Swans Commentary » swans.com August 24, 2009  



Le Tour De France
Part Two: So were the Riders all Heroes?


by Graham Lea





[ed. Read the first part of Graham Lea's take on the Tour de France, The Avant-Tour.]


(Swans - August 24, 2009)   The Tour de France is debatably the toughest sporting competition in the world, so are the riders all worthy heroes? Like all professionals, they appear to make light work of long, steep mountain roads, riding at average speeds that have increased from 25 kph in 1903 to mostly more than 40 kph in recent years. Of course, bicycles have improved enormously, diets are now excellent, and there is a much higher level of fitness. Le Tour does encourage the French to ride bicycles, but unlike the Dutch, they are mostly not of the pragmatic variety with saddlebags or baskets for the shopping, and seats for children.

Cycling has its own argot. An important word is peloton (for the main cluster of riders that keep together to benefit from their slipstream). It takes a great deal of energy to make a breakaway and sustain it, especially alone. Each day's race is an étape (stage). There are soigneurs (and occasionally soigneuses) who are carers acting like valets to look after riders, often undertaking massage. In the early days they also supplied dope to the riders. The classement general gives a list of riders, noting how many seconds they are behind the leader. The poursuivants are the pursuers of the leader(s), with the attardés being the group behind the peloton.

The maillot jaune is a yellow jersey worn by the leader of the classement général, the overall leader in elapsed time. The maillot vert (green) is for the leader by points for sprint stages, while the maillot à pois rouges (red polka dots) is for the king of the mountains. There is a maillot blanc (white) for the best under-25 rider. There used to be a lanterne rouge (red lamp attached to the saddle) for the slowest rider -- a joke from the early days when they sometimes rode into the night.

The news about Armstrong, once the Tour was underway, was that he received relatively little attention in the media, for the simple reason that it became clear quite early that Alberto Contador was likely to win. Armstrong was rarely seen outside the peloton, but he is an excellent strategist and a very consistent rider. What impressed the French was that he mellowed, was more relaxed about not being in the lead, and actually talked to other peloton riders. He admitted that Contador was faster than he ever was on the Verbier climb, although this may have been a back-hander. He admitted he no longer had the punch, the acceleration, the high-end speed in the climbs... As a result of this glimpse of his human side, French attitudes towards him were much less hostile.

Make no mistake about the rationale for Armstrong's return to the Tour: he told the Austin American-Statesman, a trifle arrogantly, that "it's the best way to piss off the French." Indeed, it was. He is constantly confronted with an assumption of doping guilt, while most other riders are accorded the assumption of innocence. He complained, rather reasonably, that waking up riders for a drug control at 6 am during a mountain stage, as happened in Andorra, was "ridiculous." Armstrong has never failed a drug test carried out according to the rules, although L'équipe newspaper, owned by tour organiser ASO, claimed in August 2005 that he had tested positive for EPO in samples from the 1999 Tour when they were subsequently tested. There were scientific and ethical reasons to be cautious about this claim.

It was interesting that Armstrong was wearing pressure boots in the Tour. Elasticized stockings are often used to increase blood flow up the legs of those with thrombosis who take anticoagulants to make their blood less viscous. Of course it could also be a means to carry more oxygen more quickly around the body.

There is much to read to become an Armstrong expert. There are two volumes of autobiography, with another forthcoming; a new biography by veteran Tour watcher John Wilcockson; and an earlier volume by David Walsh, chief sports writer of the Sunday Times. Walsh co-wrote an earlier book that is available only in French, and which was the subject of libel trials that stopped a British version, but allowed the French one to remain in print. The book contains very serious accusations against Armstrong, suggesting he used drugs, with statements by credible people. Armstrong vehemently denied this, calling Walsh a "fucking little troll" according to Daniel Coyle's book. It would be wise to read all of these books before forming a view as to whether the claims that Armstrong doped appear to be substantiated or not, or whether they are merely possible but not proven. (1)

Relatively little attention has been given to Alberto Contador's chronic cerebral cavernoma, a congenital vascular disorder for which he had risky surgery in 2004. He was three weeks in coma. By contrast, Armstrong has (rightly) a high profile for his charitable anti-cancer foundation Livestrong to raise awareness of the need for cancer testing, with funds raised by selling yellow Livestrong bracelets. Armstrong was racing in the Tour without being paid, for this reason.

The team manager, who is linked to the riders by radio, decides which favoured rider is to be supported by the team. They are instructed to shield him from the wind, so that he can ride in their slipstream, and to carry water for him, which is a significant help. The star rider is then less tired when it is time to make a breakaway. It may be difficult for some team members to keep up. There is some feeling that there is too much micro-management by the team manager, but his main job, we should not forget, it is to get the team name mentioned in a positive way as many times as possible on television.

It is very clear that the public does not associate with the commerciality of the nine-rider teams, which start with nine riders. The names are purely a means of advertising, and of course bringing money to the event. You just do not hear a Dutch cry "Leve de Rabobank!" or "Eup! Azienderi kasu eman, Euskaltel - Euskadi!" (Basque for something like "Pay attention to the peloton, team!")

