Title: Sexe, mensonges et petits vélos (Sex, lies and little bikes)
Author: Willy Voet
What is it? A French novel about a young cyclist breaking into big-time cycling and big-time doping.
Strengths: Occasionally good prose; inside details on doping in professional cycling after the Festina Affair.
Weaknesses: Unsympathetic and relatively flat characters; frequently tedious details about doping (dosages, frequency, delivery, etc.).
Rating: ★★ (2 of 5)
A year after his arrest for transporting doping products across the Franco-Belgian border (the event that sparked the Festina Affair), Willy Voet published his tell-all memoir, Breaking the Chain (Massacre à la chaîne), with Calmann-Lévy. A year later, Voet again teamed up with Calmann-Lévy to publish Sex, Lies and Little Bikes. Voet claims that where Breaking the Chain "opened the lid" on doping, this novel "looks into its depths."
Sex, Lies and Little Bikes follows the evolution of a young French professional cyclist, the twenty-three year old Arnaud Frochet, from his signing with a top-shelf professional team (Prell) at the end of the 1999 season to his tragic "accident" after the 2000 off-season.
As the novel begins, we learn that Arnaud, riding for a small team with an even smaller budget, had come out of nowhere to win the Tour of Lombardy in 1999, attracting the interest of teams with thicker wallets and leading him to Prell. After a series of track races (where he exposes how the events are fixed and what kind of amphetamines some of the riders are on), Arnaud meets up with the entire Prell team at a ski resort for their off-season camp. The last night of the camp, Arnaud is invited into a room where the entire team awaits in order to "baptize" him: a syringe of pot belge is injected into his arm in small doses by every member of the team. After becoming the victim of this ritualized introduction to professional cycling he says, "I was born into a new life."
More on the flip... (contains spoilers)
In addition to enjoying the occasional pot belge together, the team also periodically enjoys the occasional woman together (hence the title). Women, even Arnaud's fiancée, are little more than objects in the novel, and the text is surprisingly uncritical of this brutish perspective.
After this opening, Arnaud begins taking EPO and growth hormones, reluctantly at first, with the help of a French doctor and a pharmacist in Switzerland. Eventually, to avoid driving over the border, he has the juice mailed to a reliable friend who passes it along to him. He also buys a centrifuge in order to test his own hematocrit level and stay ahead of the doping authorities. Part way through the season, however, one of his teammates is busted with a Riccò-esque hematocrit level and kicked off the team, only to appear later in the novel as a dealer and user. (The message: once a doper, always a doper.)
When Arnaud's fiancée discovers he is using, he offers the following explanation:
OK, I use a little EPO from time to time, so what? I'm doing what everyone else does, that's it. Don't think I came up with this on my own. To make it in professional sport you have to go this route. It's either that or be a little shit that nobody notices. And it's not EPO that wins races or prize money. It's just a supplement, an aid to hold up under the demands of the work. . . . Would we be in this sweet house if I had to ride on nothing but mint tea?
This justification is an update of the now century-old rationale that goes like this: cyclists are asked to do superhuman rides by fans and race organizers and they need "help" to make it. In the 1930s riders were called the forçats de la route (forced laborers of the road) and needed "dynamite" to overcome the imposed work and complete the race; and as Anquetil famously said, "the Tour can't be won on mineral water alone."
During the fictional 2000 season, Arnaud has some success, particularly in the Vuelta, but fails to achieve what he considers to be his full potential. Once the season ends, he gets out of his contract with Prell and signs with a big Italian team. But before starting the new season with them he is persuaded to try a new form of doping using artificial blood. Things go badly, however, and he ends up in a coma before waking up to find himself partially paralyzed and unable to talk. The novel ends abruptly with Arnaud receiving a brief visit from his very first professional coach who kisses his forehead before silently leaving the hospital room.
The novel is narrated in the first person and its style, at first, is strangely reminiscent of famous French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline. But a few chapters in, Voet seems to lose sight of the narrative and fixates on tedious details of doping regimens, including details on how the drugs are procured, how much is administered, how and where it is injected, how doses are paid for and procured, etc. etc. In other words, the novel is sabotaged by its author's experience as a soigneur for Festina and the story loses out in favor of a doping exposé.
It is also regrettable, I think, that the novel reaffirms the guilt of the rider and fails to sufficiently implicate sponsors and team management as part of the problem. Arnaud "assumes responsibility" for his actions and, although he calls himself a "lab rat," he acknowledges that his has been "a consenting rat." The final chapter (about Arnaud's paralysis) amounts to little more than the villain's just punishment. In Céline's famous French novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit, the author uses his counter-cultural prose to cast blame on the government and the many cowardly businessmen who profited from the men who died in World War I. Though it attempts to capture Céline's ethos, Voet's novel--instead of looking out and situating the doping problem in its full context--focuses the blame on the individual rider and make it easy for the reader to dismiss the problem as stemming from individual rather than systemic corruption. In this sense, Voet's novel does not go much beyond the newspaper headlines that vilify dopers and depict the riders as fallen heroes while persitently ignoring the external economic forces that act on them.
Voet had his chances to make this novel a more interesting, nuanced one. In the closing chapters, Arnaud learns that the winner of the 2000 Tour of Lombardy won only because he had made a deal with his break-away partner: one million francs (about $140,000) to feign a mechanical problem. Voet could have easily pointed out the hypocrisy of punishing doping while turning a blind eye to this kind of cheating. Granted there are no needles involved; but race fixing (which, according to both this novel and Breaking the Chain, is a common practice) deceives the public and changes outcomes as much or more than riders on growth hormones. Voet's narrator also notes that the team doctor and soigneur are aware of Arnaud's doping and even point him in the direction of EPO. But in the end, Voet's novel lets them off the hook and, instead of adding the kind of polemic that could have made the novel original, he chooses to focus guilt solely on the rider.
In the final analysis, this novel's protagonist proves less interesting than Voet himself, and Breaking the Chain remains the author's more compelling work. If you liked Breaking the Chain and have an academic interest in both literature and in doping and you like to read French, then read this book. Otherwise, Breaking the Chain may be as much Voet as you will want to read.