The Tour De France Part II: The Highs And The Very Very Lows


In my last post in this series we explored the importance of the Tour De France with reference to its origin and early years. In this post we’ll wind the clock forward to observe  the twists and turns of its more recent history, endeavoring always to see beyond both the tragedy of the Tours greatest scandal and the euphoria of its greatest successes, towards a more honest, more human story. 

The Mountains and Their Champions

We previously observed how within just a few years of its inception, the mountain stages of the Tour had come to define so much about the character of the race and its competitors. While the success of mountain stage winners had been recognised from as early as 1933 it wasn’t until 1975 that the Tour saw the introduction of the now iconic Polka-dot jersey denoting a rider to “King of the Mountains”. Results in the mountains  derived from a competitors achievements over several mountain stages each of which are independently classified with varying degrees of severity derived from an assessment of their length, steepness and overall distance covered. 

Remembering that what comes up must come down means that throughout the 80‘s, 90‘s  and zeros the spectacle of the mountain stages has been evidenced as much in the speeds of descending riders as the grueling agony of their ascent. Needless to say the impact of accidents resulting from riders descending at speed has become a tragic, if infrequent, feature of the modern race. 

When conversing about the growth of the mountain stages in the modern era you may hear reference to the ‘break away’. This citation describes what happens when a small number of cyclists gain a significant distance from the main pack of riders including the pelaton and are thus described as having ‘broken away’. To break away in the mountains is to create an often insurmountable advantage over competitors, an achievement of which Tour enthusiasts stand in awe. 

An Era of Hill Climbing and Time Trialling

If the 60’s and 70’s belonged to the legacy of Belgian rider Eddy Merckx and French rider  Bernanrd Hinault, then the 1980’s and 90’s were undoubtedly marked by the dominant victories of American Greg LeMond and Spaniad Miguel Indurain . 

'I have always struggled to achieve excellence. One thing that cycling has taught me is that if you can achieve something without a struggle it's not going to be satisfying." 

                                                               Greg LeMond

While LeMond won the Tour on only three occasions (a number of wins far inferior to the emerging Spanish Indurain). In the minds of many Tour enthusiast his 1989 rivalry with French rider Laurent Fignon, his 82m victory on the Champs Elysees and his collapsing in disbelief on hearing the news of his victory were defining Tour moments. 

"I know I'll never feel that sensation of racing and winning again and that took a while to get used to. The Tour was a race I never thought I could lose."
                                              Greg LeMond

LeMond’s position in Tour history is also partly attributed both to his being the first non european rider to win the Tour and to the size of his character evidenced in his ability to captivate the Tour’s crowds. In addition to all of this LeMond was able to articulate both his passion and his understanding of the Tour’s importance something riders are not always capable of. LeMond was the modern statesman, more than any competitor, LeMond encapsulated the Tour for millions of is followers. 

 Fignon stays just ahead of Greg Lemond 1989 Tour De France

Fignon stays just ahead of Greg Lemond 1989 Tour De France

What LeMond provided in iconic legacy the more humble and modest Spanish rider Miguel Indurain matched in his remaking of the the Tour’s time trials. Induarain was above all a masterful tactical technician constantly changing his methodology while maintaining a relentless focus to do whatever it took simply to win. 

Returning to the Tour in 1996 and in pursuit of his sixth Tour victory Indurain found himself tormented by Belgiun rider Riis, horrendous weather conditions, his own weight gain and the apparent invisibility of his previous form. What remained unknown to Indurain and to the wider public was that 1996 Tour winner Riis would later confess to the use of EPO (a banned performance enhancer) and subsequently have his title stripped by the UCI. Doping was not only rearing it’s ugly head but rather began to be recognised as an unshakable and persistent wart tormenting those who sought the values of fairness and transparency the Tours founders had worked so hard to establish. 

With mind-shattering rider performances and record breaking times the 1990’s were for many Tour enthusiasts a period of great suspicion, “Was everybody cheating?” 

A Worthy Pause

Greg LeMond Tour De France Bicycle

From the 80’s to the present day the Tour has become a symbol not only of it’s participants achievements but also of the huge technical developments which have enabled such  achievements to be realised. 

