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On Doping And David Walsh

One of the things that intrigues me about David Walsh is the difference between David Walsh version one and David Walsh version two. The latter you're all familiar with, the big bad Irish wolfhound doggedly pursuing Lance Armstrong even from the ends of the Earth. The witch-finder general when it comes to the did he / didn't he question surrounding Armstrong's use of pharmaceutical products.

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David Walsh. Photo credit:
David Walsh. Photo credit:
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Walsh version one was a different kind of reporter. Very different. Alone he trumpeted the cause of cycling in Ireland at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so. It was mostly through Walsh that Ireland first discovered we had a bunch of cyclists on the continent who were actually quite good. If Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were the Lennon and McCartney of Irish cycling (with Martin Earley on guitar and Paul Kimmage on drums) then Walsh deserves to be considered their Brian Epstein. He was the first champion of the Nouvelle Éire.

The differences between Walsh then and Walsh now are stark. The change mostly happened in 1996 when, at the Atlanta Olympics, he showed his teeth when he dared to suggest that the performances of the Irish swimmer Michele Smith owed something to pharmacological enhancements. Even when the American president, Bill Clinton, involved himself in the argument - on the side of Smith - Walsh stuck to his guns and publicly proclaimed that there was something dodgy about Smith's performances.

When the Armstrong era arrived it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man, with Walsh, in the eyes of some, becoming a twenty-first century Torquemada. At a time when soft-ball questions were the order of the day and no one expected press conferences to turn into the Spanish Inquisition, Walsh was there asking awkward questions, particularly about Armstrong's association with Michele Ferrari.

Throughout the noughties, Walsh went big on the scourge of doping, condemning not just the athletes who doped but also those whose credulous reporting gave legitimacy to super-human performances. At one point he dismissed most all American cycling journalists with a wave of his hands, calling them "the best educated, most steadfast cheerleaders who ever set foot from one country to another." His own pom-poms were by then in the bottom drawer. But boy did he used to know how to really shake them all about.

Before his Damascene conversion, Walsh was himself just another cheerleader, no better or worse than most of his peers. No better or worse than most of the people reporting this sport today. Whatever line was on offer to distract us from the needle and the damage it was doing, Walsh seemed to buy it. In his book about the 1993 Tour - Inside The Tour de France - he wrote positively about the increasing medicalisation of the sport, suggesting it was a good thing. He wrote admiringly of Nicolas Terrados, Manolo Saiz's ONCE team doctor, who five years later would be arrested and charged during the police busts launched by l'affaire Festina.

Two years earlier, in 1991, at the height of the Intralipid affair, Walsh had leaped to the defence of Kelly and Earley, almost taking over Jock Boyer's role as PDM's official apologist, insisting to all who would listen that this ‘bad fish' episode was not a doping story.

In 1986, when he published a biography of Kelly, Walsh had to confront the issue of doping head-on by addressing Kelly's bust for Stimul use in the 1984 edition of the late-season Paris-Brussels race. How he reported that story is what I want to look at here.

Before getting to the story of Paris-Brussels, it's necessary to consider how, earlier in Kelly, Walsh had talked about the Flandria squad, where Kelly rode his first two seasons in the pro peloton. Flandria in 1977 and 1978 was the home of Freddy Maertens and Michel Pollentier. It was the team of the moment. But there was a big cloud over Flandria: "Suspicions existed that both Freddy and Michel traded on more than the strength of their legs. After the Tour of Belgium in 1977 six riders were alleged to have illicit substances in their systems. Three of the six were the biggest names in Belgian cycling: Merckx, Maertens and Pollentier. A few weeks later Freddy won the Flèche Wallonne, a classic he would later have taken away from him because of an alleged doping offence."

