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Tour de France

Inside the Tour, with John Wilcockson – Reflections on a break-through Tour

Shortly after the official result sheet of last Saturday’s Tour de France time trial was dropped on my table at the pressroom in St. Amand-Montrond, I made an interesting discovery. All but one of the riders who had just taken the top 15 places in the challenging 53km test either represent teams that have a strong internal anti-doping program (CSC-Saxo Bank, Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia) and/or are members of the Movement for Credible Cycling (Gerolsteiner, Rabobank, Garmin and Columbia).

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By John Wilcockson

Sastre's attack at L'Alpe d'Huez won the Tour.

Sastre’s attack at L’Alpe d’Huez won the Tour.

Photo: Graham Watson

Shortly after the official result sheet of last Saturday’s Tour de France time trial was dropped on my table at the pressroom in St. Amand-Montrond, I made an interesting discovery. All but one of the riders who had just taken the top 15 places in the challenging 53km test either represent teams that have a strong internal anti-doping program (CSC-Saxo Bank, Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia) and/or are members of the Movement for Credible Cycling (Gerolsteiner, Rabobank, Garmin and Columbia).

The sole exception was Cadel Evans, whose Silence-Lotto team doesn’t have the budget for an internal testing program. Evans, though, has regular check-ups with sports doctors at the independent Mapei Cycling Center near Milan; his blood and urine parameters are recorded and scrutinized in the UCI’s biological passport system; and he was probably tested more times at the Tour than any other rider because of his five days in the yellow jersey and his high placings in the time trials and summit finishes.

The presence in the top 15 of Saturday’s time trial of four riders from Garmin (Christian Vande Velde, David Millar, Ryder Hesjedal and Danny Pate), and three each from Columbia (Kim Kirchen, George Hincapie and Thomas Lövkvist), CSC (Fabian Cancellara, Carlos Sastre and Jens Voigt) and Gerolsteiner (Stefan Schumacher, Sebastian Lang and Bernhard Kohl), shows that anti-doping programs are paying off. We have to assume that, given their teams’ strong ethical stances, all of these men rode the Tour clean and yet emerged from the three-week race stronger than the other 130 finishers.

Perhaps what’s an even stronger indictment of this “clean” Tour was the overall average speed of 40.492 kph. That’s faster than all but four previous Tours — those of 2003 through 2006 — and shoots down one of the main arguments raised by the skeptics: That the Tour cannot be ridden on mineral water and, if it were, the speed of the racing would be much slower. Those skeptics always said the “elevated” speeds of the past decade were confirmation that most of the peloton was on EPO or blood doping.

Now that a Tour has been ridden more ethically, those skeptics haven’t even mentioned the high average speed. Instead, they have returned to the hoary generalization that it was a Tour ravaged by doping scandals. They didn’t point out that the three riders who tested positive for EPO products — Spaniards Manuel Beltran and Moises Dueñas and Italian Riccardo Riccò — all rode for teams that neither run internal checks nor joined the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC). Nor did they point out that the fourth rider to be removed from the race, Dmitri Fofonov of Kazakhstan, was removed because of the internal testing by his own team, Crédit Agricole, which just happens to be a founding member of the MPCC. In other words, the stringent drug testing and internal checks actually worked.

Christian’s progress
As the team buses drove away from St. Amand after that penultimate stage of the Tour, someone called out from behind me. I turned to see John Vande Velde, Christian’s dad. He was bubbling with enthusiasm for his son’s top-five Tour finish. “I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “I can’t believe that everything boiled down to one bad day, but I’m so happy for him, after all the frustrations [and injuries] he’s had throughout the years. It’s such a wonderful thing; I’m so happy for him. But for that one lousy day, that one crash, and he would have been there on the podium.”

It was John’s enthusiasm for cycling — he raced track at the 1968 and ’72 Olympics and then became a six-day rider — that got his son into racing. In his teens, Christian was the country’s best track pursuit rider and a member of the U.S. team pursuit squad that won gold at the 1995 Pan Am Games; but at 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds he transitioned naturally from track to road racing, and juggled both disciplines in his first three seasons as a pro with U.S. Postal before riding the individual pursuit at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Riding as a domestique for Lance Armstrong at the 1999 Tour, Vande Velde took the white jersey of best young rider from the prologue time trial, and did whatever was asked of him to defend Armstrong’s yellow jersey in the tough stages through the Alps, Massif Central and Pyrénées. I remember talking to Christian before the 220km mountain stage to L’Alpe d’Huez; he had knee tendinitis but was told to set tempo for the first 45km into a head wind to the foot of the giant Mont Cénis climb.