When you browse pictures of the Tour during the 80’s you’ll see steel framed bikes with drop down shifters. It is an incredible irony that while many of us will never come within a galaxy of even competing in the Tour we yearn to ride the Carbon Fibre bikes of modern competitors often forgetting that incredible victories were won on bikes the specifications of which now adorn ebay for a tiny fraction of the price. If it was good enough for Greg LeMond to win the greatest race on earth it should be ok to get you out on your Saturday ride. 

Dark Times

In 1988 the Tour began to stare into it’s longest darkest hours as Spanish rider and multiple stage winner Delgado tested positive for ‘Probenecid’ a substance recognised for it’s ability to mask the use of anabolic steroids. Delgado was able to participate in the Tour and in fact win the race. For many Tour enthusiasts and UCI critics this happened only because the UCI were (as was to become their custom) one step behind the World Olympic Committee and had not yet added ‘Probenecid’ to the list of banned substances. A dangerous precedent appeared to be emerging. UCI always one step behind. 

Tour De France

While Delgado’s victory led to a renaissance in Spanish cycling it is also fair to say that his  achievements and the achievements of other fellow competitors began to raise new questions about the nature of a competition long recognised as being beyond the attainment of the ordinary. Doping scandals would later blight the careers of riders such as Ullrich and Pantani but the new patterns of doping suggested something far greater than individual discrepancy was at work. The Tour had a systematic problem the scale of which its followers, competitors, enthusiasts and commentators could barely imagine. 

On the wall of my office hangs a poster sequentially listing the names of Tour De France winners, the years 1999 to 2005 are blank and list ‘no winner’. That empty space tells the tragic story not only of Lance Armstrong but of his team, of world cycling and of the UCI. This is not the place to offer a blow by blow account of Lance’s tragic fall from grace, nor of the pain such a fall must have caused to those rivals who were robbed of their honest achievements.

Hindsight is Cheap

Standing at the works drink fountain your fellow cyclist enthusiast may well declare her ‘knowledge’ of doping or is conviction that it is simply impossible to win the Tour without doping. It appears virtually every one knew it was happening. In truth such ‘knowledge is nearly always based on hindsight. Between 1999 and 2005 many of us were simply lost in the euphoria of what appeared to be the most incredible cycling story ever told. Not only did Lance win the Tour seven times he did so in the midst of his well documented battle with cancer and for me that is the real tragedy. Regardless of his finishing position many of us would have been (and in truth were) inspired by the taking on of illness and the refusal to allow such illness the last word. I often wish the Lance story could have simply ended with: “he carried on cycling”. That would have been more than enough inspiration. Instead we were left with the undignified exposure of a mass doping scandal as the UCI stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour victories. 

Bouncing Back

Cheats never have the last word. While Lance Armstrong filled his time preparing for his Oprah confession the Tour moved on and bounced back. Nowhere did British cycling fans feel this bounce back more powerfully than when our own Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome took consecutive Tour victories for Team Sky. What's even more encouraging is the manner by which both teams and the UCI are not only speaking out against doping but implementing real action, requesting  more substances to be added to the banned list and making team members more avalable for testing than ever before.  

So What? 

The Tour is, and always has been, a sign, a reminder of what we can achieve, a glimpse into a world beyond our boundaries and apparent limitations and towards those things only others can see in us. It has also been the story of our weakest, most vulnerable, most stupid side; of our consistent struggle to do the right thing when the alternative seems so overwhelmingly appealing. The story of the Tour is the story of what it means to be human.  

This summer many of us will cheer on some of the world’s finest riders as they ride through our streets and climb our hills. As I write this post it is still to be decided whether Wiggins, Froome or both will contend for another Yellow Jersey. When the world greatest riders pass us by with that unique combination of both pain and joy in their eyes, we will, in one moment, witness a life time of training and commitment, endless discipline and deep devotion, thousands of sacrifices and just one hope. In them we will see a little of ourselves. I suspect that is why many of us become so strangely obsessed by the greatest race on earth. 

In the next blog we’ll look at Jersey’s who wears what, when and why. We hope you enjoyed the read, it hasn’t been exhaustive because it never intended to be, it has hopefully provided you with just enough to dig further and continue enjoying this incredible story. 

Keep riding, keep smiling.