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On This Day in the Tour…2003

14th July 2003

2003, and Lance Armstrong is aiming for his record-equalling fifth consecutive Tour de France win. It would be almost a decade before he was stripped of all seven of his wins after the truth about the US Postal Team’s doping programme was revealed. As for many of his Tour attempts, Armstrong believed that Jan Ullrich would be his closest rival in the 2003 race. Ullrich had signed with Team Coast at the start of the year, but the sponsor had run into financial difficulties and the title sponsorship was eventually taken on by Bianchi, which secured the team’s entry into the Tour.

Ullrich’s presence at the race, and the number of other possible yellow jersey rivals, meant that the 2003 Tour was much more competitive than Armstrong’s previously dominant victories. Two of Lance’s biggest rivals, ex teammate Tyler Hamilton and fellow American Levi Leipheimer were involved in a heavy crash early in the race. Leipheimer was forced to abandon, yet Hamilton continued with a broken collarbone. This left Jan Ullrich and the Spaniard Joseba Beloki as the biggest threats to the dominance of the US Postal Team.

Beloki had the ability to perform well in both mountain stages and time trials, and was only 40 seconds behind Armstrong in the General Classification at the start of Stage 9, which was held on 14th July. Beloki’s all round ability had seen him share the final podium in Paris with Lance in the previous three editions of the Tour – as 3rd in 2000 and 2001, moving up to 2nd in 2002. His skill and proximity to the yellow jersey as Stage 9 began meant that the US Postal Team had to mark his every move as the stage took the riders from Le Bourg d’Oisans to Gap.

Although the stage win on 14th July 2003 went to the Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinakourov, his win is overshadowed by an incident on the road between Beloki and Armstrong. 4 kilometres from the finish line in Gap, Beloki was descending from Cote de La Rochette after negotiating the mountain pass of Col de Manse. Attempting to eat into Armstrong’s lead, Beloki appeared to be taking risks on the descent. Armstrong was determined not to let the Spaniard escape, and stuck to his wheel as the pair descended into Gap.

Beloki, riding directly in front of Armstrong, negotiated a difficult turn at high speed, and panicked as he realised the severe angle of the corner. In a split second, Beloki lost control of his bike, applied his rear brake, and locked the back wheel. The heat of the day had partially melted the road surface, with the result that the rear end of his bike swayed wildly in both directions. Beloki crashed heavily, suffering career threatening injuries. His elbow and wrist were broken, and his femur was fractured in two places.

With barely a fraction of a second to react, Armstrong aimed his bike straight ahead in order to avoid hitting Beloki, and rode straight off the road across a ploughed field. The road curved around the edge of the field, which allowed Armstrong to travel a short distance across the rutted field, before leaping off his bike and carrying it across a ditch. Armstrong quickly remounted and continued with the race. The entire incident lasted only a handful of seconds but served as a metaphor for the Armstrong era as a whole. Lance – riding with performance enhancing substances in his system, was gifted a hefty dose of luck to match his undeniable talent. “That man was in complete control” exclaimed race commentator Paul Sherwen, “Armstrong is such a star!”

Beloki’s career as an elite rider was cut short that day, as he attempted to ride away from Lance. The scene only added to the Armstrong legend.

On This Day in the Tour….1967

13th July 1967

The 1967 Tour is infamous for one thing – the death of Tom Simpson, although unless you’re a cycling fan or student of Tour history you might not be fully aware of the whole story of what happened on 13th July 1967. Since the doping scandals of recent decades, Tour organisers ASO and some of the British cycling establishment have almost been afraid to mention Tom Simpson and what happened not far from the summit of Mont Ventoux. The fact that Simpson was carrying vials of amphetamines in his jersey pocket that day cannot be ignored, nor should it be. Doping is an indisputable if unpleasant part of the history of the Tour.

There had been an opportunity for the 2017 edition to acknowledge this history by visiting Mont Ventoux today, the 50th anniversary of Simpson’s death on the slopes of the mountain; however the organisers decided not to include the Giant of Provence in this years route, which many feel was a ploy to avoid having to address difficult questions.

Instead, many of Simpson’s friends, family, and fans will make their way to Provence in order to remember Tom Simpson – Bradley Wiggins will be amongst those on Ventoux today, posting a photo on his Twitter page yesterday at the foot of the mountain. Another Tour legend, Eddy Merckx, will also be amongst those making the pilgrimage to Provence.

