The good old days

In these troubled times for cycling, there’s always the temptation to feel nostalgia for the good old days.

Somewhere around the late 70s and early 80s might be a popular choice. Pro cycling might currently be grappling with widespread (but declining) blood boosting and doping, but the drugs of that era were more out-of-sight and less pivotal. We might never know the exact effect, but the increasing speeds of the peloton in the 90s give some indication.

“In my day as a rider we had dope, sure; but it was nothing like today. Nothing like EPO. For the riders EPO is like kerosene,” said then Tour de France director Jean-Marie Le Blanc in 1999.

And the speed on the climbs was another indication.

“When I saw riders with fat asses climbing like aeroplanes, that’s when I knew,” said Colombian climber Luis Herrera.

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Hinault, Maertens, Merckx, De Vlaeminck

Steroids in the 70s and 80s may have helped enhance lean muscle mass or, like testosterone and cortisone, acted as a recovery aid on long stage races.

Dutch star climber Peter Winnen (two-time stage winner on Alpe d’Huez, 4th in the 1982 Tour de France, and 3rd in 1983 – apparently without doping) told reporters in 2000 about his Tour de France in 1986: “I was very bad and had the choice – go back to home or to provide me with testosterone.”

Gert-Jan Theunisse, who won the KOM prize in 1989 including the Alpe d’Huez stage, also confessed at the same time to using “a great deal” of corticosteroids as well, although denied using testosterone, which he was penalized for after an abnormally high count in 1988 and in two other tests.

But there was not the widespread use of blood doping or EPO. This placed a fundamental limit on performances: riders could not boost their aerobic system like with EPO. The oxygen capacity of blood was not boosted to allow the spectacular performances seen in the last fifteen years.

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Bernard Hinault time trialling in 1978

Such is the climate of system in cycling at present that any outstanding individual performance comes under detailed scrutiny. Witness the last Tour de France when Discovery director Johan Bruyneel was forced to defend yellow-jersey winner Alberto Contador against doping allegations after other team directors challenged Contador’s climbing performances.

Such scrutiny is, in many cases, justified. In the Tour de France alone, Contador’s win was tainted by a possible prior involvement in the Spanish doping ring; the 2006 winner, Floyd Landis, has been judged to have doped; 1996 winner Bjarne Riis admitted to using EPO (and other drugs) to win his title; 1997 winner Jan Ullrich – at perhaps the height of EPO use – was last year found to be a client of Dr Fuentes in Operacion Puerto; the winner of the tainted Tour in 1998, Marco Pantani, was a proven doper; in the seven interim years, serious drug allegations have been levelled against Lance Armstrong.

This sorry record has robbed much of the excitement and romance from the sport.

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Hinault leading in the 1979 Tour

There are other reasons to feel nostalgia.

The Tour de France has ballooned into a behemoth, totally over-shadowing much of the rest of the racing calendar in the minds of the media and much of the public. It is given a disproportionate amount of attention and money, out of keeping with its stature. The Tour caravan, the cavalcade of journalists, and the attendant organization to run it all are all gargantuan.

Specialization began in the 80s, with the focus on the Tour by riders largely started by Greg LeMond. Now it is endemic and it is rare to find the top riders challenging and performing well in three or even two of the Grand Tours. Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre were the exceptions this year, and Giro winner Danilo Di Luca has hardly been seen since his win and Tour winner Contador skipped his home race in favour of a Discovery-team farewell jaunt to Missouri.

The Tour is now bigger, faster, and unrivalled in its stature and sheer magnitude. But it was not always this way and was but one – albeit very important – stop on a busy season-long race schedule for the majority of pro riders. A tough year, to be sure, but one which kept performances and rewards more in balance across different races.

One can also feel nostalgia for a less complicated time, a more bucolic image of the Tour, where the race might feel smaller, more intimate, and less of a global sporting colossus and more of a European three-week Summer country outing.

Robin Magowan, and American living in France, covered the 1978 Tour and wrote up his exploits in his book Tour de France: The Historic 1978 Event. As a journalist, Magowan had to rely on close-up contact with the riders and the race events each day without the benefit of media rooms with big-screen televisions.

To aid in this endeavour, to get the journalists close enough to see the pain and the sweat of the riders, journalists’ cars were allowed to accompany the peloton, respectfully distant most of the time but still in the thick of the action alongside team cars and support vehicles.

It was not a serious business all the time, however. Just before the 1978 race hit the Pyrenees for the first of the mountain stages, the peloton was relaxed. In this writer’s view, Magowan penned the most memorable passages from his book at this juncture, reflecting an easier time of casual frivolity amidst an important cycling race that was nonetheless kept in perspective by all those involved.

After hitching a ride in the Radio Sud reporting car, Magowan recounted their return to following the peloton on stage 9 from Bordeaux to Biarritz:

We miscalculated every so slightly our re-entry, and when we got back to the highway there was the whole brightly jerseyed pack pedaling by, policemen’s whistles blaring. We had to slip into the rear – annoying for [Radio Sud’s Patrick] Thillet, but for me a pleasant novelty, since it was like being on some coral reef among these larger-than-life, oh-so-visible rider fish as they biked in and out among our two files. [Spanish reporter] Johnny Ruau decided to palliate his friend’s annoyance by finding us some armagnac, the obvious ingredient missing from our superb lunch [which had been fish soup, skewered duck hearts, and a confit washed down with a local Paderenc wine].

So we pulled up alongside Fussien’s manager, Raphael Geminiani, to see if that man of the region had any in his car. Gem had armagnac. He also had a very good bottle of Burgundian Mercurey. Thanking him quite properly, the gullet car moved up to Peugeot’s Maurice de Muer; the sight of the riders with their water bottles was obviously encouraging us. De Muer understood the universality of thirst in such sunlight. He gave us a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label with which to amuse ourselves.

When we came back later, he had some coffee sympathetically ready. There was also salami, should we feel inclined to start again – what Tour belt can’t be stretched a little further. Soon we were running a distribution service, ferrying and taking orders…

Bernard Hinault won the 1978 race, the first of five victories. Freddy Maertens took the sprinter’s prize and Mariano Martinez was the king of the mountains.

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Belgian big-gear terror, Freddy Maertens

Michel Pollentier, however, was ejected from the race after he tried to cheat a dope control test after the Alpe d’Huez stage with a concealed device to substitute different urine – and this in a time when testing was relaxed and penalties often applied in the race.

Perhaps one’s nostalgia should therefore remain a little tempered.

3 thoughts on “The good old days

  1. I’ve long romanticized cycling pre-1990’s. The switch to specialization has helped turn the races somewhat antiseptic with too much seriousness and a glossy veneer. I liked the grit and occasional lapses in the task at hand of those days.

  2. I like your blog very much, and I enjoyed your write up.

    What do you think would happen if we took the champions of old and put them in today’s peloton? Would merckx be caught wearing a testosterone patch? Fignon caught taking sleeping aids?

    And does it really, really matter?

    I love cycling and I always will. I know others feel the same. We talk as if doping is going to destroy the sport. I say get down of your moral high horse.

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