Published on February 17th, 2014 | by Dan Deakins0
Armstrong fiasco ‘key moment’ for Tour de FranceITV cycling presenter Ned Boulting believes Le Tour de France is as drug-free as it has ever been, but warns that those at the top of cycling organisations cannot afford to relax for one second in the battle against doping.
The Tour has a long history of drug taking and the most high profile case was that of American, Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong won Le Tour seven consecutive times between 1999-2005, however was stripped of these titles after he was found guilty of doping offences in 2012 and banned for life by the United States Anti-Doping Agency [USADA].
Boulting, who has covered the Tour since 2003, told Arts London News: “I think we will look back and say the Lance Armstrong bust was the key moment. I think it’s hugely significant because it’s lead to a change right at the top of the power structures within cycling”.
The question a lot of fans and journalists wanted to know was how a rider of Lance Armstrong’s stature was able to get away with it for such a long time?
In 2004 reporters Pierre Ballester and David Walsh published a book alleging Armstrong had used performance enhancing drugs: LA Confidentiel. Another figure in the book, Steve Swart, claims he and other riders, including Armstrong, began using drugs in 1995 while a member of the Motorola team, a claim denied by other team members.
Armstrong took the Sunday Times to court after it published some summaries of the allegations from the book. Armstrong sued for libel accusing the newspaper of writing untrue things about him. They came to a settlement of £1 million and issued a statement apologising to Armstrong.
However, David Walsh pursued the story and was eventually vindicated in 2013 when Armstrong admitted doping.
Boulting says: “I covered three Tours that Armstrong was involved in and within a few stages I knew what was going on. There was nothing I could challenge him with but a man like David Walsh was determined to get the evidence to catch him”.
Boulting puts it down to the reputation that he had and how none of the journalists would risk being sued: “Armstrong WAS cycling. To a certain extent the only reason the Tour got as big as it was, this massive global event, was because of him. With the honourable exception of David Walsh, we [journalists] were all part of the problem.
There was a conspiracy of silence around him [Armstrong] because we were all feeding off his fame and would sue everybody that accused him. Without the hard evidence I could only insinuate, otherwise it was libellous”.
When Boulting wrote his book, How I Won The Yellow Jumper, the chapters that talked about Armstrong and the Tour were picked apart by ITV’s lawyers for anything that would appear libellous: “My British publishers were so frightened about every nuance, every word, every phrase.
“There were adjectives I had to take out or somehow justify. One word the lawyers picked up on was haughty because it was potentially actionable”.
The result of Armstrong being found to have used performance-enhancing drugs meant that the integrity of rest of the peloton that rode with him came into question.
However Boulting agrees that it was the best thing to happen to the sport and believes it’s now the cleanest it’s been in the Tour’s 101 year history: “What you’re watching now is the cleanest race there’s ever been because the nature of doping has always been there, it’s just changed from the drugs they took before the second world war and the drugs they take now. Even now cycling has it’s nature and every rider is under suspicion because cycling isn’t big or brave enough to move on yet.
Times have changed a lot, according to Boulting, from the 1960s when Brit Tom Simpson was racing. In those days drug taking was a tool to mask pain not make you faster.
Tom Simpson, who died climbing Mont Ventoux in 1967, was seen swallowing pills with brandy before the stage began and amphetamines were found in his jersey pockets when he fell unconscious shortly before the summit.
A lot of the time riders would “down a bottle of wine and take cocaine”: Boulting alleged, to numb the pain but the big game changer came in the 1980s when EPO [Erythropoietin] was introduced which actually changed the physiology of the riders blood and increased the number of red blood cells they produced.
“There was a culture of ‘this is how you get through a race’ and everyone did it”: said Boulting.
EPO, especially in the 80s and 90s cost lives as Boulting explains: “There was a period when young men in minor races in Spain inexplicably would keel over and die, or they’d be found in their hotel rooms in the morning having died at night and their blood was as thick as strawberry jam, it would seize up and they’d have a heart attack.
These drugs weren’t to be messed with, they messed with your head and lead some riders to commit suicide. We’ve come from the 90s where it was all about the top Spanish, Italian and American riders, who have a very different culture of doping, to now, from out of nowhere Britain is the best.
There’s now a clean attitude which is leading the way out of a pretty murky past which is something we should pat ourselves on the back about”.
Since this domination of world cycling by Britain started, stemming from the success on the track at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with Team GB led by Dave Brailsford, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and latterly Chris Froome have become the symbols of a ‘clean’ sport and as far as doping goes.
Something professional British cyclists have been accused of is gene-doping which is when you take substances in order to change the genetic make-up of your body.
Boulting says on gene-doping: “Those technologies are available, at a price, to athletes. There will be no ‘red hot’ urine or blood test because there will be no substances in your body, you simply have changed the way each cell works permanently. It’s game over in terms of what we think of as a clean athlete”.
Boulting thinks gene-doping is a very real threat to cycling and doesn’t think we are that far away from seeing it being used in competition, and it brings up the question ‘what is clean?’
Most fans and journalists alike, including Boulting, believe, that Froome and Wiggins are winning the Tour de France clean, which suggests this new drug free attitude has spread across the continents and indeed the peloton, resulting in the race becoming slower but cleaner.
“This wouldn’t have happened without the Armstrong edifice being ripped out”: says Boulting.
It’s clear that Armstrong’s doping did fundamental damage to the sport of cycling and will take a while to heal, but with gene-doping coming to potentially ruin this, cycling’s governing bodies need to be more vigilant than ever before.