Jeremy Whittle, author of Ventoux: Sacrifice and Suffering on the Giant of Provence, feels that the Tour organisers’ refusal to even acknowledge what happened in the race 50 years ago today was wrong. “Marking his death’s 50th anniversary would not suggest a glib acceptance of doping…it would simply be respectful and accepting…fans who knew him show more compassion for his memory than the organisers of the race in which he died”. It seems bizarre that, while the Tour appears ashamed to whisper the name ‘Simpson’, Virenque is still invited to ASO events with others who have been involved with performance enhancing substances. Much like the snubbing of Ullrich at this years’ launch event in Germany, it seems some dopers have been completely forgiven and rehabilitated within the sport, whilst others are ignored or erased from Tour history.

By attempting to whitewash the events of 13th July 1967, ASO are disregarding one of the trigger events in the development of anti-doping regulations – a development which is still ongoing. Simpson’s story also serves to highlight the pressure riders experience during Grand Tours and other key races in the cycling calendar. Simpson’s team mates had grown concerned for his health in the days leading up to his death. On Stage 10, they had urged him to abandon due to stomach problems, yet his manager felt that Simpson should continue. A number of biographers have suggested that some were pressing Simpson to continue for the positive effect his presence at the Tour would have upon his – and by extension their – financial situation. The negative impact that leaving the Tour would have upon his earnings and earning potential could have persuaded Simpson to continue. Others suggest that once Simpson pulled on the British national jersey, he had it within his power to ‘ride himself to death’.

Stage 13 of the 1967 Tour began in Marseille, traversing 211.5km of mountainous road, before finishing in Carpentras after the 13 mile climb of Ventoux and descent down the other side. The heat that day was intense, and once the race left the tree line on the lower slopes of the mountain there was no respite from the beating sun. The Tour’s doctor was concerned that the combined effect of the heat and the climb would be dangerous to rider’s health, allegedly saying to a journalist “if the boys stick their nose in a topette (bag of drugs) today, we could have a death on our hands”.

Simpson appeared to be suffering even before the race had started. Asked on the start line if he was finding the heat a problem, he replied “No, it’s not the heat, it’s the Tour”. A key moment in the story of Stage 13 came whilst the riders were still covering the tree-lined section of the road to Mont Ventoux. Simpson appeared to leave his bike by the side of the road to fill his bottle from a building alongside the race route. One of the race officials, Jacques Lohmutter, confirmed to Simpson’s mechanic Harry Hall that he had filled the bottle with brandy. A team mate had visited a cafe earlier in the day and also procured brandy, which he had shared with Simpson. Simpson had also taken two vials of amphetamine, with a third full tube stowed in his jersey. This cocktail was to prove lethal when combined with the heat and exertion.

At the start of the climb, fellow riders noted tat Simpson was not in a good way. He did not respond when offered a drink of water by Lucien Aimar, a rider in a group of five who overtook Simpson a few kilometres from the summit. Aimar was worried. “His behaviour was completely bizarre”. Almost a mile from the summit, Simpson was weaving across the road in a dazed state. His mechanic gew increasingly concerned that Simpson would not be able to descend in his present state.

Simpson fell from his bike approximately half a mile from the summit. Hall jumped out of his vehicle and told Simpson that his Tour was over. Tom refused to heed his pleas, and declared “no, get me up, get me straight”. The team manager, Alec Taylor, told Hall that if Tom wanted to continue, so be it. Hall was unsettled by this, as Simpson was rambling and incoherent. The last words he heard him utter were “on, on, on” – not the famous “put me back on my bike” that is often quoted.

After remounting, initially it appeared that Simpson would reach the summit. He didn’t. Weaving all over the road, spectators held him up, and then lowered him to the ground upon seeing his glazed eyes and dazed appearance. Simpson had lost consciousness with his hands locked to his handlebars. A nurse from the Tour’s medical staff attempted CPR. Eventually an oxygen mask was procured by the Tour’s doctor, Dumas.

Almost three quarters of an hour after Simpson collapsed, he was taken by helicopter to Avignon hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Dumas would not sign a death certificate, and an autopsy was commissioned. Simpson’s death was attributed to heat exhaustion. Hall believes that he was dead by the time he was lowered to the ground.

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Part Two, After 13th July 1967, will be available soon. 

On This Day in the Tour……1995

12th July 1995.