Most riders are mercenaries, riding for a sponsor from another country than their own. The only thoroughbred team, as it were, was the Euskaltel-Euskadi team, whose riders were all from Spain. After the Tour, it was announced that Mikel Astarloza of the team, who won the 16th stage and came 10th overall in the Tour, had been found to be positive for recombinant EPO as a result of a pre-Tour test undertaken by the Madrid testing laboratory in June. He was provisionally disqualified by the UCI.

What a conglomerate of twelve Kazakhstan oil companies could hope to gain from sponsoring the Astana team is hard to imagine, but eventually they coughed up the promised 12 million euros for 2009. Kazakhstan is a singularly undemocratic country where political opponents are murdered and dumped in the forest. This has not upset the United States, since US oil companies have lots of oil and gas rights there, despite Kazakhstan being surrounded by nations unfriendly to the U.S., which to American chagrin results in its pipelines going to Russia and China. President Nursultan Nazarbayev obtained a remarkable 91% of the vote (although no candidate dared stand against him), and has a bank balance said to exceed a billion dollars. Astana is the new capital (it was previously Almaty, also known as Alma-Ata). It is hard to imagine that as a result of Astana being the leading team this year, we will think differently about the Kazakh régime, or travel to see the new presidential palace being built.

Alexander Vinokourov, a Kazakh biking hero who founded the Astana team, was banned for doping in the 2007 Tour (with the whole team being "invited" to withdraw). The 2009 Tour team has one Kazakh, who previously distinguished himself by coming last in the Tour d'Espagne. But with Armstrong, Contador, and several other strong riders, the team was still formidable. (Contador missed the 2008 Tour because Astana was not invited as a result of their doping record). The Astana team bus was subjected to a three-hour search by Swiss customs authorities when it entered Switzerland, but nothing was found.

After the Tour, the Astana team fell apart, with an announced departure by Armstrong (to found his own team sponsored by Radio Shack and a manufacturer of plimsoles, now apparently called trainers). Contador turned down a $16 million, four-year Astana contract and was uncertain where he would go, but it would not be near Armstrong, he said. The Team manager Johan Bruyneel and some of the team's stronger riders were expected to join Armstrong.

Antoine Vayer, a professeur d'éducation physique et sportive (EPS), former trainer of the Festina Team, director of AlternatiV, une cellule de recherche sur la performance, and a world expert on human power output (2) calculated Contador's performance on the ascent of Verbier (8.8km of 7.5%, and a climb of 658 metres) during étape 15. It had been the fastest climb in the history of the Tour. (3) He undertook calculations of Contador's VO2max (aerobic capacity, or maximal oxygen consumption), which he found to be 99.5 ml/kg/min.

Physiological measures do not tell the whole story, but do draw attention to suspicious circumstances. The numbers are translated into snappy journalism that gives the fans something to talk about, as though it were all black and white. The reality is that not everything is known about human performance. Furthermore, most physiologists do not usually have a sufficient background in statistics and mathematics to improve the scientific validity of their conclusions, nor to design experiments that would help elucidate performance. Exercise physiologists often disagree about the measuring, relative usefulness, and interpretation of VO2max results, which certainly do not give the whole picture. An under-considered area is the probable overcompensation syndrome of athletes such as Armstrong and Contador who have survived a serious medical condition. Whether either of them has used drugs, we do not know with judicial certainty -- and of course both deny it. One should not overlook the adrenalin power of a determination to win.

The American Greg LeMond (Tour winner in 1986, 1989, and 1990) took up the story in Le Monde (no relation) of Contador's ascent of Verbier, and stated that this would require a never-achieved level of oxygen uptake, so far as he was aware. He challenged Contador to prove he was able to do this without performance-enhancing drugs. (4) He concluded that je reste dubitatif face à toute performance qui paraît trop bonne pour être vraie. (He was doubtful, it was too good to be true.) Contador, as he had no doubt been advised, refused to answer press questions about the article's accusations, using the formulaic "next question" technique. (5)

Vayer noted in another article in Libération (6) that le dopage est avéré à 410 watts, 'miraculeux' à 430 et 'mutant' à 450. La VO2 (consommation d'oxygène) de Contador estimée après Verbier, c'est 99,5. Impossible, si l'on étudie la physiologie humaine. Comment faire décemment passer plus de 5 litres d'oxygène par minute dans un organisme ? Sauf avec du kérosène à base de sang... (I'm sure you get the drift.)

The wind factor and exact details of the climb are not known sufficiently, however, for a more definitive calculation. As the route contains hairpins, part of the route would of course be in the opposite direction, so complicating any assessment... Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas, in their very serious US blog on The Science of Sport, (7) put Contador's value at 420 watts (with Alex Simmons's calculating 422). They added that "you cannot use isolated performances, lacking control over variables, to infer doping." The blog discussed VAMs (vertical ascent in metres per hour), a measure introduced by the notorious Italian doping physician Michele Ferrari to compare riders and climbs.

The 2009 samples are being preserved, for testing with new methods or re-testing. This would allow positive results to be announced at a quieter time, with less upset for the sponsors.

