We all remember He Who Shall Not Be Named, who once held seven consecutive Tour titles, but doping and skullduggery have been part and parcel of the Tour since it began.
The second edition was almost its final one, as Mr Desgrange disqualified 12 of the entrants, including the first four on GC. Nine were booted for using cars or trains, including the winner of the first and, pre-DQ, this second edition, Maurice Garin. There was fighting, sabotage, spectator-interference and more… drop by at The Dirtiest Tour and read a fuller version of events, it beggars belief. And that was just the beginning of the Tour and cycling’s long history of marginal (and not-quite-so) gains.
We think of doping as a modern construct, but the guys were already looking for advantages a century ago; rubbing cocaine into their gums to numb the pain, mixing strychnine (!) with brandy to dull the monstrous distances they needed to cover and more. Jacques Anquetil, the first man to win five Tours, scoffed at the idea of winning even one ‘clean’; “You can’t ride the Tour de France on mineral water.” Master Jacques was a man for a quote, to digress somewhat. “To prepare for a race there is nothing better than a good pheasant, some champagne and a woman”, is an all-time favourite, and then there is his final comment on the doping side: “You’d have to be an imbecile or hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants.”
Even the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, fell foul of the anti-dopers, as did Bernard Hinault, in refusing to submit to a test in 1982, shortly after winning his fourth Tour de France, picking up a fine and a one-month suspension he conveniently forgets when giving the current crop of riders a hard time…
Is the entire peloton doping today? We asked an eminent sports doctor for an off-the-record opinion (he has some deeper knowledge that can’t be published) and the answer was a simple one: 10 years ago, the non-dopers were in the absolute minority, if there were any at all in the Tour. Today, the controls are so refined that he would be surprised if five (10, at most), were brave enough to take them on.
As with any business – and cycling at this level is a business first and foremost – individuals and teams are rightly optimising every minute detail of what they do, which includes nutrition and supplementation. If the rules allow the use of certain substances, for as long as those rules are abided by, it isn’t (technically) cheating, is it?