History is potentially in the offing at the Tour de France as Chris Froome, Giro in his legs notwithstanding, aims for a fifth career Tour victory. That would put him in an elite group of riders including only Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault... and Miguel Indurain.
Haha, yeah, Indurain, we all say with a wan, knowing smile. The 6’2” 180-pound rider who rode six Tours de France with no great distinction and then ripped off five consecutive wins, coinciding with the popularly perceived date when EPO took over the sport. The Indurain who worked with Dr. Francesco Conconi, though only for “tests,” like to see how many pushups he could do in a row. The Indurain who quietly slipped away from the sport in the hopes of never facing any questions about his career again.
I have always taken as gospel the words of Greg LeMond who claims he lost the 1991 Tour when a number of riders showed up suddenly much faster than him (and Fignon), despite no real change in his own physiology (or Fignon’s). Suddenly the world’s two strongest riders were ceding gobs of time to guys they were accustomed to beating. LeMond believes that’s when EPO gained a quorum in the sport.
Subsequently revealed evidence suggests he was more or less correct. We know of a few early deaths of young athletes in cycling, those of Johannes Draaijer, Bert Oosterbosch and Joachim Halupczok, who died between 1989 and 1994, presumed to be from EPO-related heart failure. [Draaijer’s wife has confirmed his EPO use. Willy Voet confirmed Oosterbosch’s and suggested the same for Halupczok.] We have post-career confessions from Jesper Skibby and Steven Rooks pinning EPO use to that same period. We have Stephen Roche confirmed to have taken it in 1993. And plenty more.
So to recap, Indurain won in 1991 when LeMond noted a change in the sport, and we think maybe EPO was to blame. He won again in 1992 under equally suspicious circumstances. And again in 93, 94 and 95 when we know for sure that EPO was being used rampantly in cycling. We know he worked with the very doctor who introduced it to the sport, and whose protege Michele Ferrari became EPO’s biggest champion. We know that most of the riders who joined him on the podium were busted for EPO, riders like Rominger, Zulle, Pantani, and Riis. We know all this, and yet we should suspend our disbelief for a large-bodied veteran cyclist whose early career looked at best intriguing, particularly in time trials, before he ripped off an unparalleled five Tour wins.
Why should we do this? Because he was polite?
I am done pretending Miguel Indurain won those Tours cleanly. All the evidence says that was not possible, and enough evidence suggests he himself had access to other ways. Now, don’t hear what I didn’t say: take the doping out of cycling and we would definitely know the name of Indurain. Despite his size, he was a brilliant tactician, handler, and (not-s0-despite it) powerful time triallist. He might have even won a Tour de France, if his non-doped competition lacked the quality to kill off his chances in the mountains. He ascended to the top at a time of weak competition (as far as we can tell, certainly weaker than the Golden Era of the 80s). He had the mentality of a champion, sort of a taller, heavier Nibali or Cadel Evans — both one-time Tour champs. He was probably a great cyclist. Almost certainly. But he cannot claim to be a legitimate member of the Five Tours Club.
And I think action is needed. If you look at the list of Tour champions, it shows Indurain, then Riis, then Ullrich, then Pantani, then nobody until 2006 when Landis is listed in strikethrough and replaced by Oscar Pereiro. Only Lance Armstrong’s seven wins are crossed out and no winner is listed. This is actually unfair to Lance. Yes, leave it to cycling to bungle things so badly that in hindsight, they appear unfair to a guy like Lance. But hang with me here.
Why were his transgressions worse than everyone else I named in the previous paragraph? Because he was an asshole? Because he was more aggressive and less apologetic in his doping? Sorry but the crime is doping. Whether you were a nice guy or a jerk, whether you did it well or haphazardly, whether you were enthusiastic or reluctant, whether you used it to win or finish second, the crime is doping. Doing it safely or expensively or systematically is not more of a crime. Being mean to Christophe Bassons or Filippo Simeoni is not a crime. Disappointing your fans from the cancer community is not a crime (though perhaps it should be). The crime is doping, or conspiracy to dope or fraud or whatever but it’s about doping. It’s a binary thing, you did it or you didn’t. Lance doped in his Tour-winning years. So, says the evidence, did all the other winners from 1991-2006.
Riis confessed and was stricken from the rolls... briefly, before being unstricken. Why, because he’s less of an asshole? [By how much is apparently debatable.] The rest of the names remain, as if there is nothing to be concerned about. It’s insulting enough to have the one-time winners listed there with no further conversation. But with Indurain, occupying the magical five-time winner’s space, it simply can’t stand. Not anymore. Maybe I am making too much of this, but the five-time winners’ club comes with special responsibilities, and his are about to kick in.
If he were reading this (there is a zero percent chance he will read this) I would say to him this...
Miguel, it’s time to talk about whether you won the Tour de France with the assistance of doping. If you are living a lie from those years, it’s time for the lying to stop.
The sport can’t confess half its sins and carry on. The sport can’t punish those who confess and reward those who stay silent, hidden behind the omertà. We need to know. Maybe not about Pereiro or less so about late Pantani, whose history is pretty clear. Even the all-but-confessed Ullrich — although honestly I prefer if we did. But in your case it’s clear, we really need to know about you. Your place in the sport is too prominent. It’s time for the lying to stop.
You are said to be famously quiet and averse to attention. Speaking out is not your way. Well, that’s your penance then, to do what makes you uncomfortable and say what there is to say. If you can lay out a clear case as to why we should believe you raced clean, I will give it an audience. And if you can’t, well, it will hurt, but by all accounts it will unburden you as well. Not to sound like a parent, but really, it’s for your own good.
Why now? Because we are (maybe) about to welcome another member to your club. Your name is about to be mentioned with the other five-time Tour champions. Your role in that club will be invoked, either next month or a year from now, I am fairly sure. Now is the time. If you wait any longer, then your place in the sport will mean less and less. The lying will never stop diminishing you until you make it stop.
I am for rehabilitating the 1990s dopers. I’ve said it many times. Everyone was doing it, all the riders, all the teams, and most importantly, the UCI, whose structure was set up to not only not enforce the rules but to drive everyone into the arms of the EPO doctors. I’m not saying that made it right; I’m saying only that I understand, that no one rider or small set of well-known riders should bear all the blame for an era that was corrupt from top to bottom. I bet you would have been a top cyclist who enjoyed a memorable career without doping, and I’m sorry we won’t ever really know.
Come clean, now. For cycling, for the fans, and for yourself.