Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Cycling: Another Tour, another scandal to become part of shameful history

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Geoffrey Wheatcroft's book 'Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France' has just been published in a revised edition (Pocket Books £8.99)]

If the death of Diana or 9/11 were truly shocking, because so utterly unexpected, no one can honestly say that "Tour de France rider fails dope test" is an astounding story. If anything, there is a dull inevitability about the news that Alexander Vinokourov has failed a test for blood doping on Saturday. Each year, as we piously pray that this Tour will be scandal-free, we await the bad news. Sure enough it comes as depressingly - but no more unexpectedly - than rain at a Test match.

The truth is that doping, or the use of artificial stimulants, is as old as the Tour itself. All that has changed is the nature of the non-normal nutrients, as the racecourse vets at Newmarket would call them, that cyclists consume. At first it was alcohol, drunk in huge quantities in the early days after the Tour was created in 1903.

Between the wars the favourite drug was cocaine. Henri Pélissier won the Tour in 1923, and was quite happy to say that he dosed himself with aspirin for migraine, chloroform for his knees, and a bottle of cocaine "for my eyes". When the Tour resumed in 1947 after its second interruption by war, the cyclists had found something new in the form of amphetamines or la bomba, as Italian riders called it, although its use was strictly speaking illegal, as wartime American bomber air crew had been issued it to ward off fatigue. And it could not even be called an open secret, since everyone knew.

Cyclists did not even deny it, at least not after they had retired. One famous Tour winner, the great Fausto Coppi, was asked whether had ever used la bomba and said: "Only when absolutely necessary." And how often was that? "Most of the time." Another, the equally great Jacques Anquetil, irritably asked a French politician during a television debate if "they expect us to ride the Tour on mineral water".

We have just marked the sombre 40th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson on 13 July 1967, when he collapsed and died near the summit of Mont Ventoux, stuffed full of amphetamines. The best English cyclist of his age, and the first to wear the Tour leader's yellow jersey, Tom used to tell his friends, "If it takes 10 to kill you, I'll have nine," a piece of black humour that ceased to be funny that grim day....

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/28/2007

Why is it that use of any kind of enhancements,other than surgery, considered cheating? It the insidious poisoning of the semantic and therefor psychology of the mind about such. The drug war corrodes the ages long use of various of nature's conucopia of chemicals to give benifits. There is risk as in all things in this life. Geoffery Wheatcroft is bemused by how in the early days of the Toure how people could use such drugs now illegal for so many years. Just imajine,100 years ago no drug war,it would be good if we could be free of its debilitating effects both cultually and psychologically would be better than this corrupting cure/