He survived that task, was dropped on the climb, and managed to chase back to the peloton. He then helped the team set tempo on the 60km-long valley descent before the day’s second hors-cat climb, the Croix de Fer — where the young Vande Velde was left for good. He struggled to the finish, climbing to L’Alpe d’Huez alone to arrive in 155th place, 34 minutes behind the leaders, barely avoiding the time cut. He would emerge from his debut Tour in 85th place after taking an impressive 16th place in the final time trial.

Vande Velde rose to fill his role as a team leader and surprised himself in the process.

Vande Velde rose to fill his role as a team leader and surprised himself in the process.

Photo: Graham Watson

Nine years later, Vande Velde was at the front on L’Alpe d’Huez, making attacks in the group chasing Carlos Sastre. The ease with which Christian climbed the highest peaks greatly impressed his dad. “I’ve no idea who his father is,” John Vande Velde joked “because I hated hills. I absolutely hated hills … so I’ve no idea [how he became a climber].”

John said he’d been talking to his son every day during the Tour. “I was with him almost every day before the time trial today and when Cancellara’s time came up, C. and I were alone and he says, ‘It’s a good time but it can be beat.’ I said, ‘That’s really, really a good attitude.’ Which is the attitude that he’s kept all through the Tour.

“And I think what I’m most proud of him for is his change of mental attitude, from being a domestique to being a leader. That’s huge. It’s like being a pulling guard in football to being a quarterback. It’s a total change of thought process.”

Asked how he thought Christian had made that move so quickly, his dad said, “I think Jonathan, I think Jonathan Vaughters did it … and then [team physiologist] Allun Lim, and the whole [Garmin-Chipotle] team. I was talking to [directeur sportif] Matt White, and the whole team put this together: ‘You can do this, you can do this, you can do this.’

“I think the first time trial said, I’m here, and when he tried to breakaway on that first mountain stage [to Super-Besse] … he called me that night and says, ‘Dad, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t hurting.’ And after that first time trial, he says, ‘I wasn’t even close, I couldn’t push myself.’ Today he pushed himself. He was very impressive, very brave.”

Vande Velde rode a great final TT

Vande Velde rode a great final TT

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Christian was right about Cancellara’s time in the decisive time trial Saturday. It was good, 1:04:11, but Schumacher beat it by 21 seconds. And though Christian ended up with a 1:04:55, he was faster than Cancellara over the final 17km by 13 seconds, and he took fourth place on the stage. What’s more Christian was faster than all the riders above him on GC — 50 seconds faster than Menchov, a minute ahead of Evans, 1:16 better than Kohl, and 4:33 ahead of Fränk Schleck.

It was a true breakthrough for Vande Velde, even though it has come late in his career. But at 32, he’s a year younger than Sastre, this year’s champion, and the American knows that he can deliver in his new role of team leader. He also knows that the training and race schedule he worked out with Vaughters and Lim brought him to the Tour in perfect shape, and with enough reserves to be as strong at the end of the three weeks as he was at the beginning.

When I visited him Saturday night at his team hotel near Orléans for a VeloNews interview (see upcoming issue No. 15 of the magazine – Editor), Vande Velde was totally relaxed and recovered. “Yeah, I’m recovering really quick,” he agreed, “and I’m looking at people who are really shattered at doping control.”

He was not only fresh physically but also remarkably alert mentally in analyzing his success in a Tour that was totally unpredictable. Vande Velde was learning what it was like to be a team’s “chosen one” as the race unfolded. That attack he made 5km from the finish of the stage to Super-Besse was a serious move by a rider intending to be a GC contender. It wasn’t one of the common end-of-stage “no hope” attacks you see on flat stages, and though Alejandro Valverde’s Caisse d’Épargne team brought back his breakaway with Leonardo Piepoli on the 10-percent “wall” in the final kilometer, Vande Velde gained tremendous empowerment from his aggression. That was his own personal breakthrough.

