This week, VeloNews‘ James Startt looks back at the sometimes inspiring, sometimes ridiculous figure of Richard Virenque, who inspired thousands of French fans with his long breakaways in the Tour de France, and drew ridicule for denying he doped in the Festina Affair.
How Does the ‘Festina Affair’ mark his legacy?
James Startt: Well, it is almost impossible to ignore. The Festina Affair puts his entire legacy into parentheses. It was by far Virenque’s lowest moment and probably still is the worst moment I’ve ever had covering the Tour de France in over 30 years.
I’ll never forget chasing Virenque and his whole team to the start of the time trial in the Correze with my longtime colleague Samuel Abt after it was announced that they would be kicked out of the 1998 Tour.
It is hard to imagine how big Virenque was back in the day, but he was every bit as popular as Julian Alaphilippe is today. And perhaps backed by that popularity he perhaps figured that, by simply showing up, he and his teammates would be allowed to start.
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Instead, they were ushered into the back room of a small roadside bar to meet with Jean-Marie Leblanc, the race director, who made it clear that their race was over. It was a devastating moment for Virenque, who was in tears as he announced that he would one day return while understanding that his world was collapsing.
It would be months before he actually admitted to doping and often he appeared ridiculous in his denial, but then he started his slow return to the sport, and from a popularity standpoint his stock continued to rise.
He also managed to still win some pretty great races, not to mention numerous polka-dot jerseys as the best climber in the Tour. But despite the huge mark against him from a sporting level, Virenque remained popular with the French public. There was a certain amount of sympathy for Virenque, I think, because of the whole Festina Affaire and the fallout of the 1998 Tour made it clear that 99 percent of the peloton was seriously doping. So some felt that he was being singled out.
In the years that followed, those who doped met with less sympathy because a real effort was being made by at least some in the sport to be more transparent and overtly anti-doping.
You can say what you want about Virenque, but the one thing you cannot take away from him is that he clearly loves people.
And it shows. This past summer I covered a post-Tour criterium and Virenque was a guest of honor. It was fair to say that he was still probably the most popular person there. In the evening, at the post-race gala, he just spent all night signing autographs and posing for pictures. And he was gracious until he walked out the door.
What was your standout moment in covering Richard Virenque?
Startt: Well, I would say the 2001 Paris-Tours race. Virenque was still on the road to redemption after the Festina Affair and had even struggled to find a team to ride for at the start of 2001 since he was still serving his suspension from the 1998 Tour. He finally got a chance to ride with Domo-Farm Frites, a big Belgian classics team, but not known for its climbers. But that didn’t matter as Virenque was just so happy to have a team to ride for.
He actually missed the Tour that year due to his suspension, but then came back and had one of his biggest rides ever in Paris-Tours. Going in the early breakaway with Jacky Durand, a long-break specialist, the two stayed out all day before Virenque finally dropped Durand and went on to a solo victory.
Now you have to remember that Paris-Tours was a huge race back in the day, nearly the same status as a monument. And it was also known as the “sprinter’s classic.” And yet here was one of the best climbers in the history of the sport going off in an early breakaway and turning everything upside down.
I was there and it was just jaw-dropping.
Do you have any personal stories or anecdotes from any interactions with Virenque?
Startt: Well, chasing him down the highway to the start of the TT in Correze was pretty exciting, but there was another moment I will never forget.
I was covering the Grand Prix de Ouest France in Plouay a couple of weeks after the 1998 Tour marred by the Festina Affair. VeloNews asked me if I could sit down with Virenque and get his perspective on everything that was happening, as well as his fall from grace. I had called Virenque a day or two before (that’s what we did back in the day as there were no press officers), and he agreed.
But then he came in much later than expected. And as I watched his teammates descend to dinner, things were not looking so good. One of his teammates even said, sympathetically, that my interview was probably not going to happen.
But then Virenque suddenly showed up, and without hesitation went into a side room with me and sat down for a half-hour before finally making his way to the table after many of his teammates had finished eating.
But that was typical Virenque. He always took time with the fans and the press. And in that regard at least, he was a total class act.