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Tour time: 16 years on the sport’s biggest race

The most wanted

The pro peloton remains an unruly bunch of characters. A glance down the stage winner’s list of that 1996 Tour reads like an FBI “most wanted” list of EPO users. And there is no sport that produces such disparity of personalities as cycling. The demands of the sport draw the narcissists, the natural-born freaks, the flamboyant, the loners, and the unscrupulous.

It often strikes me how global and democratic the sport has become. The Greg LeMond generation broke the Euro stranglehold on the peloton in the 1980s. Even from my first Tour in 1996, into the second decade of the new millennium, the peloton is a very diverse workplace. Today, there is no sport as international as cycling. This year a rider born in Kenya is the spot-on favorite to win, with Australians, North Americans, some Europeans, and perhaps some Colombians within reach of the podium. Nearly every continent is represented in this year’s Tour — though, as far as I know, penguins aren’t racing bikes yet.

The last Frenchman to win the Tour was Bernard Hinault, the man known as The Badger, in 1985. Today Hinault works for the Tour organization, and vigilantly guards the podium from would-be protesters and overzealous fans. In many ways, Hinault was the last true heroic figure of the peloton. Today’s pros are too accessible, too politically correct, and too congenial to evoke pure hero worship. Can you imagine Chris Froome punching strikers who might dare to block the road?

A time to believe

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the fallout of the USADA case against Lance Armstrong and U.S. Postal’s doping regime, and rightly so. Cycling was a corrupt, dope-riddled sport top to bottom, built on cheating the system and winning at any cost. It was like the Wild West, and there was no sheriff in town. And once the tests started coming, first with the EPO test in 2001, and later with increased out-of-competition controls, it became a high-stakes game of evading detection.

Many are quick to cast anyone who ever doped as a villain, a scoundrel, a rogue unworthy of rehabilitation or second chances. Over the past two decades of reporting on cycling, I have interviewed nearly every major star that has come down the road, many of whom have tested positive or had some sort of doping innuendo cast upon them. And every time, they lied to my face, and everyone else’s. They became convincing, professional liars; it was a skill that became an essential part of being a pro racer. Asking a cyclist if he was doping was akin to asking someone if he was having an affair. They would deny, deny, deny, until the private investigator produced the proverbial photographs to prove it.

And there was no one more masterful than Lance. Armstrong kept everyone dancing, because he knew access was key. Ask hard questions, and you never got one-on-one interviews (hence David Walsh’s famous press conference showdowns with Armstrong). Suck up to him, and you would get insider stuff, private phone calls, and sometimes flights on his private jet, or a personal visit at his ranch.

Armstrong played all of the media off each other: ESPN and Sports Illustrated; VeloNews and Cyclingnews.com; L’Equipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport. All of us were dancing to Armstrong’s tune one way or another. I tried to play it in the middle; not too negative, but not a total suck-up, either. Of course, looking back now at what we all know, we should have played it tougher on the EPO generation; but when you’re waiting at the finish line at the end of a 200km stage, and you need quotes for a story, that’s not the time or place to ask about someone’s blood-doping program. That’s not making excuses, just the day-in, day-out reality of chasing bike races across Europe. At one point or another, on and off the record, we all asked these guys if they were doping. They all lied to our faces.

Armstrong would typically give me one sit-down a season. There’s been a lot of people piling on Big Tex over the past year, and rightly so, but any hack who interviewed him will agree he was the most engaging, most intriguing, most intelligent interview you would get. Even better were those times when Armstrong would call journalists in private, one-on-ones, to shake them down, to intimidate them, to feel them out. He called one English journalist a “snake with arms,” another was “worse than Saddam Hussein.” Once he called me, berating the “Boulder crowd,” saying if VeloNews had played it differently with him, we’d be “one phone call away.” Instead he went on a 20-minute monologue about how he hated VeloNews.

