Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What the Soigneur Knew

With the Tour de France a scant three weeks away, the 2011 cycling season has thus far been squeaky-clean as compared with previous years, when team cars full of enriched blood samples, EPO and performance enhancers of every stripe were being apprehended on montane byways, elite riders were failing post-stage urine tests, and top seeds were sitting out the Grand Tours like Denver Broncos at Super Bowl time (what do you call 45 millionaires sitting around watching the Super Bowl?) It seemed that little had changed since the Festina team doping scandal of '97 opened that can of worms to the purview of a fascinated world.

Watch  that stomach

The most urgent question in cycling these days is, not whether Alberto Contador will be permitted to ride in the Tour (he will, apparently), but whether Lance has been altogether forthcoming about his own use of banned substances in past championship years, beginning with his first Tour win in 1999. In fact, Bicycling Magazine has devoted an entire subsection of its online edition to the matter under discussion.

Lance has denied all charges to the point of harrassing, bullying and even suing detractors and any potential witness for the prosecution, which is actively investigating charges levelled by former teammates. A recent New York Times article relates an encounter between Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton in an Aspen, Colorado restaurant frequented by Armstrong and his entourage. 

Hamilton, who recently appeared on a segment of "60 Minutes" devoted to doping allegations against Armstrong, has been subpoenaed to testify in grand jury hearings concerning Armstrong's drug use while a professional cyclist. The FBI is interested in securing footage from the restaurant security camera that may record a case of Armstrong "tampering" with the witness, Hamilton. The stories surrounding Armstrong and his former teammates are beginning to smack of a "Goodfellas" outtake . . . 

"Whaddaya want fumee?"

Hitherto, the ritual has been the same in almost every case of doping - denial, rejection by former friends and teammates, silence, and finally abject confession. Whether it plays out according to form in Lance's case I have no prediction - the verdict will establish the fact, whether or not he actually doped. But it seems appropriate, at this balmy time of year and in these unfolding circumstances, to recall more lenient times when drugs were simpler, and to remember a cyclist who seems now more gentlemanly, forthright, and cultured than many of the current lot.

Jacques Anquetil, ca. 1952

Jacques Anquetil was the first cyclist to win the Tour de France five times, beginning with the 1957 Tour (and consecutively in '61, '62, '63, '64 - he was subsequently joined by Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Armstrong, who added two Tours to the record). Anquetil was short, dapper, well-dressed and courtly. He was a Norman and was said to be partial to the rich fare of his home province - preferably washed down with champagne - to the point of not altering such a diet even for the rigors of the Grand Tours. Never a roisterer, his training regimen was never what you could call spartan. His fans would rush out with glasses of the bubbly for him as he finished a stage. He never seemed to suffer for that (though he did suffer in the mountain stages). On the rest day during the 1964 Tour (one story goes), Anquetil feasted on a slab of roast lamb while the other riders were out for an easy ride and a day of rest. The next day, he was dropped on the first climb, losing over four minutes to the stage leaders. A champagne-filled water bottle supplied by his team manager Geminiani finally soothed his troubled stomach, and he eventually regained the field.

Anquetil (l), Poulidor contend le Puy de Dome, 1964 Tour

He was an elegant cyclist with a classically steady cadence. The journalist Owen Mulholland wrote of him, "The sight of Jacques Anquetil on a bicycle gives credence to an idea we Americans find unpalatable, that of a natural aristocracy. . . . that indefinable poise was always there. The look was that of a greyhound. His arms and legs were extended more than was customary in his era of pounded post-World War II roads. And the toes pointed down. . . . His smooth power dictated his entire approach to the sport. Hands resting serenely on his thin Mafac brake levers, [he] appeared to cruise while others wriggled in desperate attempts to keep up."

"Toes down, boys, and wriggle."

Nonetheless, he could be maddening to fans, onlookers and teammates. He calculated everything by way of expending the least possible effort to win. In all his Tour victories, he only occasionally won a stage. He never took a chance, never attacked except when necessary, never assisted his fellow riders. He remained a cipher, a superb cyclist but never an animateur.

Doping predates the Grand Tours, beginning with the notorious indoor "six-day races" of the 1890s, when riders dosed themselves on nitroglycerine or strychnine. Doping included ether, always alcohol, and after the Second War, amphetamines. It was only in 1966 (the year before the Englishman Tom Simpson collapsed and died in the Tour from amphetamine overdose) that France passed its first drug law - a law which did not govern the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body.

Anquetil, who took amphetamines, probably said the final word on doping and the European Grand Tour circuit - in a debate with a government minister on French television, he remarked quite frankly that no one could ride the Bordeaux–Paris on bread and water. Cyclists, he insisted, had to ride through "the cold, through heatwaves, in the rain and in the mountains", and they had the right to treat themselves as they wished. "Leave me in peace," he concluded; "everyone takes dope."

He was, like anyone else, a man of his time, unapologetic, candid about his doping, willing to forfeit the world hour record to spare himself the indignity of a urine test in a public stadium. Presumably Armstrong is also a man of his own time, though the times are different and call for tactics less seemly, less forthright and manly. For my own part, I can't get breathless over the final issue of Lance's doping allegations. I've always assumed that he doped, but whether he did or didn't, I'm almost too old to have any more heroes. Besides, no man is a hero to his soigneur.

 My heroes have, on occasion, been cowboys.

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