In 1999, following the previous season's disastrous Tour de France, Christophe Bassons made his debut in the race for the La Française des Jeux team. In this extract from his new autobiography, A Clean Break, Bassons recalls his debut in what was branded 'The Tour of Renewal'…
The Tour is an event apart. Everything about it is bigger, sometimes to the point of outrageousness. For three weeks, the peloton is under the microscope, magnified like the Gauls' village at the beginning of Asterix's adventures. Finding themselves under this magnifying glass, some are overcome by megalomania. For my part, I felt quite humble when I arrived at Le Puy-du-Fou, in the Vendée, from where the great show was setting out. I found I was part of a mobile town, designed to travel in high style for almost 4,000 kilometres. I felt like just a single atom.
That Saturday, I climbed onto the starting ramp feeling like a novice all over again. I had done a reconnaissance of the prologue course the day before. It was fully protected by metal barriers lining both sides of the road. I was astonished by the extent of this logistical operation. I understood the reason for it the next day soon after I set off. A huge crowd, the likes of which I had never seen in my life, had gathered on the roadsides. I can remember the lines of bodies leaning over the barriers were so constant that they disappeared off into the distance.
Fervent fans urged me on. The sound resonated in my helmet to the point where it made me dizzy. I don't know if it was the noise, the effort or the emotion that had my temples throbbing. It was 8' 46" of elation.
I told Lionel Chami, the journalist from Le Parisien who was ghosting my column, about this naïve emotion that same evening. The next morning, I was surprised and annoyed when I saw my piece in the paper. The reason for this was the short preamble to my words. 'An important detail: Bassons is racing "à l'eau claire", that is to say without using doping products.' Having eagerly opened the paper that morning, I could only see that one statement: I wasn't doping. I couldn't imagine that the other riders, influenced as they had been by recent events, would read it as anything other than suspicion as far they were concerned.
I soon had another grievance to add to this one. Before the start, some journalists had been asking me about the situation in my sport, and I had told them what I really thought. 'I was optimistic in January. I am less so today. We crossed one hurdle but there are still three or four ahead. Controls are being carried out, but there are no follow-up punishments … If there is business that needs to be clarified, I'd like to see the police doing it, so that they can put this to bed once and for all … I hope that this Tour will take place in healthy conditions, but I have come here with some doubts … Longitudinal testing? Many things have been discovered, but no penalties have yet been imposed.'
There was nothing that hadn't been said before, nothing that wasn't already known, just a statement of doubt.
I was surprised to note the next day when I was reading through the papers that I was the only one to address an issue that had been in the news for months. Everyone else had decided not to respond to questions on this matter. From the Tour director to the most humble of the race followers, an instruction had gone through the caravan: let's forget everything that's happened and start all over again. An honourable truce had been declared. Every unsavoury concern had been buried as the pedalling fraternity went out preaching renewal on France's roads.
The Tour de France is not only the biggest race. It is an incarnation of this whole milieu, which only knew how to speak with one voice. I would have the opportunity to observe this phenomenon repeatedly in the days that followed, often at my own expense. Getting a different stance heard meant dissociation from everyone else on the race. I don't think there was a deus ex machina imposing a single way of thinking. Cross-pollination of thinking through the generations had produced clones who all acted and reacted in the same way. When one of their number stood out, the system was immediately threatened. Cycling had invented a perfect world, a benevolent and festive dictatorship that only knew how to survive if every member remained united with the pack.
It reminds me of the old British TV series, The Prisoner, where men and women live happily in an idyllic village. They have become no more than characterless beings, identified only by a number. One man rises up, Number Six: he wants to know why he is there and who decided on that. He wants to assert his right to think for himself. As for me, number 152, I wanted to give a sense of my impressions of the Tour de France. Like the hero in the series, I wanted to say: 'I am not a number!' I wanted to assert my personality, to make my voice heard.
To purchase A Clean Break by Christophe Bassons, click here.
Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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