Those positives proved little for Walsh. He saw doping as a story with two sides and his choice of language - ‘victims,' ‘alleged' - suggests which side he most leaned toward: "Another perspective on how the victims view the laboratory findings was provided by the declining star, Merckx: ‘I do not believe any more in these controls; it is all becoming ridiculous and hypocritical. I haven't even asked for a second analysis. I am going to make a list of all that is wrong with these controls. As things are nobody could have confidence in them.'" Surely if Eddy Merckx - the cyclist even God wanted to be, according to the old joke - was questioning the dope controls, then there must be a problem with them?

There was also the story of the 1978 Tour de France. This was the one where Kelly launched himself onto the consciousness of the cycling world by winning a sprint into Poitiers. Fifteen years after the Irish - through Shay Elliott - had first and last won a stage in the grande boucle, we were at last making waves in the Tour again. Not that many people would have noticed. No, the 1978 Tour had a much bigger talking point than some farm-boy from a windswept rock on the western edge of Europe winning a tight sprint. This was the year the maillot jaune got chucked off the race on l'Alpe d'Huez for attempting to pass someone else's urine in a dope control. Not just any maillot jaune. Flandria's Michel Pollentier.

"For Freddy and Michel," Walsh wrote, "Alpe d'Huez was the day the music died. Nothing would ever be the same in Flandria. Never again could Freddy be cavalier in his attitude to drugs. Being caught with illicit substances in your system during a minor event like the Tour of Belgium was one form of transgression. Using a rubber bulb, plastic tube and somebody else's urine to help take that yellow jersey in the Tour de France was another. The difference between shoplifting at the neighbourhood's huckster store and robbing the Bank of England."

Walsh reports Kelly's assessment of what happened on the Alpe, delivered years later: "[Pollentier] was a sort of crooked figure on the bike, no style. But he would have taken some beating in that Tour. In the back of my mind, I imagined that Michel wasn't the type of rider that Félix Lévitan, the Tour director, wanted to win the race. Michel wouldn't have looked good in yellow on the Champs Elysées. What Michel did was wrong, the organisers were entitled to put him out, but if it had happened with another rider the reaction might have been different." Only the previous year, rumours had swirled around Bernard Thévénet's Tour victory, saying that a positive had been hushed up. Shortly after his Tour victory Thévénet was hospitalised and that winter admitted that he had doped throughout his career and that his cortisone abuse had rotted his liver.

Overall, in Walsh's analysis, Flandria had been a good training ground for Kelly. He learned much from his masters. How to sprint. How to read a race. And the doping? For Walsh, the lesson Kelly would have learned there was of what not to do. He would not repeat the mistakes of Maertens and Pollentier. So what the hell happened in Paris-Brussels all those years later?

* * * * *

The first inkling Walsh had of the story was when he was bound for Milan and the 1984 Giro di Lombardia. On the plane he read a three-line story in l'Equipe that an unnamed rider who had finished in the first three of Paris-Brussels was rumoured to have failed a dope test. Kelly, Walsh knew, had finished third in the three-hundred kilometre sprinters' marathon - behind his nemesis, Eric Vanderaerden, and Charly Mottet - which took place in mid September. In the three weeks between Paris-Brussels and the Giro di Lombardia, Kelly had won the Tour of Catalonia and the sprinters' classic, Blois-Chaville (Paris-Tours), and finished second in the GP des Nations.

Walsh's reaction to l'Equipe's squib? "Kelly had won thirty-two races during the season, been dope tested countless times and been negative on every occasion. For eight seasons he had been attending to duties at dope control centres and had always been clear. Nothing seemed to fit." Why, Walsh wanted to know, would a man like Kelly suddenly dope now for such an unimportant race as Paris-Brussels? Clearly, Walsh rationalised, l'Equipe's gossip couldn't be about Kelly. It must be either Vanderaerden or Mottet. But he had to be sure. He would have to ask Kelly.

On his arrival in Milan, Walsh headed for the race headquarters, where Kelly would be in attendance later in the afternoon. As soon as Kelly arrived, Walsh confronted him. You almost have an image in your head of the apocryphal kid who faced down Shoeless Joe Jackson with his ‘Say it isn't so, Joe.' What emotional turmoil Walsh must have felt when Kelly said it was true, that he was the man l'Equipe couldn't name.

