A couple of days ago, following a sudden urge to play the Pink Panther theme, I was looking in the spare room for my saxophone. Instead, I came across an old copy of this magazine, from the first week of the Tour de France in 2004.
On the front, a picture of a relaxed Lance Armstrong. The other riders mentioned on the cover are Jan Ullrich, Richard Virenque, David Millar, and Mario Cipollini. Millar had just confessed to EPO use, and was about to get a two-year ban. Cipo was returning from four lonely years of exclusion from the Tour for wearing some shorts in 1999 that had upset Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc. The rest, however, were bonzer.
That humble magazine showed why time travel is never going to work. Anyone going back in time would laugh themselves to death pretty much the instant they arrived.
For instance, in the stage reports, the magazine kept track (as it still does) of how the overall favourites were fairing. The stars were Armstrong, Ullrich, Iban Mayo, Roberto Heras, Christophe Moreau and Tyler Hamilton, who we now know between them had enough blood for Eufemiano Fuentes to build that giant venous fountain he’d always dreamed of.
There were interviews too. Ullrich described Armstrong as ‘a good actor’. Armstrong said ‘I feel good, I feel strong, and I’ve done some high quality stuff since the Dauphiné.’ Did I say stuff? Well, actually he said work, which was fair enough.
But the events of the last couple of weeks don’t half make you cynical. I found myself looking at the list of riders for the fantasy Tour game, and wondering why you couldn’t spend some of your money on a doctor to make your riders function properly.
The magazine’s editorial stance is anything but naive. Almost all of the news reporting revolved round doping. You can read Leblanc’s anti-doping stance. ‘There’ll be no more playing around with my event,’ he said. He was backed up by the French minister for sport, who said, ‘There are some riders who prepare for it cleanly, and that’s why it’s necessary for the Tour to continue.’
As a piece of damning with faint praise, it’s only just been overhauled by an Armstrong fan who contacted me last week to say that ‘Lance isn’t as bad as Jimmy Savile’.
I remember reading this first time round. But I was still a fan. In some respects the doping rumours gave the race a structure – there were black hats to boo, and white hats to cheer, or so we thought.
If you dig out the general classification results for that race, and correlate it to doping bans or to things like Operation Puerto, or the recent USADA report, you find somewhere around 13 of the top 20 riders implicated. There are more of whom any of us who score at above ‘fricking idiot’ level in an IQ test would be suspicious.
It makes me feel like my great uncle John who until the day he died never realised that pro wrestling was fixed from top to bottom. He thought my aunt was a clairvoyant because she always knew who’d win.
It was eight years ago. The rest of the magazine is full of adverts for bikes made of something called metal. I’m pretty sure things are better now than they were. But of course I thought that back then too.
I’ll keep believing it though. The day I stop thinking that there is honesty in the sport is the day I’ll have to give up on it and go back to playing the saxophone, and I’m a terrible musician. For the sake of my neighbours, we need to do something. Next year is the year we clean up cycling. And it always has been.
Acts of cycling stupidity
Word reaches me of a chaingang, of a highly-organised and slightly old-fashioned nature, featuring a ride leader with a shiny whistle which he used to signal when it was time for the rider on the front to drop back and let the next take over.
One ride, just as he was about to blow his whistle, another whistle rang out from somewhere in the group. The lead riders changed. ‘No, no, no,’ he shouted. ‘Change back!’ The other whistle peeped again, and the lead changed again. ‘Which of you pricks has a whistle?’ he demanded. Silence. Then from somewhere another unofficial ‘peep!’
‘I’m in charge! I’m the only one with a whistle!’ he shouted. He blew his whistle for emphasis. The lead changed for the fourth time in a half a mile. ‘Change back,’ he roared. ‘That wasn’t an order to change. That was so you know what my whistle sounds like!’ The confused riders changed back. The other whistle went again. The riders tried to rotate the lead in two different directions at the same time, and the whole group nearly came down.
On the next ride he solved the problem by bringing a bell. Can you guess what happened on the ride after that?
Dear Doc, I’m sure you saw Taylor Phinney’s interview on a website last week where he criticised bike racers for using caffeine before and during races. I was wondering whether, should caffeine be banned, the press will show solidarity with the riders and give up coffee?
Anon, via email
“I feel this is an appropriate time to come clean. The editor of this magazine did once take me to a coffee shop in Croydon, and told me that unless I did as he said and had a latte and a muffin to sharpen me up a bit, he’d drop me from the publication. What can I say, I was young, I’d only just made a start in the business, and I felt I had to do what I was told. I very much regret my weakness.
I haven’t drunk coffee now since 2006, and the bag of beans in my kitchen cupboard is only there to remind me of a dark time in my life. And the creamer was planted on me by Lance Armstrong.”