The “clean” teams raced hard
The day after Vande Velde made that aborted attack, his co-leader David Millar made a bid to take the yellow jersey on the 159km stage 7 across the Cantal region to Aurillac. Riders agreed that this incessantly hilly stage was perhaps the hardest-fought of the whole Tour. And it was the “clean” teams that made it so hard.

Over the opening hour of the stage, Garmin riders, notably Danny Pate, made repeated attacks to weaken the Columbia team of race leader Kim Kirchen until Millar bridged to what looked like being a winning move. But Caisse d’Épargne again stepped in and chased down the break. Millar went again, this time in a six-man move with CSC’s Jens Voigt, forcing Columbia (headed by team captain George Hincapie) into a relentless pursuit against a head wind that split the peloton into several groups.

That was the moment that the course turned right, bringing strong crosswinds, where CSC made a collective surge that would soon sweep up the Millar-Voigt break to form a 25-man front group that included all the race favorites except for Denis Menchov and Christophe Moreau (who abandoned). Order was eventually restored, but the riders then had to climb two difficult Cat. 2s prior to a frenzied finale that saw another group of 25 emerge on the day’s last climb to contest the stage win.

It was cruelly ironic that one of the biggest victims that day was Garmin’s Magnus Bäckstedt, who was dropped early on, couldn’t chase back because of the constant attacks, and finished the stage on his own, sadly outside of the time limit.

“Magnus just had a bad day,” said Garmin team director Johnny Weltz, “and that’s the thing with cycling. It’s not like football. There’s no bench. That’s the cruelty of cycling.”

Weltz added, “It was extremely fast. And everybody fears that, you know, including myself as a bike rider. When you have a bad moment on a day like that, there’s no ‘please, exchange me for five minutes, I need a breather.’ You just have to hang in there, whatever it takes.”

Just looking at the faces of the riders finishing that stage into Aurillac told you that everyone was suffering in a Tour where, it appeared, few riders were relying on drugs or blood manipulation to get through. Besides an average of 12 official drug tests every day, teams like Garmin were continuing their internal anti-doping monitoring of riders’ blood and urine throughout the race.

After stage 14, I asked Garmin’s outstanding Canadian Ryder Hesjedal whether the stringent anti-doping environment disproved the theory that you can’t compete at the Tour on mineral water. “Oh, for sure, you absolutely can. I mean, that’s a completely false mindset,” said the normally deadpan Hesjedal in a burst of emotion. “That’s one of the big reasons I did come to this team, to get that validation. Putting your arm out [for blood tests] is just part of the deal now. I don’t even think about it.”

Ricco's exclusion doesn't detract from the changing direction of the Tour.

Ricco’s exclusion doesn’t detract from the changing direction of the Tour.

Photo: AFP (file photo)

I then asked him whether he was surprised by the one-time King of the Mountains Riccardo Riccò being caught using third-generation EPO and being thrown out of the race. He replied, “Even my mom said he looked too easy and fast…. So if your mother is watching the racing and says it doesn’t look as if he was hurting enough for what he did, that’s a pretty logical assessment. Is it surprising? It’s surprising that they’re still doing that, and cheating that way. It’s mind blowing, but it’s a question of taking those risks…. It’s proven they’ll get caught and that’s important. I’m glad they’re no longer in the race. That’s a good thing.”

Hesjedal then pointed out that the goal of the independent testing of the Garmin’ riders by the Agency for Cycling Ethics was not only to stop potential cheating in the team but also to give the riders constant feedback on their fitness and health.

“That’s the main point of it, for the health,” he said. “They will see if things are wrong. I like someone looking out for my wellbeing. It’s beneficial at this level. It’s a very demanding thing on the body.”

This Tour had more controls than ever.

This Tour had more controls than ever.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Convincing the skeptics
While Tour wild-card entry Garmin-Chipotle — like U.S. Postal in ’99 — was an unknown quantity at the start of this year’s race, the team commanded great respect by the end. Not only for Vande Velde’s brilliant fifth place overall, but also for the near-misses of Will Frischkorn (second at Nantes), Millar (third in the Cholet time trial) and Pate (third on the summit finish at Prato Nevoso), and for the team’s all-around aggressive riding. America’s other formation, Team Columbia, also had a wonderful Tour, taking five stage wins (four for übersprinter Mark Cavendish and another for Marcus Burghardt) and placing Kirchen in a hard-fought eighth overall.