"Last Tuesday week," Kelly told Walsh, "I received a notice which said that my urine sample for Paris-Brussels was positive. I just couldn't believe it. I immediately thought there had been a mistake and that I would be cleared by the counter-examination of my sample." Kelly went on to explain to Walsh that the B sample confirmed the A: "Something is wrong; I did not take anything to ride Paris-Brussels. An error has been made and I will fight this affair until I can get it sorted out."

Kelly went on to repeat the tried and trusted ‘much-tested, never failed' argument and then questioned the conduct of the test itself: "I am convinced that the mistake happened because of irregularities at the testing centre that day. The medical control at Paris-Brussels was very badly organised and lots of people were in the room who had no right to be there. When the rider is giving his sample I believe there should be just two people in the room. When I gave mine, there was about seven people there. In all this confusion something must have gone wrong."

Walsh proceeded to explain what Stimul, the drug Kelly had tested positive for, was. How it was easily available from pharmacies and commonly used by students prepping for exams. He spoke to Robert Millar: "I can't imagine that Kelly took this. As a drug it is about ten years out of date and is not something that a rider, who wanted to avail of artificial help, would turn to." He spoke to Stephen Roche: "How can they do this to Sean - he has easily been the best rider in the world this season and they accuse him of taking something in a race like Paris-Brussels. I know Sean well enough to know that it is nonsense."

Walsh explained how the Belgian federation, responsible for the prosecution of the case, turned a deaf ear to Kelly's plea of innocence. How the UCI accepted Kelly's argument that the organisation of the dope control had been slipshod and requested that the Belgians reconsider the case. How the Belgians declined and the case ping-ponged back to the UCI. And how, sixteen months after the initial verdict - January 1986 - the UCI finally acknowledged that the initial result could not be altered. The original penalty - loss of his third place in Paris-Brussels, a fine of a thousand Swiss francs and a one month suspension, suspended for two years - stood. If Kelly tested positive again before September 1986, he would be hit with a three month ban.

Walsh's verdict? "Any investigation of the affair would find it exceedingly difficult to accept that Kelly knowingly took Stimul to help him in his performance in Paris-Brussels. He had enjoyed a superb season and certainly didn't need to win that race." Walsh pointed out that, although Stimul was used in the seventies, everyone knew it now showed up in tests. If Kelly had used Stimul, Walsh pointed out, why didn't he finish fifth - and so avoid the dope test, as only the first three were tested - instead of third? Walsh also pointed out that, at the end of 1984, Paris-Brussels was removed from the list of races making up the Super Prestige competition. The Super Prestige people were not impressed with the way Paris-Brussels was run.

Having served up lashings of uncertainty and doubt, Walsh ended his look at the Stimul affair by adding a dash of fear, turning to Kelly's wife, Linda: "I still feel very bad and sad about the whole thing. I know Sean was the victim. Things can never be quite the same. When, in the future, Sean goes to control I will worry. It happened once before; who is to say it can never happen again?"

* * * * *

In Breaking The Chain, Willy Voet has some interesting things to say about working with Sean Kelly in the early eighties. Voet had been part of Jean de Gribaldy's set-up in the Sem squad de Gri built around Kelly: "It was with Sem-France-Loire that I gained my reputation as a soigneur. More precisely it was with Sean Kelly." The two had met in the ‘70s, when they both lived near Brussels, and Kelly would pay Voet a day-rate for his services.

Voet paints a complex picture of de Gri. Largely he suggests a directeur sportif who was not into doping. Whereas many cyclists coming into the season a little overweight would use amphetamines to lose excess poundage - out of competition testing didn't exist and the first in-competition test wouldn't happen before March - de Gri was old school and controlled his riders' diet, even down to hiding food and practically starving them. De Gri, Voet says, "went as far as preparing the bidons himself. It may have been the soigneurs' job to look after the riders' food, but you never know ... He would shut himself in his room and let no one in. I learned later that he was suspicious of everyone and was afraid of dodgy stuff being put in the bottles."