The 1995 Tour was beyond heartbreaking for the Italians, the Motorola Team, the global peloton, fans of the sport and the cycling world in general. Olympic gold medallist and Motorola Team member Fabio Casartelli crashed along with several other riders on Stage 15, with fatal consequences. The race was on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the Pyrenees, when the tragedy occurred. Casartelli struck a concrete block on the side of the road, and it was immediately apparent that something terrible had happened. Casartelli was taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital where it was confirmed that he had not survived the incident. Today, a memorial to his memory stands beside the Pyrenean road where he crashed, and his death still evokes strong emotions. Casartelli had not been wearing a helmet, and some argued that there would have been a different outcome if he had been.

Six days prior to the terrible tragedy on the Col de Portet d’Aspet, the tifosi had been celebrating the arrival of a new Italian superstar bike rider, when Marco Pantani won Stage 10 from La Plagne to L’Alpe d’Huez. Prior to entering the mountains, Italians Fabio Baldato and Mario Cipollini had already given Italy something to cheer about, with three stage wins between them. Pantani had been steadily breaking into the consciousness of the cycling world since his days as a Junior, with his incredible climbing skill and daring attacks when the road kicked up. Pantani drove his coaches mad with his preferred style of attack – sit at the very back of the race before tearing past everyone and climbing into the clouds; a risky strategy which could easily see a rider sustain heavy time losses.

A few days prior to the Alpe d’Huez stage, Pantani was considering abandoning the race. A small adjustment to the cranks on his bike had altered his position and caused an old injury to flare up. When the race entered Belgium at the end of the first week, the pain was unbearable. In a desperate effort to keep the Italian in the race, an osteopath was found to work his magic. Miraculously it worked, allowing Marco the opportunity to enter the mountains with the peloton and showcase his panache and flair when climbing.

Thirteen kilometres from the finish line on 12th July, the Italian climber attacked in his usual style, coming up from behind until he reached a group of three elite riders – Laurent Dufaux, fellow Italian Ivan Gotti, and the darling of the French cycling world, Richard Virenque, who were he leaders on the road. Sensing Marco’s intentions, Gotti accelerated away from Virenque and Dufaux before Pantani was able to catch the triumvirate. His previous two companions were unable to match his speed, and Gotti broke away from the group. Marco was a different proposition however, and he sailed past Virenque and Dufaux to gain Gotti’s wheel. Not content to sit on, Pantani launched another attack; dancing on the pedals, he rode away from his compatriot. No one was able to catch Marco that day, and as he wasn’t a contender for the General Classification, his move hadn’t panicked the bunch.

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He might not have panicked the bunch, but Pantani did manage to briefly panic the tifosi and anyone else watching his escapades as he approached the finish line. At the 250m to go mark, there was a curve in the road which Marco appeared not to see until the very last moment. A collective exhale was made by the spectators as Pantani realised he was heading straight for the crowd barriers and the exit point for race vehicles instead of the finish line. Braking in time, Marco finally made the turn and rode to victory on Alpe d’Huez, a mountain that proved good to him throughout his career. To this day, Pantani is the holder of the record for the fastest ascent of the Alpe – although not without some debate. The controversy of the feat having been achieved during the EPO era not withstanding, different sources quote various times for the fastest climb of the mountain due to discrepancies between the accepted start point for the ascent. It is generally accepted by mainstream cycling publications and the Alpe d’Huez tourist board that Pantani’s 1997 ascent is the fastest – in 37 minutes and 35 seconds, with an average speed of 23.08kph. Others claim that 1995 was faster, quoting figures of 36 minutes and 40 seconds at 22.58kph. A third time of 36 minutes and 50 seconds is recorded elsewhere.

Whilst the figures may be in doubt, one thing is for sure – on 12th July 1995, Marco Pantani stamped his authority on the ascent, and announced himself as one of the finest climbers of his generation.

Photo courtesy of L’Equipe.

Characters of the Peloton – The Quiet One

Part One of a mini series by Girl With The Marco Pantani Tattoo

Since the Tour lost two riders in *that* controversial incident on Stage 4, the peloton has been down two of its biggest characters.  I went on a mission to find out who could step up to the mark since the loss of…well, Mark. And Peter.

The Quiet One, Alberto Contador

If you’re not social media savvy you might be forgiven for wondering why I’ve picked ‘Bertie’ (as Contador is affectionately called online) as one of my characters of the peloton. An extraordinary rider, Contador’s post-race interviews tended – until recently – to be in rapid-fire Spanish, with a focus on the day’s tactics and tomorrow’s hopes. You’ll not catch Alberto indulging in a victory jig as he crosses the finish line like Sagan, and, perhaps due to his perceived seriousness, he is never asked the more off-the-wall questions that some of his peers attract.