The leaders in the circuits of the Champs-Elysées on the final day are not necessarily the real leaders, since it is cumulated time that counts. At one stage, one of the two Japanese riders was allowed to lead the stage, probably so that the Japanese media could show some good news, and perhaps to help ASO to benefit in some way such as with TV rights, especially if Tokyo's bid is successful for the 2016 Olympics (against Chicago, Madrid, Rio, and Copenhagen: result to be announced 2 October).

On the final podium, as the Spanish flag was raised, Contador did not look at all happy. This can easily be explained. The Danish national anthem was played, instead of that of Spain. It turned out "there was a bug," the Copenhagen Post reported. Amusingly, Bjarne Riis, who owned the Danish Team Saxo Bank, joked that playing the Danish anthem was "a personal greeting from Prudhomme," the Tour's general director, because Saxo's Andy Schleck was second. (Background: it was Prudhomme who had banned Riis from attending the Tour in 2007 after he had admitted that he won the 1996 Tour when he was using dope.)

In the European Parliament, Jan Figel had made the important point that "Fairness means that we stop punishing only athletes and forget about those who provide them with substances and show them how to use them and thereby ruin their health. And the supply chain stretches very far, it goes over borders and it involves both individual and organised behaviour." [Applause] (8)

Of course, team management and advising physicians should also be sanctioned if a rider uses dope. We should note well that doping really became an issue when sponsors started withdrawing support for Le Tour because the image of doping associated with their products and services did not help their image. Pat McQuaid, the UCI president, was a great denier that cycling had a doping problem, but changed his approach from 2007 when sponsors began concerned, becoming critical of "a culture of doping in some countries" (presumably Italy and Spain).

There are lots of winners: every rider who completed the Tour without PEDs is surely a hero. Others must share the victory with their physicians and pharmacologists, who do not of course seek the limelight. So did the best man win the Tour? Well, that may well be a French state secret.

In the PMU café I had my reporter's notebook ready as I approached Gaston and slipped a pastis in front of him. He was in full flow about Sarkozy not drinking anything alcoholic, and his cutting out chocolate, pastries, and ice cream following Carla's new régime of fruit and cottage cheese. As he paused for a sip, I asked him for his comments on Le Tour. He waxed eloquently for several minutes, his eyes occasionally looking towards heaven for dramatic effect, before another slurp of the yellow nectar. His sad conclusion was that "Cela fait douze ans qu'un Français n'est plus monté sur le podium final." (It's been 12 years since there was a Frenchman on the final podium.)

"Encore un pastis, Gaston?" I asked, as I made ready my key question. "Donc, il n'y a pas de dopage par les coureurs?" Gaston moved his cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other (we were sitting outside) and thought for a moment before giving me another long reply. In essence, he said that if drugs were not used this year, speeds would have been slower, particularly for the climbs. So there you are.

In a phrase: "No dope, no hope."




1.  Lance Armstrong: Comeback 2.0: up close and personal. Touchstone, forthcoming December 2009.

John Wilcockson: Lance: The making of the world's greatest champion. Da CAPO Press, 2009.

David Walsh: From Lance to Landis: inside the American doping controversy at the Tour de France. Ballantine Books, 2007.

Daniel Coyle: Lance Armstrong's War. HarperCollins, 2005.

Lance Armstrong & Sally Jenkins: Every second counts. Broadway, 2004.

David Walsh & Pierre Ballester: L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong. éditions de la Martinière, 2004. (There is an English translation of excerpts at http://www.cyclebanter.com/showthread.php?t=68049 Readers should treat this document, which is unauthorised, with caution. Armstrong has denied its truth in general terms, but does not appear to have made a detailed comment on the allegations.)

Lance Armstrong & Sally Jenkins: It's not about the bike: my journey back to life. Yellow Jersey Press, 2001.  (back)

2.  He wrote two guides, Pouvez-vous gagner le Tour de France? and La pleine puissance en cyclisme. Both for Librairie Polar, 2002.  (back)

3.  Antoine Vayer: "Des robots distancés par des extraterrestres." Libération, 21 July 2009.  (back)

4.  Greg LeMond: "Alberto, prouve-moi qu'on peut croire en toi." Le Monde, 23 July 2009.  (back)

5.  "Contador dodges bothersome doping questions." AFP, 23 July 2009.  (back)

6.  Antoine Vayer: "Contador, du kérosène dans les veines." Libération, 27 July 2009.  (back)

7.  "Alberto Contador - can he have a VO2max of 99.5 ml/kg/min?" www.sportsscientists.com, 24 July 2009. Also: "Tour 2009: Contador climb." 20 July 2009.  (back)

8.  Public hearing by the European Parliament, 29 November 2004: "Drug-taking in sport: obstacle to the ideal of athleticism."  (back)


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About the Author

Graham Lea is a British writer and journalist, inter alia for the BBC and The Register, where he covered the Microsoft antitrust case. For many years he was a geologist. Apart from London, he has lived in Canada, the USA, and the Netherlands before settling in la France profonde with his Dutch wife. Lea's work for Swans brings another bit of international flair to the coin français.



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Published August 24, 2009