The dangerous summer revisited, again

1. Last year your author revisited an original post on The Dangerous Summer with an interlude that considered Hemingway, heroes, and the golden age of cycling. Re-reading it, there seems much that is still pertinent to the current debates in cycling, if your author doesn’t say so himself. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, one might say. This might be even more appropriate given that it would appear that the French senate will release a report on doping at the 1998 Tour during this year’s Tour itself. Pro cycling again tarnished by past transgressions.

Robert Millar readily admits that he is not a neutral observer, but he is certainly more than eloquent on the subject of past doping. There will no doubt be some skeletons coming out of closets if the report is indeed released and is as inflammatory as all expect. But will we be surprised? Would you, dear reader, be surprised if every single top rider at the 1998 Tour was taking EPO? One would hope not. Would you be surprised if every single Tour winner from 2006 backwards (with the likely exception of Greg LeMond) took something at some point in their career, whether it was EPO and transfusions or a little cortisone or a dash of testosterone? Prior to the EPO era, one did not need drugs to win the Tour, but it certainly could help – even if it was a bit of ‘hormone re-balancing’ at the start of the season or ahead of a major stage race. We might conclude that not all Tour winners doped during the Tour, but was any past winner completely in the clear for their entire career?

Doping was le metier for many, many riders; perhaps at the very least only a few amphetamines to get through the post-Tour criteriums, but doping nonetheless. The substances and the methods changed over time – amphetamines post-WW II, then cortisone and testosterone, followed by other steroids and transfusions, then EPO and a variety of micro-dosing and micro-transfusing techniques. Discussion was never far from the surface. Here is Robin Magowan in the widely-read, 80s classic Kings of the Road, talking of muscle growth from steroids and its strain on connecting tendons: “Watching ‘superman’ Fignon flail away day after glorious day on the Tour one felt that sooner or later something was bound to give way.” Which it did. Or on Hinault: “Coming upon Hinault in 1983 after not having seen him since his Tour ride in 1978 I remember being struck not only by the new hairiness, but by the hugely knotted calf muscles, the knots extending even into the lower thighs; legs more like that of a wrestler than a rider.”

Magowan might not have been correct in his assessments, literally accusing Fignon and Hinault in English-language print of doping, but such discussions were common place at the time. Would we be that surprised, though, if he was correct? Post-Armstrong, nothing is surprising any more. This does not diminish cycling necessarily, as we cannot go back and change what it has been for much of its history – a beautiful, captivating, gruelling, and desperately hard sport not for the faint of heart. Surely we’re ready to put the past behind us, unless there’s some materially beneficial to the current anti-doping regime that will come from further enquiry.

Post-1998, it should have all changed. But it did not. In Yellow Fever, his book on that Tour, Jeremy Whittle quotes an unidentified English-speaking professional. “Only the naive would now think that doping isn’t part of the sport, especially with the financial rewards now on offer, But it’s up to me to decide what I do and whether I cross that line. Right now I want to be competitive without going beyond it, but I can’t say that I’ll always feel that way.” The equation has changed now. Not the rewards – as high as ever – but the mood in the peloton and the absence of pressure to dope just to be competitive.

But human nature is tricky. At the end of Yellow Fever, Whittle eloquently recounts passing a young fan by the side of the road, a boy about six years old, “wide-eyed and expectant”, waiting for the riders of the Tour to pass and “waiting for his dreams to be fulfilled.” Whittle feels the guilt of the passive observer to the debacle that has been unfolding. “I wanted to stop and talk to him, to try to explain; to tell him that men are weak and greedy, and they grow old and faithless and forget their dreams… I wanted to tell him that I was sorry – that we were all sorry for the lies and the silence, for the cynicism and the loss of innocence. I wanted us both to believe again.”

It is a poignant soliloquy. But why should Whittle be sorry? Sorry that human nature is as it is, capable of so much but also so little? And just what would he have them both believe again? There are not any miracles now, thanks to Armstrong, if there ever were, thanks to a parade of others. As John le Carré has one of his characters note in A Delicate Truth, “What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn’t stupidity… it was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.” It is all ultimately just self serving. There was not and cannot be a golden age of cycling. As Ken Dryden says, “The golden age of anything is the age of everyone’s childhood.” Cycling is no different. Once the innocence is gone it is gone for good. You can’t just believe in it again somehow.

But the Tour de France is still captivating. One does not want to overcook it with the quotes, but let us have one more. “If you can control your emotions, chances are you don’t have many,” says Douglas Coupland. The Tour pulls us in, sick and depraved that it is. Heroes and villains all. The glorious excess. We cannot look away. We need not look away. That innocence is long, long gone but the sheer excitement remains.

