At this point, all excuses are futile
The 100th Tour de France promises to be a spectacular celebration of cycling, from Corsica to Paris via some of greatest sights and mountains, as the organisers ASO haven't lacked ambition in putting together a route which showcases some of France's greatest sights.
And yet despite all the careful planning and tweaking of the route to take in the chosen shiny bits, the 18th of July, the day of THE stage of this year's contest, risks not being remembered for making the riders toil up the 21 bends to Alpe d'Huez twice but for something even more spiteful – the French Senate inquiry into past doping in cycling is set to publish the list of riders who returned positive drug tests fifteen years ago.
As if the 18th day of racing won't be hard enough physically, the decision is a cruel mental punishment that doesn't really need to be saved up for the day most likely to confirm who will win this Tour de France. It smacks of political show-boating so don’t be surprised if they wait for the 18th kilometre or minute of racing to reveal the accused. This is going to hurt pro cycling as a business, a sport and a culture, and they can't blame anyone but themselves.
I don't have any problem with that list being published, although the timing is crap. The doctors, team management, cyclists and chemists involved know the Festina Affair could have been any of the squads – Virenque and Co. were just the ones unfortunate enough to be caught red-handed at the time and now the judges are going to tell us the whole ugly truth of that era.
The high-profile withdrawal of Laurent Jalabert is just one step of a necessary process which is going to hang heavily over this year's event and it doesn't matter if guys like Bernard Hinault stand up and say things have changed or not. That's exactly the kind of attitude that allowed the deceptions to continue for as long as they have. At this point, all excuses are futile. Judgement day is coming for the class of 98 and it's going to be very uncomfortable for some people.
Before ONCE and the Spanish teams ran away from that fateful Tour Jaja put himself in the spotlight by taking on the role of spokesman when a rider strike was organised in protest at the police searches of buses, cars and hotel rooms, but the culprits still involved with bike racing can't scuttle off now and the former world number one has missed his chance to tell the truth before he's forced to do so.
You might think Lance Armstrong should be keeping quiet about EPO, cortisone and blood doping, but he's right when he says that he didn't invent those medical products and I doubt very much that at the beginning of his pro career he had the idea of using them for performance enhancement. If you want to understand why shame hangs over cycling and why politicians and campaigners continue to use the sport in a detrimental way to promote their own causes, then riders like Jalabert need to start talking. They need to be explaining what they were expected, persuaded or taught to do by their peers and helpers. Silence on the other hand won't stop these same old stories being dragged up and it won't make them go away.
I started writing my explanation back in February and to my shame it has sat in a folder unfinished. I think I wanted it to be a story of sorts but I now know it doesn't need to be entertaining – facts, names and places will do, and then a basic conclusion. It's not my place to suggest how to use the information, just to provide it. This latest affair has reminded me I really need to get on with it and send it to someone who I think will use it wisely. I'm not seeking to be a hero or a martyr for doing so. I have no agenda or a position to defend and I certainly don't think it'll win me any brownie points but if it helps understand why the culture got as bad as it did or why the Omertà dominated then so be it.
Why didn't I say anything before, I hear you ask. Well who would have really listened? Who was interested other than those wishing to punish or humiliate? Would you have brought that crap to your doorstep when you knew it would have changed nothing?
Think back not too far, when everyone who dared to say anything was called an idiot, twisted or bitter by people who ought to have known better too. I might do stupid things occasionally, but I'm not bitter, twisted or needing revenge on cycling and I like it too much to want to damage it but therein lay the dilemma. I couldn’t spit in the soup even though it was bad. That's pretty shameful too.
I do have sympathy for the majority of the riders who will be named but none for the people who put them in that situation. Jalabert had his chance to say something, he could have chosen to give his evidence in private to the inquiry and maybe be useful, as that's what Didier Deschamps did when asked about doping in football. Jalabert didn't take that chance. Instead he fudged the questions and now he just looks like a fool.
The obvious questions are, if this info has been available since 2004 why hasn't the issue been raised before? Did the UCI of Verbruggen know? Did Pat McQuaid know? If they didn't, then why not?
The present day riders can rightly say this has nothing to do with them and I'd agree: their mentality has moved on. So many other things in life have improved but cycling seems stuck with a mentality of cover-ups and deceptions and they always get dragged out at Tour de France time when they'll get the most coverage. Isn't it time that stopped and stuff like this is sorted out quickly ?
I'd go as far as saying don't bother asking the riders at the 100th Tour for a sound-bite on the subject ask someone who was there instead. Someone like Virenque because we may well be needing an ironic laugh before St. Frederick's big day. I still think this year's race can be one of the great Tours but it doesn't need rubbish like this to liven up the suspense.
- Robert Millar
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey. Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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