At the height of the Armstrong story, there were about a dozen journalists on the ground during the Tour chasing him. A friend from L’Equipe and I would always joke when the stage was nearly ending: “Lance time!” As his story got bigger, so did Armstrong’s ego, and it wasn’t as fun. Access was harder and more limited, and more often than not, it was nearly impossible to get anything “exclusive” with Armstrong. There was Armstrong’s infamous “blacklist,” which I was either on or off, depending on what I was writing about. For me, Armstrong was a story; I never took it personally. If he talked to me, great; if not, well, there were 200 other riders in the race.

Armstrong’s fall from superhero status to the lowest of the low is just the latest, most sordid chapter in what’s been a torturous, yet ultimately fascinating road for cycling. The Armstrong scandal, as negative and gut wrenching as it’s been, is the best thing that could have happened in cycling. It provides a chance to turn the page, draw a line in the sand, and speak openly about the past — and more important, the future.

Yet few of the EPO generation were inherently bad people. Tyler Hamilton would always ask how someone’s wife was doing, or wish them a happy birthday. George Hincapie is one of the nicest guys I have ever met in my life. Marco Pantani was perhaps the most peculiar, and ultimately the most tragic. I only once interviewed him one-on-one, and that was through a camper van window at the Vuelta a Murcia. Pantani kept referring to himself in the third person. “How do you expect to challenge for the Tour?” I asked. “Well, Pantani will attack. Pantani always attacks. …”

Most of that generation was simply forced to make choices in an era when there was no choice, at least if they wanted to continue to race bikes professionally. A few principled people walked away; others tried to race clean. They are the true heroes. Most of the survivors of the EPO era made very different choices once they had one. I believe that riders like Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson have been on the straight and narrow for a long time, once they were in an environment that allowed them to make the choice. And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other top pros just like them. Too, riders like Bobby Julich, who had the courage to publicly admit he doped when he knew it would get him fired at Team Sky, are important voices for the peloton, to help the new generation not repeat the same mistakes they made.

But just as terrible as the past 20 years have been, there’s tremendous reason to be optimistic at the start of this year’s Tour.

A dramatically different cycling culture has taken root. While doping and cheating can never entirely be erased, the norm has gone from doping to being dramatically cleaner in a relatively short time span. Hamilton talked about how, at the 2004 Tour de France, there might have been “one or two” clean riders at the start. Less than a decade later, today’s peloton will line up in Corsica with that proportion almost turned on its head. While it’s naive to suggest that only one or two dopers remain in the peloton, the vast majority of riders will be clean. The biological passport, coupled with stronger team ethics (and intense sponsor pressure), and an endless string of crippling scandals, has all added up to a cleaner sport. If cycling displayed an inability to clean up its act, it simply would not have a future.

There’s a different tone and feel to the interviews with today’s pros about doping and the doping culture. Both on and off the record, riders continue to press how much the sport has changed. Younger pros insist they’ve never seen a needle, nor been offered one. For the most part, I tend to believe them.

Today’s younger pros, and even some reformed dopers, all deserve a chance. So far, over the past two, maybe three seasons, they seem to be holding up their end of the bargain. Work that began with Jonathan Vaughters, Bob Stapleton, and many others in 2006 to 2008 is paying off with huge dividends.

When given the choice to dope or abstain, most are choosing the latter. In fact, they are embracing it. Credible riders are winning cycling’s biggest and most important races.

Back in 1996, I was excited because I couldn’t believe the luck I had to gain a front-row seat to one of sport’s most amazing spectacles. This year, I feel even more excitement about where cycling is going. It’s a time to believe in cycling again. I am enthusiastic to watch how riders like Andrew Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, and Richie Porte will flourish in the coming years. They all insist they’re clean, and this time around I believe them. They not only act like they have nothing to hide, they race like it. When someone rides away from the others in this year’s Tour, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve doped better than everyone else. It could also mean that they’re simply better.

That’s what cycling should be, and for the first time in a long time, that’s the kind of racing we will all be watching in this year’s Tour.

The fine qualities that have always made the Tour so great are still there. They’ve always been there: the eternal charm of France, its back roads, its people, and its cycling pedigree, which lured everyone to the Tour from the start. Without the shadow of doping to get in the way, it should shine even brighter.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Velo magazine.

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