This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Monday, July 27, 1998
Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes
189 km/117 mi high mountains
Marco Pantani bounced off the sidewalk onto the road, like a kid out playing on his bike. I was walking behind him, along the same sidewalk, in Dublin, on Saturday, July 11, 1998. Pantani had just ridden the prologue time trial of the Tour de France, finishing 181st out of the 189 starters.
The sport’s most exciting climber—the most exciting cyclist in years—seemed distracted. He seemed disinterested in racing. Or in anything. Pantani had recently won his home tour, the Giro d’Italia, and it had overwhelmed him. The celebration parties drained him. The death of his mentor, Luciano Pezzi, 15 days earlier demotivated him. He said he wasn’t interested in the Tour. The mountains weren’t hard enough, he said, and there were only two summit finishes. In Dublin, he looked miles away.
The strangest-ever Tour got under way, and still Pantani showed no interest, even when, 12 days in, he won at Plateau de Beille, one of the two summit finishes, in the Pyrenees. “Every day, including the stage to Plateau de Beille, he was just sitting at the back with his team,” recalls Bobby Julich, the American who was fourth in the Dublin prologue. “This is before race radios, and when you’re going back to talk to the team car there’s Marco sitting at the back, in last position.
“You think, well, he doesn’t give a crap, he’s just going for stages.” After winning at Plateau de Beille, Pantani grudgingly admitted, “Anything is still possible, but after all the stress of the Giro it makes my head spin when I think about the overall classification.”
The favorite and defending champion, Jan Ullrich, didn’t seem any more comfortable. Only 24 years old, the German described his Tour win as “a nightmare for me. I didn’t enjoy a single second of it.”
A month later, Ullrich stopped racing, ending his 1997 season early. He was suffering from stress and exhaustion. “The physical and mental strain of winning the Tour took Jan to his limits and we have to protect him,” said his Telekom team manager, Walter Godefroot. “He’s still very young and we have to be careful.” At the end of the year, he was voted German sports- man of the year, bracketed among a small group of his country’s über-stars that included Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, and Michael Schumacher. But over the winter his weight ballooned from 158 pounds to 183. All spring, in the run-up to the 1998 Tour, Ullrich battled to regain fitness and lose weight under the intense glare of a German media who declared his ample behind “the most examined rear since Claudia Schiffer’s.”
Ullrich and Pantani must be two of the most physically gifted but psychologically fragile athletes in Tour history. Yet in 1998, here they were, duking it out in a race that made everybody’s head spin, which would surely have broken even the strongest of spirits.
It was the best of Tours, it was the worst of Tours. The world was shocked as it came to terms with the revelations about the scale and systematic nature of doping on the world’s top team, Festina. The riders were shocked, too. But for a different reason. If anything, they were shocked that the world was shocked.
It started with a small news item. As the Tour got under way, it emerged that a soigneur with the Festina team, Willy Voet, had been stopped on the French–Belgian border with a car full of banned drugs. He was en route to Dublin. The outside world paid little attention at first; it was a minor story, a subplot. But the riders’ ears pricked up. “I heard about it at dinner in our hotel in Dublin,” recalls Jörg Jaksche, a 21-year-old German about to start his first Tour with the Italian Polti team. “Word spread very quickly. Everyone was, like, ‘Holy shit. What are we going to do with our stuff ?’ It wasn’t, ‘Fuck Festina, what assholes, they’re doping.’”
Everyone was using EPO, says Jaksche. “Maybe not everyone, but it was a majority,” says Bobby Julich, who was riding his second Tour. The UCI had introduced a health check the previous year, designed to limit its abuse, but there was no test. It was banned, but undetectable. “What should you do?” asks Jaksche. “You could say that the UCI accepted the use of it, up to a certain level. I don’t think that’s true—they saw the problem but couldn’t do anything about it with no test. At least they tried to do something about it. What more could they do?
“And what could the riders do? You know everyone’s doing it, so you have to do it. If your contract is running out, no one’s going to ask you, ‘Why didn’t you perform well?’ and give you a new contract if you say you didn’t use EPO. But if you’ve been fourth in the Tour, they’ll say, ‘Here’s your contract.’”
The Tour carried on as usual for its three days in southern Ireland, but Voet, in custody in Lille, was a ticking time bomb. His initial story, that the enormous stash of drugs was for his own use, was patently ridiculous. There was a growing sense, among the riders and teams, that when the race arrived in France—a country basking in the warm afterglow of not only hosting but also winning soccer’s World Cup—there would be trouble. Across the Channel, storm clouds gathered. There were stories of drugs being dumped over the side of the boat that carried them to France from Ireland. “At first we kept it,” says Jaksche of the doping products. “I have to be careful. I kept my stuff. It was then thrown away in the second week.” Voet changed his story on the Tour’s first day back in France. He had been acting under team orders, he admitted. A day later, French police raided the Festina riders’ hotel rooms. Now Festina was the story; the race was secondary. Journalists who had traveled to Ireland and then France to cover a sports event found themselves working as crime reporters.
As the race headed from Brittany to the heart of the country, the Tour de France was unraveling. The teams’ world was collapsing as the outside world was afforded a glimpse inside and recoiled in outrage and horror. Among the riders, there was confusion. On the one hand, they wanted to keep their secret; on the other, with the secret out, they couldn’t under- stand what all the fuss was about. On some stages they were booed and jeered. Libération described the sport as a “cesspit,” adding, “the giants of the road are dwarves of sporting morality.” The mood in the peloton was one of righteous anger, and hurt. Udo Bolts, a teammate of Ullrich, pro- tested, “We are not criminals. The booing was terrible, soul-destroying.”
The Festina doctor, Eric Ryckaert, summed up the ambiguity. “I’m against doping. That much, I think, is clear. But there are questions you must ask yourself on the definition of doping. For myself, in the role of a doctor, I want to know where medical treatments end and where doping begins.”
A week in, after the Festina management admitted that the team orga- nized a doping program, their nine riders were thrown out of the race, including French darling Richard Virenque. The Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, acknowledged “a classic case of institutionalized doping within a team,” which, he added, was “a grave affront to the morality and prin- ciples of the Tour.”
That was the official line. Bernard Kouchner, the French secretary of state for health, struck a different note, saying, “We are all accomplices in this huge hypocrisy. Everybody knows that doping reigns at the Tour de France.”
Amid the chaos, confusion, and anger, the race continued. Pictures of riders celebrating stage wins seemed incongruous beside those of the po- lice entering team vehicles and riders’ rooms—the Dutch TVM squad was the next to be targeted—until finally, on July 24, before stage 12, the riders’ patience snapped.
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