11th July 1998
The 1998 Tour is of course infamous for the Festina affair – which is a shame when you consider some of the amazing performances that were completely overshadowed by scenes of riders tearing off their race numbers and staging a sit down protest. It was also a shame for Dublin, as Ireland played host to the Grand Départ for the first time in the history of the race. What should have been a huge celebratory affair for the city of Dublin instead became reminiscent of a bizarre movie, filled with police raids, tearful denials and dramatic arrests.
Amidst the chaotic scenes which greeted the Tour, there was the small matter of a race to be ridden. The French team Festina had arrived in Ireland, prepared to roll up to the start line. This seems surprising in hindsight – as any fan of pro cycling knows, the Festina soigneur, Willy Voet, had been arrested at the Belgian border after trying to cross into France on his way to the Tour. A search of his vehicle revealed an immense stash of performance enhancing substances. As well as vast quantities of syringes, EPO, growth hormone, testosterone and amphetamines, Voet was also carrying the infamous ‘pot belge’, a mix of illegal drugs particularly associated with the dark side of the cycling world. The exact constitution on pot belge seems to be interchangeable, but substances generally used include cocaine, heroin, caffeine, amphetamines and other analgesics. Voet’s possession of pot belge as well as EPO and growth hormone provided a startling glimpse into the dark underbelly of some sections of the pro cycling world in the 1990s.
Set against this ominous back drop, the race organisers pressed on with the Tour as planned. The Prologue kicked the Grand Départ into action on the 11th July 1998, with a 5.6km individual time trial through the streets of Dublin. The race route saw the riders set out from Trinity College University, ending the day on the opposite side of Dublin’s River Liffey in the famous O’ Connell Street. Dublin city centre – home to many a true Irish bar, bedecked in green and gold, was now coloured red, white and blue in honour of the French tricolour for several days leading up to the Prologue. With large sections of the city’s roads sealed off, local politicians were talking up the positive nature of public transport, and bars, restaurants and cafes were serving special French-themed menus. Over 40 gendarmes in full uniform were on hand to help the Irish police to not only cater for residents and tourists, now in festival mood, but also the vast Tour de France travelling circus, which included almost 200 riders, 2000 team staff and race officials, 1000 members of the press, and 1500 vehicles. The Tour’s visit to Ireland marked the 14th time the race had started outside of France, and the Irish were proud and honoured to be hosting the Grand Départ, determined to showcase their country well, whilst refusing to allow the snowballing Festina issue to overshadow the racing. During those first few days in Ireland, the full extent of the Tour’s unravelling was yet to have been realised.
A full complement of nine Festina riders were present at the Prologue and ready to race, despite the rapidly mounting evidence of systematic team doping. Voet may have been partial to pot belge, but an entire pharmacy worth of EPO and testosterone? The favourite for the Prologue was Briton Chris Boardman, who was cheered loudly from the road side as the adopted home-hopeful. His own home in Cheshire wasn’t far as the crow flies, and Dubliners – with their welcoming attitude and willingness to thoroughly embrace a trier – were only too happy to claim Boardman as their own for a day.
Completing the course in 6 minutes, 12 seconds, Boardman secured the maillot jaune, wearing yellow after the Prologue for the third time in 5 years. His average speed over the short distance was 54kph, keeping any competitors out of the running for the win. Boardman’s nearest rival, Abraham Olano, powered to the finish line 4 seconds slower, with Laurent Jalabert – the World TT Champion, rounding off the top three, 5 seconds back from the newly crowned race leader. Boardman kept the yellow jersey for the following day’s stage; a 180km flat stage won by Belgian sprinter Tom Steels, and started the third day of the Tour as race leader.
Sadly for Chris Boardman, his Tour de France never actually reached France, as he suffered a devastating crash whilst wearing the leaders’ jersey on the road to Cork during Stage 2. Boardman’s front wheel clipped the rear wheel of the rider ahead, ending his Tour 50km from the finish line of day three. The British rider received medical assistance at the road side, after reportedly asking if he could continue his race. He was withdrawn by the race doctor, due to his inability to remember the incident. This lead to a precautionary brain scan at Cork University Hospital.
Boardman’s 1998 crash followed a pattern that had been established over the course of his Tour de France entries. Remarkably, he’s won the Prologue and worn the yellow jersey on his ’94 Tour debut, yet he was unable to complete the race. ’95 saw a dramatic exit from the race after a crash in the Prologue. His 1997 Tour saw Boardman take the Prologue before crashing in the mountains and sustaining injuries which meant that he was not present for the last week of the race. By 1998, Boardman had only completed one Tour de France, in 1996, and his crash on the road to Cork once again saw his swift exit from cycling’s biggest event.