Columbia and Garmin, along with CSC-Saxo bank, were the “poster boys” of the 95th Tour de France. But it was Garmin — the Team Slipstream established by Vaughters as the first pro squad with a mission to eradicate doping — that led the way in the fight against cheaters.

Irish journalist Paul Kimmage of the London Sunday Times has been a leading skeptic of pro racers riding clean ever since he dabbled in doping in a four-year European pro career, about which he wrote a 1990 book called “Rough Ride.” He garnered plaudits for the book’s honesty and brickbats for implying that Irish cycling heroes Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche both doped. Intrigued by Vaughters and his clean team, Kimmage followed the 2008 Tour as an embedded reporter with Garmin, parking his camper van in the team’s hotel parking lot every night and being allowed total access to every aspect of the team’s internal operations.

Kimmage, a close friend and colleague of the Sunday Times chief sports writer David Walsh, shared his experience with his readers in last Sunday’s edition. In part, he wrote: “I’ve spent a good portion of my past 20 years enraged by dopers … and seized every opportunity to expose them. No apologies. They deserve our contempt … but not as much as the guys who are trying to compete clean deserve our support. I’d lost sight of that. To David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, Ryder Hesjedal, Will Frischkorn, Danny Pate, Julian dean, Martin Maaskant, Trent Lowe and Magnus Bäckstedt, thanks for the reminder.”

He concluded: “The sport has a hell of a lot to do before it drags itself from the mire, but with guys like Vaughters it has a chance. I hope Vande Velde comes back and wins the Tour next year … [and] I hope that every Tour I watch from now is as much fun as this one was. I hope.”

But, earlier in his piece, Kimmage expressed his inherent hostility to professional cycling. Not initially convinced that the Garmin team was all that it was billed to be, he wrote: “That so many of the riders and staff had been at U.S. Postal, a notorious doping team, was a concern.” That unproven description of what was America’s leading pro team for eight years is offensive to people who worked for U. S. Postal, especially those who raced on it, including current Garmin riders Vande Velde (for six years), Dean (two years) and Hesjedal (one year), and staff members Vaughters (two years) and White (three years).

His unnecessary, throwaway line detracts from the serious tenor of Kimmage’s article. Yes, it’s true that several one-time Postal riders later tested positive at anti-doping controls, and three-year team veteran Frankie Andreu revealed he experimented with EPO prior to the ’99 Tour, but that none of the 46 men who rode in Postal colors tested positive in the squad’s eight-year lifespan doesn’t point toward “a notorious doping team.”

The two Mr. Cleans
In assessing the 2008 Tour de France many observers have called it the first one to favor non-dopers since the Festina team scandal of 1998. It’s true that this Tour saw a breakthrough in attitudes, both among the riders and in the media, with more honest discussion than happened in the omerta years. But this turnabout didn’t suddenly happen. There has been a long transitional period from the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mood of the past to the “test all, test all the time” policy of today and the future.

It’s fair to say that the transition from old to new began the year after Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught hauling a trunk-load of EPO, growth hormone and other banned drugs to the start of the 1998 Tour for use by his Festina team. The ’99 Tour champion Lance Armstrong has been dismissed by the skeptics as a cheat, but it was Armstrong who spoke about the way forward at a press conference halfway through the Tour’s 86th edition.

He said: “I think we all have a responsibility to change the image of the sport. I do, the other 170 riders do, the UCI does, the journalists do … because I think we all love the sport, and we’re all here for that reason. Now, we can choose to do one of two things. We can try and break down the sport … and break down a Tour de France that’s been around forever, or we can try and repair it.

“Unfortunately, there’s still some people that want to see it go away, want to tear it down. I’m not one of those people. I want to be part of the renovation. My story is what it is, and I try my best on the bike, and hopefully it is good for the sport. I hope so. But at the same time I think the courage and the hard work of the other riders is also good for the sport. It’s not a crooked sport. It’s a healthy sport, it’s a good sport. It’s a wonderful, traditional sport.”