2.

Summer has arrived just in time for the Tour, it would seem, ushering in the hot, hot weather of early morning or evening rides punctuated by barbecues, cold beer, and chilled G&Ts. Reckless – even dangerous – plans are sometimes hatched in the heat; whether they come to fruition or not is another story.

Just recently, your author signed up to the Rapha Rising challenge on Strava, which is to ride 7,235 vertical metres of climbing (the equivalent of the Peyresourde, Ventoux and Col de Sarenne) in 8 days. For someone who counts three rides in a week as a luxury, this would indeed seem a worthy challenge. Your author’s intention was to start with Mt. Seymour and additions, good for 1,700 metres in one ride, followed by – later in the week – le parcours de Virenque, good for around 2,600 metres (perhaps closer to 3,000 with any luck). That would have left a rather significant <4,301 metres to knock off. With the space on the calendar, just not possible. It is with some disappointment, then, that this challenge has been opted out of.

Not to worry. One does what one can in the time available, keeping the fun aspect to the fore rather than worrying about the numbers. Those hills can be re-ridden in slower time, and perhaps savoured a little more. Anyway, your author counts himself lucky to have ridden the actual Ventoux as well as the Col de Sarenne. The latter included the ridiculous descent on the other side, followed by the Les Deux Alpes ascent made famous by Marco Pantani in 1998 (want to put an asterisk next to his name – the Tour de France is one continuous asterisk), before riding back up Alpe d’Huez. That was a long day out, but then – being on holiday following the Tour – what else was one to do.

3.

Summer is also the perfect time for reading. The 100th running of the Tour has produced a plethora of new and updated titles but one really wonders whether yet another Tour book is really necessary. The history of the race keeps getting re-written, at least officially it would seem, so anything now is simply going to be a snapshot of the times. Still, safe hands seem to be producing all the titles so you really can’t go too wrong if additional titles are to your interest.

Along with the inevitable Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy re-reads, perhaps with a little James Salter and Julian Barnes (who has written quite eloquently about the Tour in Something to Declare) thrown in, there will be some cycling specific titles on the list (again, always way too ambitious) assembled by your correspondent. The good editors of The Cycling Anthology have produced volume 2 just in time for the Tour and, like the first volume, it is a little treasure trove of great short pieces on the race we can’t walk away from. The format, a small paperback that will fit most jersey pockets, is a reminder that the printed book is far from dead and that any decent cafe ride deserves a little reading material over one’s coffee. If you lean towards the e-reader, however, do check out The Bicycle Reader, deftly and economically presented by Jack Thurston (from the Bike Show podcast) et al and well worth the price. Two editions are out now and are little gems.

No summer reading is complete with an appropriate beverage. Let one hereby offer what might be dubbed the ‘Bimini’ as dictated by Hemingway in the first part of Islands in the Stream: “Where Thomas Hudson lay on the mattress his head was in the shade cast by the platform at the forward end of the flying bridge where the controls were and when Eddy came aft with the tall cold drink made of gin, lime juice, green coconut water, and chipped ice with just enough Angostura bitters to give it a rusty, rose colour, he held the drink in the shadow so the ice would not melt while he looked out over the sea.”

Magic. If you can’t get fresh green coconut water (which is pretty much a given), try the ubiquitous coconut water than is available in a multitude of varieties pretty much everywhere. As we know, the hydrating powers of coconut water have been vastly oversold, but it’s somewhere in between plain water and a good sports drink for its cycling application so you can pretend it has at least a non-deleterious effect if you are sampling it after a ride. Use the coconut water in place of the tonic as if making a (tall) G&T and add the lime juice (fresh, add the wedges afterwards) and bitters in quantities to whatever works best for you.

You can then ponder that Hemingway himself was probably the sort of character that would earn a Wiggins-esque expletive, but he could sure mix a drink and construct a sentence. He may have been a mean old drunk, but he left a written legacy larger than the sum of his character. Those Tour riders for the last 100 editions might have been mostly a bunch of dopers, but they did more than that and they did the same: races that gave cycling the history and mythology that keeps us captivated today. The new peloton is cleaner and more exciting than ever, but it doesn’t exist separately from this. The Tour is as glorious as it is base. In many ways, that’s why we celebrate it.

Pastis at Les Deux Alpes. Vive le Tour!

Pastis at Les Deux Alpes. Vive le Tour!