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By Agence France Presse
Frenchman Richard Virenque said Wednesday he is not about to give up what has been a profoundly controversial career as long as his legs, and his team, are fully behind him. The 34-year-old, who was the principal culprit in the Festina doping affair, which rocked cycling and the Tour de France in 1998, took a step towards claiming a record seventh polka-dot jersey by winning the tough 10th stage of the Tour de France held over 237km between Limoges and Saint Flour.
It was Virenque’s seventh stage victory overall on the race – all have been won in the mountains – and comes on the 10th anniversary of his first stage win at Luz Ardiden in the Pyrénées on July 15, 1994.
During that time, Virenque has been to hell and back, emerging as France’s most popular rider since five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault, in the 1980’s, before his reputation went into freefall after the Festina doping trial in October 2000.
The Frenchman, who is still hugely popular with the public despite all of his past sins, could have been left on the scrap heap then, as he found no teams willing to take a chance on him.
But since 2001, when Virenque was given the chance to rejoin the peloton’s pro ranks by Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere, he has done justice to the team jersey.
And as long as he has the desire, and his team is behind him, Virenque is happy to soldier on.
“I made a lot of sacrifices to get myself ready for the Tour. Quick Step have enough confidence in me and gave me a specific program to follow for the Tour,” said Virenque, who now leads the climbers classification with 73 points, 16 ahead of his breakaway companion on Wednesday, Axel Merckx (Lotto-Domo).
“But as soon as I start to go on the decline, then I’ll bow out. I don’t want to finish my career on a low. It’s my 14th year as a professional, so I said to Patrick (Lefevere) before the Tour we would talk about things after the Pyrénées to see exactly where I was.
“But as long as the flame is still burning, I’ll continue to race. The mountains are just coming, and I’m riding well so we’ll just see what happens.”
His victory will have the French press reliving his glory days, when when he was at his peak in the mid-1990’s. However, he has known plenty of lows as well.
Most of Virenque’s victories in cycling came during the EPO years of the 1990’s when the peloton was virtually awash with the banned blood booster erythropoietin, which improved performances on some of the race’s toughest climbs so much that it left the experts baffled.
Then came the Festina affair in 1998, when a teary Virenque and the team were thrown out of the race after their physio Willy Voet had been stopped by border police before the first stage in Dublin with a trunk-load of banned substances destined for them.
Up until the Festina court case in October 2000, Virenque maintained that he had never used EPO. But once he appeared in front of the judge, who had been shown all the intricacies of drug-taking and the extent to which teams went about masking its use were revealed for all to see, he changed his tune Virenque admitted everything, served a ban, and was considered the main culprit of the case – mainly because he refused right up till the end to own up.
Now, with his sordid past behind him, Virenque is preparing to live his final years among the professional peloton. Life as a doting father and husband awaits him. However before then, he is not quite finished with cycling.
“I’ve got a wife and kids to look forward to, but when older pros like Bernard Hinault talk to you and advise you to stay on the bike for as long as possible, it’s hard to think about stopping,” he said.