Comments overshadow Tour start

The Guardian, PORTO-VECCHIO, France

Sun, Jun 30, 2013 - Page 19

The French describe it as cracher dans la soupe: to spit in the soup. And on the eve of the 100th Tour de France, the former seven-time winner Lance Armstrong has been doing so with relish.

In a perhaps cynically timed interview with Le Monde, Armstrong — who was stripped of his seven Tour titles and given a lifetime ban for doping last year — claimed that it was “impossible to win the Tour without doping” in his era, before warning that drug-taking will always be a part of the sport.

“I didn’t invent doping,” he said. “And it didn’t stop when I stopped. I simply participated in a system. I am a human being. Doping has existed since antiquity and will always carry on.”

On Friday seasoned Armstrong watchers suggested the interview was an act of retaliation: every living person who has finished the Tour has been invited to a special 100th anniversary function in Paris on 21 July — except the American.

It certainly shifted the focus from this year’s race, which was due to start in the Corsican town of Porto-Vecchio yesterday. This is the first Tour de France since the full kaleidoscope of Armstrong’s lies, manipulations and drug-taking was exposed. Organizers are trying to move on, but at the Tour on Friday everyone was talking about Armstrong, just like they were when he was still an all-American hero.

On Friday night the organizers were refusing to comment, but Bernard Hinault, a five-time winner in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was dismissive of Armstrong’s remarks, saying: “We’ve got to stop thinking that all cycle racers are thugs and druggies. There are plenty of young riders who have had dope tests and not tested positive. It’s constant suspicion.”

Hinault’s view was shared by the world cycling president, Pat McQuaid, a target for criticism from Armstrong (“things simply cannot change with him in charge”), whose relationship with the American rider was closer than many felt comfortable with during his prime.

“It is very sad that Lance Armstrong has decided to make this statement on the eve of the Tour de France,” McQuaid said. “However, I can tell him categorically that he is wrong. His comments do absolutely nothing to help cycling.”

“Riders and team owners have been forthright in saying that it is possible to win clean — and I agree with them,” he said.

It is certainly harder now to cheat the system than it was a decade ago. The introduction of random testing, better tracking of riders away from races, and blood passports — which better detect changes in biological markers over time — have made a difference.

However, the recent positive tests of the French rider Sylvain Georges and the Italians Mauro Santambrogio and Danilo Di Luca showed that the battle between tester and doper is permanent. The targets shift. So do the drugs. What can be said with confidence, however, is that the mood in the peloton has shifted. The conspiracy of silence has been shattered.

Chris Froome, the British rider who is the favorite for this year’s Tour, put it best last week, saying: “Cycling is in probably the best place it has been in the last 20 to 30 years. The sport has changed. It is just not accepted any more. I feel that the omerta has been broken.”

Froome also insisted that he was clean, adding: “I know that my results aren’t going to be stripped in five, six, seven years’ time.”

Meanwhile, Sir Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s general manager and performance director of British Cycling, has again stressed that his riders have nothing to hide.

“I know from our perspective what we do and I know that we’re clean,” he said.

Brailsford also reflected with some wonderment on how cycling had survived a series of sledgehammer blows — from the Festina team doping scandal in 1998 onwards — that have turned even the sport’s biggest cheerleaders into cynics.

“People still love the Tour de France, despite everything that has happened,” he said. “When something takes a lot of hits and still keep on going, it shows it’s got resilience.”

Cycling certainly seems to be trying to wrench itself away from the era when needles were as common in the peloton as water bottles, but it is hard when the world’s most famous cyclist keeps dragging up its tainted past.

Christian Prudhomme, the general director of the Tour de France, responded to Armstrong’s claims by suggesting: “Maybe the only way for Armstrong to win was for him to take drugs.”

Prudhomme did acknowledge, however, that cycling was in dark place during the Armstrong era.

“We knew that this was a horrific period for cycling,” he said. “But maybe we weren’t aware just how horrific it was. It was scary for the sport.”