The original "Mr Clean" - Christophe Bassons at the 1999 Tour

The original “Mr Clean” – Christophe Bassons at the 1999 Tour

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Two days after that plea from the rider in the yellow jersey, a French rider, Christophe Bassons — who was known as “Mr. Clean” when he was a member of the Festina squad and refused to use performance-enhancing drugs — wrote a controversial entry in his diary published by the national newspaper Aujourd’hui. In it, Bassons said that no one could win a stage of the Tour de France without recourse to EPO. His comments angered many in the peloton (and similar comments to a newspaper in 2000 resulted in his pro career coming to a premature end).

As the acknowledged leader of the pack, Armstrong spoke with Bassons on the day the diary entry was published, following the two alpine stages that were won by Armstrong (at Sestriere) and Giuseppe Guerini (at L’Alpe d’Huez). Among other things, the Texan told Bassons, “If you think that cycling functions like that, you are mistaken, and it would be better if you went home.”

That incident, which ended with Bassons pulling out of the race, was interpreted two ways. A largely skeptical French press, which had all but accused Armstrong of doping because of the manner in which he won the stage to Sestriere, reported that the American had hounded Mr. Clean out of the Tour. The morning after Bassons left the race, Armstrong invited me into the U.S. Postal camper van (no big blue bus that year) to explain his side of the story. He said that many of the team leaders had asked him to talk to Bassons during stage 11, which he did. Perhaps French speaker Bassons misunderstood Armstrong’s Texan twang and believed he was being told to leave the race, but that’s not what he said.

The race leader then told me, “We have nothing to hide. If anything, we shouldn’t be talking of all the planning we did for this Tour. We should be hiding that, because if people copy our system, then we wouldn’t have an advantage.” Armstrong wasn’t talking about doping; he was referring to how he and his closest teammates had scouted every important stage of that year’s Tour, something that no other team was doing at that time.

Clearly, the Tour has been in transition since the late 1990s. During that time, the prevalence of doping has steadily decreased. That happened not only because of the more sophisticated anti-doping controls (including the introduction of tests to detect cortico-steroids, EPO and homologous blood transfusions), but also the evolving attitudes of riders and managers that have culminated with today’s “clean teams.”

Yes, there is still a long way to go in the war against doping, but it’s symbolic that one of the nicknames the Spanish fans have given to their latest Tour champion, Carlos Sastre, is “Mr. Clean.”

Now that the Tour has come full circle (or half circle, at least), perhaps we can return to the essence of sport, and media outlets can stop sending journalists to the Tour just to drum up doping (or would-be doping) stories. As a writer discussing “Drug Scandals and the Business of Sport” wrote in this week’s edition of the venerable British weekly, The Economist, “Music, theatre and film may provide much the same experience [as watching sports]. But in sport there is no script. That, in the end, is why people watch sport and will keep on doing so. They want escape, excitement and suspense. The French still turned out to cheer the peloton in July. America’s ballparks are full. And next week hundreds of millions will be watching the Olympics.”

After a Tour in which there was plenty of “escape, excitement and suspense,” I’m confident that we will all be back next year, either racing through the French countryside, glued to our TV sets or following “live” updates on the Internet, just waiting to see if Christian or Levi can again challenge for the podium whoever emerges as the man to beat. One Tour is over, long live the next.

? ? ? ? ?

At the start of this Tour, there were 11 riders I predicted would finish in the top places in Paris. Three of them (Riccardo Riccò for doping, Stijn Devolder for fatigue and Damiano Cunego after a crash) dropped out. The remaining eight all finished in the top 10, except for Andy Schleck, who raced as a support rider for CSC after he bonked on stage 10 and lost 6:42 to Sastre; otherwise he would have placed seventh, just behind his brother Fränk. The two unexpected contenders, who both finished top five, were Bernhard Kohl and Christian Vande Velde. Here’s the final list:

JW’s PRE-RACE PICKS (after 21 stages)
1. Carlos Sastre (ESP), CSC at 87:52min52sec
2. Cadel Evans (AUS), Silence-Lotto at 0:58
3. Bernhard Kohl (AUT), Gerolsteiner at 1:13
4. Denis Menchov (RUS), Rabobank at 2:10
5. Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Chipotle at 3:05
6. Frank Schleck (LUX), CSC at 4:28
7. Samuel Sanchez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi at 6:25
8. Kim Kirchen (LUX), Team Columbia at 6:55
9. Alejandro Valverde (ESP), Caisse d’Epargne at 7:12
12. Andy Schleck (LUX), CSC at 11:32

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