Notes from the Scrum: There’s something about Pau

Pau is a frequent stop on the Tour de France, and more than once has been the bearer of bad tidings

“Jesus Christ, I’m speechless.”—David Millar, during a 2007 press conference in Pau, upon hearing that Alexander Vinokourov had tested positive for an illegal transfusion.

BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON, France (VN) — Seasoned journalists rolled their eyes yesterday when Fränk Schleck tested positive test for a banned diuretic on the rest day in Pau.

Me? I hurriedly left the (wonderful) dinner we were wrapping up and headed for the RadioShack-Nissan team hotel. Things happening with bright lights. It’s the kind of thing to which a Tour rookie runs.

When I arrived, stadium-bright bulbs were blasting the front of the team hotel. Public relations man Philippe Maertens stood out front, his face and perfect white team shirt ablaze.

Maertens was tucked behind a gate and took questions from reporters in several languages. No, the team didn’t use the diuretic for anything. Yes, the team was disappointed. The word “shock” was employed. Schleck had left the Tour and was talking with French police (who make a habit, with the UCI, of doing this sort of thing on rest days). We learned later that the B sample was to be tested and that if it likewise proved tainted, Schleck would appeal on the grounds that he had been “poisoned.”

I don’t care who you are. Doping stories are still — or should be — a surprise.

But we were in Pau. This is where things like this happen. A glance through redacted record books shows us that.

Pau, the gateway to the Pyrénées, is a familiar backdrop for the Tour de France. Since the Tour has visited the city more than 60 times, it’s fair to say that Pau has a greater likelihood of being the bearer of bad tidings than many other stops. Still, there just seems to be something about the place.

Even its press rooms are legendary: It was here in 2007 that Millar was giving his press conference when the news of Vinokourov’s positive trickled in.

“Jesus Christ, I’m speechless,” Millar said. “With a guy of his stature and class, in cycling’s current situation, we might as well pack our bags and go home.”

It’s also the room in which journalists drew a line in the sand opposite a certain Lance Armstrong. It was electric, the veterans tell me.

In 2010, Alberto Contador gave his now-infamous positive urine sample in Pau and subsequently blamed tainted beef for the clenbuterol found in trace amounts in his system. He was then stripped of his Tour title, and is sitting this one out on suspension.

The city is most infamous for “Black Wednesday” at the 2007 Tour, when Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping and maillot jaune Michael Rasmussen was thrown out of the race after delivering misleading statements concerning his whereabouts during out-of-competition testing. Just another day in Pau.

Rasmussen had just won stage 16 and all but assured himself of the overall victory, holding a 3:10 advantage over Alberto Contador with four days remaining. But his Rabobank team withdrew him from the Tour and gave him the sack. He was later banned, and Pau’d, to the max.

We’ve since left Pau for the greener pastures of Bagnères-De-Luchon. And everyone is probably happy about that, most notably the ragged journalists.

Reporter Matthew Beaudin files his Notes From the Scrum from time to time, offering up the insights of a Tour de France rookie.