson’s death.

This set off a wave of similar reporting in Britain and elsewhere. The following month, Manning went further, in a piece headed:

“Evidence in the case of Simpson who crossed the frontier of endurance without being able to know he had ‘had enough.

The question of whether Tommy Simpson’s death in the Tour de France might have been prevented has one clear answer. Yes, and it should have been.

Three days after this year’s race, the French authorities announced that next October and November a French and Italian rider would be prosecuted for alleged doping offences in last year’s Tour.

France had surrendered the need rigorously to prevent doping to the discreet requirement of not tackling it on a big tourist occasion until a year had safely passed. It takes two days at most to analyse samples: it took a year for France to authorise prosecutions.

Is France trying to hush up the scandals of the Tour? I say yes. The first act of hushing up is not to attempt detection, let alone waiting a year before taking action. How much husher can you get?

Dumas was a man on a mission, and the terrible events that were transpiring only furthered his cause. Doping was criminalised in 1965 and the restrictions have continued to tighten to this day. Unfortunately, the doping just became more advanced and harder to detect. Teams began to hire doctors who could find ways to hide drug use.

In the 1990’s the sport had begun clamping down on the substances that were previously allowed. Amphetamines, alcohol and pills were fairly easy to detect and so riders had begun to look for alternative advantages. Cue EPO.

Erythropoietin, known as EPO, was a drug used to increase red-cell production in anaemia sufferers, and a method of increasing the total oxygen in a cyclist’s blood stream if transfused.

EPO became widespread, as a flurry of exposures and confessions revealed in 2006 and 2007.

“When I saw riders with fat arses climbing cols [Cols are the passes between mountain ranges and often end with very difficult, steep, long climbs] like aeroplanes, I understood what was happening”, said the Colombian rider, Luis Herrera.

The problem for testers however, was the same as they had previously met with testosterone and, before that, cortisone. They were unable to distinguish it from what the body produced naturally.

For the first time, said Jean-Pierre de Mondenard, “authorities had to settle not for the presence of a drug but its presence in unusual quantities.”

In the years following 1998, anti-doping measures were put into effect by race organizers and the UCI. These measures included more frequent testing and a range of new types of testing for blood doping transfusions and EPO use. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was also founded to help governments in anti-doping.

The problem persisted though and in 2004, new allegations appeared. In January, Philippe Gaumont, a rider with the Cofidis team, told investigators and the press that steroids, human growth hormone, EPO, and amphetamines were ‘endemic’ to the team.

Later that year, in June, French police detained British cyclist and time trial world champion, David Millar.  They searched through his apartment and found two used EPO syringes.

The Kelme team dismissed a Spanish rider by the name of Jesus Manzano, who then went and told the Madrid sports newspaper, AS, that he had been forced to take banned substances by his team and that they had taught him how to evade detection.

Manzano went on to describe the disclosure as, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

What followed after was the Lance Armstrong scandal. He went on to win 7 consecutive Tour de France races, all of which would later be stripped from the records due to doping. Alberto Contador followed and similarly had titles stripped, making 14 of the last 25 (56%) Tour de France winner’s cheaters.

Testing has changed though and is now more thorough. After each stage, four tests are conducted. The overall leader, the stage winner, and two riders at random will find themselves being tested and, in addition, every rider is tested before the first day’s stage; normally a short time-trial.

Most teams are completely tested at some point during the tour and additional testing often takes place during the off-season. Riders are required to keep their national cycling federation informed of their whereabouts so they can be located at any time for testing.

In addition to these new procedures, many professional teams also perform their own drug testing programs in order to keep the team name clean.

Teams such as Pharma Quick-Step, have been known to pull a rider before they compete in a major competition and Tom Boonen was dropped from racing for cocaine use before the 2008 Tour de France.

The ethics of the sport have finally shifted from a winning at all costs mentality to a winning clean one. Teams and riders are now more accountable to the fans than ever and the watchful eye of governing bodies is more ever-present than ever before.

Doping is still rife and the competition is still fierce. But the direction that le Tour de France is heading is the right one, ethically.

The Future of Le Tour de France

The Tour de France is now the largest cycling event in the world and it is certainly a competitor for the largest global event too. The vast sums of money involved, the fame and glory of the yellow jersey and the rich, albeit questionable, history just adds to the allure.

The tour has evolved in all of its aspects and is continuing to grow year on year and spread beyond the borders of France and into the UK, Spain and Belgium. With such a rich tapestry laid out already, where it goes next is an exciting prospect!

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