With 20 kilometres to go, at the base of the ascent of Mont Ventoux on the Bedoin side, the 11-man group had around 7 minutes over the peloton. The group looked comfortable together, but as the pace lifted it started to break up. With 11 kilometres to go, there were only two of the eleven left, the Russian rider on Ag2r, Alexander Botcharov, and Richard Virenque.
Finally, 1 kilometre later, Virenque stood and lifted the pace and Botcharov had no answer. His Domo-Farm Frites jersey agape, unzipped, Virenque had five minutes over the chase group, led by Lance Armstrong in yellow, ONCE riders Jose Azevedo (before he joined Armstrong’s team) and Joseba Beloki, the notorious doper Raimondas Rumsas, and white-jersey wearer Ivan Basso (before his own doping fall from grace).
Nominally the team leader, Virenque had so far been quiet in the 2002 Tour de France, perhaps conserving his strength for the latter stages, or perhaps riding in deference to Laurent Jalabert, who was looking to claim the KOM title for the second year in a row in his final year of a glorious, if controversial, career.
Riding alone, however, seemed ironic. In his tenth year as a professional, disgraced for doping, suspended for much of the 2001 season, one had to wonder what he had left to prove at, or even contribute to, the race. Perhaps his lonely ride was a metaphor for his isolation, with no offers to ride for French teams, now apparently notoriously suspicious of journalists, buoyed only with his die-hard fans, and now his stature eclipsed by exciting young French riders like David Moncoutie.
Virenque had already been rescued once by the Polti team, and now it was Patrick Lefevre’s Domo team that reached out a helping hand when his suspension ended in late 2001.
“I signed for three months,” Virenque was reported saying. “Then, I will see what should be done: to stay or look at new offers.” One has to wonder, though, if there were any other offers – although he said later in the year that an Italian team had expressed interest.
At the Vuelta in 2001, his first major race, Virenque’s return was cautious. His efforts were limited, with his best result a second place behind Beat Zberg but ahead of the Basque rider Igor Flores from a breakaway on the bumpy stage from Andorra to the coast.
Startlingly, though, he then claimed the sprinters’ classic Paris-Tours that year. He broke away early with 220 kilometres still to go of the 254-kilometre race, in the style of his 1996 failed escapade at the event, this time with exploit expert Jacky Durand. The latter dropped off with 50 kilometres to go, but Virenque stayed out front.
“Ten kilometres from the finish the bunch was 45 seconds behind me but I refused to give it up,” he was reported saying. “I didn’t want history to repeat itself.”
After nearly 7 hours in the saddle, he held on to the line with the chasing peloton led by Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel only 2 seconds behind.
“I gave it everything. I closed my eyes. I really suffered,” he said.
A week later, Freire took revenge by winning the World Championship in Lisbon. Virenque had been included on the French team, and was active in race with the leaders with a few laps of the course to go, but drifted in with the big bunch in 31st. But his form looked good and he signed with Domo for three years. It seemed like his career was not over yet.
Nine months later, on the slopes of the Ventoux, it seemed like Virenque would get his chance to reclaim glory in the mountains of the Tour de France. His condition looked good, his climbing alternating between seated and standing, facial muscles straining with the effort, his long legs astride his Merckx bike, perhaps hoping that he would not befall the fate of its maker in 1970 who needed oxygen at the summit after a gruelling effort.
But first Virenque had to dispose of his pursuers. In the chasing group, ONCE’s Azevedo and Beloki made a few attacks against Armstrong, who seemed to finally become bored with this probing and launched his own assault. No one could answer him. There were just over 6 kilometres still to climb and Virenque’s gap was 4’30″.
Armstrong had been open about his desire to win the climb before the stage, revenge for his gesture to Marco Pantani in 2000. This time, though, it seemed less about revenge and more about making a mockery of the mountain.
As Virenque laboured upward, the pain visible in his eyes, Armstrong shielded his suffering behind his glasses – and appeared to be suffering little at all. In his characteristic style, giving nothing away, his face was fixed immobile, mouth slightly open, tapping out his hypnotic high-speed tempo, breaking the hearts – Charly Gaul style – of those trying to follow him.
It was an incredible display of climbing prowess by Armstrong; although one would need to calculate and tabulate further, seeing him in action on the Ventoux surely buttresses his claim to being the best climber the Tour de France has seen, despite his protestations of being an average climber that sometimes has a good day.
Virenque had been accused before and subsequently of playing to the cameras, but on this climb his pain seemed real. He held off Armstrong and was able to successfully regain his composure to stare proudly at the awaiting photographers and officials and proclaim himself number one for the day with his finger thrust skyward.
“That was courage,” opined commentator Paul Sherwin.
At the line, Virenque had been in the saddle for 5 hours and 43 minutes. He managed to distance Botcharov by 1’58″ and Armstrong was at 2’20″, having put over a minute into Rumsas and nearly 2 minutes into Beloki.
Virenque was congratulated by KOM jersey wearer Jalabert after the latter’s distant finish.
“I began to believe in myself,” Virenque said, “because my legs felt good.”
“It’s hard to close a gap like that,” Armstrong said, having closed just over 2 minutes in 6 kilometres, an impressive effort. “But I didn’t lose hope.”
Commentators suggested that Armstrong’s time up the climb was a record 58 minutes, 30 seconds faster than Pantani in 2000. Virenque’s time, depending on the location of the start of the timing at the bottom, would have been around 4-6 minutes slower.
For Virenque, on a Tour where he finished 16th – not even the highest placed French rider, the honour going to a spirited ride from David Moncoutie in 13th – and not even in the top three of the KOM competition, it was a fine stage win.
He seemed content with his low profile, or perhaps one major effort was all he was capable of in what was a very fast edition of the Tour. Although Virenque seemed happy for Jalabert to win the KOM title for the second year running, and praised his efforts, Jalabert won no stages in 2002 (in 2001 he took two stage wins, but not in the mountains), and Virenque’s win on the Ventoux showed that he remain a vital French climbing force. It was in many respects his ride of redemption.
In his tenth Tour, it was Virenque’s lowest overall placing since his early – and clean – days in 1992 and 1993. This might lead us to conclude that he was finally, after always riding among the leaders in other editions of the Tour, including 1999 and 2000, at last riding free of suspicion of doping. He finished just in the top twenty, with only one exploit of note and he gave all the appearances of suffering to achieve his win. But conclusions remain difficult, elusive as ever in the murky world of doping at this time; speculation is as always easy, but hard facts slip easily from one’s grasp.
Le grimpeur prefers to see Virenque’s win on the Ventoux in redemptive terms, a reflection of at least some qualities of the rider, the man, open to admiration. A courageous ride from someone who perhaps the sport might have – or perhaps even should have – not given a second chance; but Virenque took that chance and delivered a stunning performance of spirited climbing in the traditions of the sport.
As Virenque said after his win, “I gave it everything I had.”