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Tour de France

Inside the Tour, with John Wilcockson – Doped and duped

While the news media were massed around the pale yellow Saunier Duval team bus in Lavelanet Thursday just as stage 12 was setting out farther down the street, Philippe Brunel stood back from the crowd watching the spectacle. I felt sorry for him. As an award-winning French sportswriter — he’s the principal cycling reporter for L’Équipe, the major French sports newspaper — Brunel looked to be in a quandary.

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By John Wilcockson

Police prepare to escort Riccardo Riccò through a crowd of reporters and disappointed fans on Thursday.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

While the news media were massed around the pale yellow Saunier Duval team bus in Lavelanet Thursday just as stage 12 was setting out farther down the street, Philippe Brunel stood back from the crowd watching the spectacle. I felt sorry for him. As an award-winning French sportswriter — he’s the principal cycling reporter for L’Équipe, the major French sports newspaper — Brunel looked to be in a quandary.

For the past 18 months, ever since Riccardo Riccò burst into pro cycling by winning two stages of Tirreno-Adriatico, Brunel has been composing story after story about the controversial “Cobra.” In his writing, Brunel has almost glorified the astonishing performances of Riccò, especially at this year’s Giro d’Italia, where he came within seconds of dethroning Alberto Contador two days before the finish with another blazing attack in the mountains.

On Thursday, Brunel watched with apparent sadness as Riccò climbed down from his team bus and got into the back seat of a team car where a French gendarme was waiting to take him to the police station at Mirepoix for questioning. Before the car pulled away, a female Italian TV reporter, who’s Brunel’s partner, asked Riccò to say something. He did not reply. How else could this frail-looking young man — he’s only 24 — react to a situation in which he has tested positive for a “third generation” blood-booster?

And how could Brunel, the reporter who dresses in all black, react to a situation in which he has been duped by an athlete he had praised so highly? I asked Brunel, who has been reporting the Tour for almost three decades, whether he was surprised by Riccò’s positive. He shook his head, ruffling his long black hair, pursed his lips, and articulated a barely audible, “Non.”

Thursday evening, Brunel sat at his laptop in the pressroom of the exhibition halls in Narbonne, composing his thoughts and tapping out a sort of mea culpa in his exaggerated two-finger typing style. Last year, Brunel wrote a book about the tragedy of the late Marco Pantani, who was Riccò’s inspiration as a racer. To explain the silence of the Saunier Duval team leader, who held the polka-dot jersey of best climber and white jersey of best young rider, the journalist wrote: “The Italian seemed absent, far from the Tour, engaged in this long purgatory from which Pantani never emerged, except from the haggard perspective of an addict for whom life had taken a cruel turning.”

Toward the end of his piece, Brunel said: “Another question poses itself: Why? Yes, why did [Riccò] sell his soul to the devil? To these preparers, these vultures without scruples, who circulate and gravitate in the shadow of the riders, knowing that they can’t “charge” themselves with this type of hormone without a scientifically competent environment? For the money? The glory? By reflex? ‘By unconsciousness or denial of reality, I don’t know,’ suggested Pietro Algeri, his directeur sportif. ‘You know, the riders don’t know how to evaluate reality.’”

It is easy to condemn, but we can’t know the workings of someone else’s mind. Riccò was only 14 years old when he watched Pantani on television, seeing Il Pirata win the Giro and then the Tour with extraordinary solo breakaways in the Dolomites and Alps. That impressionable boy wanted to follow in his hero’s tire marks. Even from that young age, Riccò had a naturally high hematocrit, like so many other climbers, including the former Mont Ventoux hill-climb record holder Jonathan Vaughters.

Vaughters told me Friday that the UCI had given him “a dispensation to 52-percent [hematocrit] in case of gastroenteritis or severe dehydration, as I did run on the high side of normal. However, the expectation was not that I would be over 50 all year long. But all this said: In 95 percent of cases, there would have been no reason for me to test over 50 at a race. The dispensation was an emergency measure.”

A highly intelligent American from a privileged background, Vaughters went in the other direction and created a pro cycling team that actively promotes a clean, drug-free sport. Ironically, Vaughters’s Garmin-Chipotle team bus was parked next to that of Riccò’s Saunier Duval Pullman at Thursday’s stage start.

The juxtaposition could not have been more stark. One set of riders was driven away from the race in humiliation, the others set off on another stage of a Tour that will reach the Alps on Sunday. There, Riccò and his too-good-to-be-true teammates will not be ripping the race apart in the mountains, and that will suit Garmin’s third-placed Christian Vande Velde, who has shown that you can have superbly consistent climbing form without drugs.

On Friday, another transitional stage takes the Tour’s surviving 158 riders on a roller-coaster route along the southern fringe of the Massif Central. The weather is hot and sunny, and a daylong tail wind should encourage a successful breakaway that will be big enough to stay away till the finish in the Roman city of Nîmes.

The press corps, including Philippe Brunel, doesn’t want any more doping scandals to report — though the French writer did opine that the Riccò positive was just one more scandal, not one too many. We hope he is right.