Pierre Ducrot was another soigneur on the Sem squad, having spent all his career with de Gri's teams. After le Vicomte's death in 1987 Ducrot found a home in Paul Köchli's Helvetia squad, looking after Gilles Delion. Köchli and Delion were famously anti-doping. Voet and Ducrot though were chalk and cheese: "Our approaches were completely different, to say the least, and we had more than a few arguments. He was preaching in the wilderness: he simply didn't want to hear about medicine, let alone drugs, but gave priority to diet and homeopathy. And Jean de Gribaldy had complete faith in him."

Voet tells a story about am unnamed rider from an unidentified team "who turned up at [an unspecified edition of] the Tour of Spain with just a single year behind him and very limited ambitions. There was no leader, just a few young guys who were going to have a go on a stage somewhere." As things worked out, the unnamed rider - many of the tales in Breaking The Chain concern unnamed riders from unidentified teams in unspecified races, for obvious reasons - took the leader's jersey in the final week of the race and went on to win. "Well it may seem hard to believe, but that rider never took a thing during this Tour of Spain. Nothing but stuff to help him recover. He was completely washed up by the finish, but he still won." You don't have to be Lew Archer to work out who Voet was talking about. I won't spoil your pleasure, all I'll say is he rode for de Gri. And he wasn't Irish.

But another tale Voet tells concerns a Tour de France where one of Kelly's team-mates did dope, just to survive the race and be there at the finish should Kelly need him. The suggestion seems to be that de Gri was a man with a foot in both camps. You have him willing to try and run a clean team but turning to doping when the need arose. You have a team with one squeaky clean soigneur and one with a very different approach to rider preparation. You have a story of one of de Gri's guys winning a Grand Tour clean and a story of one of his guys doping just to get to the finish of another Grand Tour. And you have de Gri, worried enough to look after preparing the bidons himself but surely not blind to what was in Voet's bag of tricks.

Maybe there's enough in those stories to show that Walsh had just cause to believe Kelly's claims of innocence in the Stimul affair. That there was reason enough to believe Kelly had learned a lesson from Maertens and Pollentier. Reason enough to believe that de Gri's boys rode clean. And reason enough to believe that Walsh's defence of Kelly was the right thing to do.

* * * * *

Two stories before I wrap this up. Voet talks about one edition of Paris-Brussels which showed how a rider could test positive without having taken the drug found in his sample and without someone interfering with his sample without his knowledge: "One rider fell ill ten days before the Paris-Brussels, a race that was made for him but which, strangely, he never managed to win. He had bronchitis and treated it with ephedrine for a week - it was great stuff to clear the tubes, but had the downside that it would show up at a drug test. He stopped the course three days before the race because he didn't want to run any risks, even though the controls weren't as well run as they are now.

"At the end of the race, he had to go for a drug test. There was nothing to worry about. We hid a flask of urine - kindly donated by a mechanic - in his shorts and the rider managed to dodge the control. A few days later, the rider had a letter from the international governing body telling him he had tested positive on Paris-Brussels. The drug? Stimul, which was based around amphetamines. He was stupefied. I carried out some discreet enquiries and the guilty man was quickly revealed. To stay awake at the wheel of the car, the mechanic had charged up a bit, but he had forgotten. The rider was disqualified and since then the mechanic has always been careful about donating anything."

The final story concerns Michel Pollentier and that infamous day on the Alpe. One version of the tale has it that the reason Pollentier tried to pass someone else's urine was that he was fearful that some ephedrine he'd used earlier in the race would still show up in his own urine. After his attempted deceit was discovered, he provided a proper sample. It passed the drug tests clean.

* * * * *

Two main sources for this one: David Walsh's Kelly: A Biography of Sean Kelly; and Willy Voet's Breaking The Chain, translated by William Fotheringham and originally ghost-written by Walsh's LA Confidentiel co-author, Pierre Ballester.