“Yanks Go Home” was painted boldly across the road as I trudged up the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrénées. But the increasing legions of American supporters visiting the Tour de France were not deterred – “in yellow” someone had added underneath.
They had cause to be confident – it was 2003 and Lance Armstrong, holder of the leader’s yellow jersey, won that stage to shore up the fifth victory of his eventual record-breaking seven triumphs.
Painting riders’ names on the road has long been part of cycling. Armstrong himself was famously inspired by finding traces of his name on former race roads in North Carolina as he struggled to make a comeback from cancer, while executives at T-Mobile, one of the longest-running team sponsors, might be gratified to see accurate renditions of their logo high on Alpe d’Huez and Col du Tourmalet.
But, in recent years, there have been more than just names; some spectators are painting accusatory syringes and slogans, such as tous dopés, reflecting their distaste for the seemingly never-ending series of drug scandals rocking the sport.
This year’s was one of the biggest. Links to a sports doctor at the heart of a Spanish doping investigation known as Operación Puerto led to the withdrawal on the eve of the Tour of the four riders who finished behind Armstrong in last year’s race.
This sparked comparisons with the “Festina Affair” in 1998 when the Festina team was forced to pull out after the discovery of a small pharmacy’s worth of performance-boosters in a team official’s car. Protests by riders and subsequent team withdrawals threatened an early end to the Tour for the first time.
This year before the scandal, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich (second and third in 2005) were the two favourites while Francisco Mancebo (fourth) was also a serious contender. Both Ullrich and Basso have denied any wrongdoing. Mancebo has announced he will retire.
You have to feel sorry for Alexandre Vinokourov, however. The Kazakh rider, fifth last year, was not implicated but five of his nine-man team were, meaning the team was short of the requisite six-man minimum and was forced to pull out.
There is a gallows humour among cycling fans. Cynics accuse the optimistic of the triumph of hope over experience and joke that it is safest not to follow one rider too closely for fear he will be the next one caught. German fans have this year been spotted painting over Ullrich’s name on the roadside T-Mobile banners.
Cycling teams’ dependence on sponsorship makes the sport perhaps more sensitive than others to drug allegations since there are no ticket sales, while income from television rights goes to the race organisers. Liberty, the insurer, dropped its team like the proverbial hot potato in May when it was revealed that the team manager, Manolo Saiz, was implicated in Operación Puerto.
So far, however, others are standing firm. T-Mobile, which has vowed to fight doping in sport, has said it will honour its contract in spite of the withdrawals of Ullrich, another rider and an official as a result of the Spanish investigation. CSC, the sponsor of Basso’s team, is also standing by its deal, while demanding zero-tolerance policies on doping.
Is this then a “clean”, or drug-free, Tour? Optimists reckon there is a better chance since criminal investigations have increased the risks. Not until the race is over and we can compare average speeds with previous, suspiciously fast, years, will we perhaps have a better idea of how doped it may have been.
But not everyone is convinced. “Pigs might fly,” said British rider David Millar this week. “This is a professional sport and, believe me, as long as money is involved in sport, doping will exist. And if you believe anything else, I’m afraid you’re a fool.”
He should know, this being his first race following a two-year doping ban that saw him stripped of a world championship for time trialling. He has vowed to race clean to prove it is possible to win that way.
The favourite to win this year is American Floyd Landis, who this week revealed that he is suffering from osteonecrosis, or “bone death”, a degenerative condition that will necessitate a hip replacement this year. In effect, he has ridden in increasing pain for the past three years while hiding it from his team. It is truly amazing that someone would put themselves through the pain but it is not uncommon at the Tour. Even amid the doping scandals of the past decade, we have had Armstrong with a cancer comeback worthy of a Hollywood fairy tale. And Tyler Hamilton, the Olympic gold medallist, may be a pariah following a ban for blood doping in 2004, but he came an incredible fourth in the 2003 race after riding in excruciating pain from a broken collarbone.
We don’t want drug cheats. They demean the efforts of others. But as Millar implies, there’s some inevitability it will happen and at least cycling is improving and tightening its testing and procedures. After all, a town with no law enforcement technically has no crime.
In the meantime, it is still possible to admire the sheer effort it takes to ride this gruelling race, which has an epic quality that the heroics of Landis, Armstrong and Hamilton can only enhance. That is why, while road-painting fans are making their feelings known, supporters are nevertheless prepared to turn out in their millions and cheer.