Yet behind his steely exterior and ridiculously high pain threshold, Alberto Contador is an animal lover with a cheeky sense of humour, which is definitely being showcased now that he’s confident to conduct interviews in English.

Matt Stephens of Global Cycling Network (GCN) has a particularly good rapport with the Spanish rider; check out the YouTube video below to see Bertie lightheartedly mock the former British pro during an interview conducted on a training ride with Alberto’s previous Tinkoff team.

A quick glimpse at Contador’s Instagram feed tells you many things about his interests outside of cycling. I first discovered his love of animals when he posted an amusing photo of his dog wearing the red leaders’ jersey from the Vuelta, amusingly captioned in Spanish ‘I don’t know what was harder, winning the Vuelta or getting the jersey on my dog’.

Contador’s social media is full of photographs of him and his dog, aptly named Tour, as well as various other dogs and friendly animals that he’s come across on his travels. Invariably there’s a sweetly amusing caption to go with each photo. One of my favourite videos on Contador’s Instagram shows him cycling round his apartment with Tour following. It makes me smile that we get to see this side of him.

Don’t forget to visit Bertie’s Instagram page for amusing photographs of food, funny faces and furry friends much like these…

Photos courtesy of Alberto Contador, Instagram, Video thanks to GCN.

On This Day in the Tour……1998

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.

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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.

Thrills and Spills?

Freewheeling Opinion Column by The Girl With The Marco Pantani Tattoo

9th July 2017

Today I watched in absolute horror as Richie Porte rode off the road, saved himself from cycling off into a ravine, before careering into the path of fellow riders, hitting a brick wall, and then being run over by Dan Martin.  I’m pretty sure it was the worst crash I’ve witnessed live on TV.  I was too young to have seen Fabio Casartelli’s terrible crash on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the 1995 Tour de France, and unable to watch the live coverage of the Giro in 2011 when Wouter Weylandt came down during Stage 3.

What I do know about Wouter Weylandt’s crash was the absolute stomach-churning horror as the cameras stayed on him, when it was plainly obvious that something beyond terrible had happened. David Millar writes in his second book, The Racer, about the telephone call he received from his wife immediately after he finished Stage 3 of the Giro, on a ride which took him into the race lead. Having been on the road chasing the dream of wearing the pink jersey, Millar was not aware of what had happened when he took the call. “There was a missed call from Nicole. I called back immediately. She was crying when she answered ‘why are they showing it on TV? They can’t do that….there was blood everywhere and he wasn’t moving’. I’d rarely heard Nicole so upset. ‘They wouldn’t stop filming it. Why would they do that? I don’t understand why they’d do that. What about his girlfriend?’” .

Those words flashed through my mind as I watched today’s horror crash. The camera stayed on Richie as he lay on the road, lingering far too long. What if his family are watching? At that point – and even to some extent now, as I write several hours later – nobody had any idea if he was okay. I couldn’t tell if he was conscious, or if he was moving. I couldn’t watch any more. If I felt like that, how must his family feel? The crash was replayed and replayed – real time speed, slow motion….how many times did we need to see it? Each replay made the accident seem more hideous than the last. I had to look away.

Then there were shots of the Tour’s medical officer attending to Richie, a moment that was incredibly intimate and therefore rather disturbing to watch. Richie having a neck brace fitted, Richie being lifted into the back of an ambulance by a team of paramedics. You realise later that someone was standing there, camera in hand, letting it roll to capture images that will be beamed across the globe. Does viewing the scene through a lens make you feel apart from the situation, detached from reality? Does it make the whole thing seem like some crazy film or video game with HD graphics? Well I watched it at a true distance, through a screen, and I didn’t feel at all detached or apart from what was happening. I just felt sick.

Crashes were numerous today, on Stage 9 of the 2017 Tour de France. Are incidents such as that involving Richie Porte really ‘entertainment’? Cav’s crash earlier in the race was also too painful to watch, and is still playing out over and over again in various vine loops and GIFs on social media. At what point do the viewers and fans say ‘enough is enough’? Like David Millar’s wife Nicole pointed out, these racers have family members and friends watching. Is it right that Wouter Weylandt’s Mum, Dad, and friends had to watch, helpless, as their son and best mate lay on the road, clearly in a terrible situation?Where is the line drawn between entertainment and real life in the world of live sport?