Forgive me if I am being a bit nostalgic — maybe it’s just my age. Or maybe it’s what I do best now. Probably it has something to do with a slew of cycling media, actual and rumored, taking us back in time to the... if not good old days, certainly some very charismatic ones. Those late-20th Century days.
I launched myself back into the Jan Ullrich story last month, which is my own choosing/fault, although in part because we have been promised a new documentary which will finally clear up his mysterious story, though of course that seems to have disappeared once again. Oh, and over the past weekend my wife and I went to see The Last Rider, a spectacular replay of the 1989 Tour de France and the ... well, more on that in a minute. I did feel some pangs of annoyance coming out of there and into this year’s Tour, which started in the Basque Country and briefly included an appearance by Miguel Indurain, whose exploits are still celebrated as if there was nothing going on behind the scenes in cycling until after he left.
But mostly I feel prompted by anniversaries, and 25 years ago we watched one of the craziest Tours de France ever, loaded with the very best and absolute worst kind of (non-crash-related) drama imaginable. It was a charisma clash of the titans, and to this day the spectre of doping only partially peels back the emotion this race generated in Italy (and maybe parts of Germany too). The role of doping, however, dominated the events day-to-day, as the world was forced to really look at the influence of performance-enhancing substances for the first time, and the riders had to face the resulting backlash from within and without, for the first time as well.
Three things happened coming into the 1998 Tour de France that shook the sport in a major way. One was the rapid rise of Jan Ullrich, who had graduated a year earlier from super-talented understudy to Bjarne Riis to dominant maillot jaune, poised to rewrite the record books. The next major event was the crystalizing of Marco Pantani’s career as a grand tour rider. Prior to 1998, he had two third place finishes at the Tour (including the previous edition) and was runner-up in the 1994 Giro d’Italia, but then suffered a pair of training accidents, the second one which wiped out almost all of his 1996 season and threatened to derail his promising career entirely. His rebound at the ‘97 Tour reawakened the excitement, which then went through the roof as he won the 1998 Giro, reversing a four-minute deficit with a swashbuckling attacking style on the Marmolada and subsequent days to throw Italy into a complete frenzy, six weeks before the Tour.
The third and most destabilizing event setting the scene for the 1998 Tour was the arrest of Cofidis soigneur Willy Voet on his way to the Tour’s start in Dublin. He was nabbed at the border of Belgium and France with a veritable pharmacy in his car. This was actually the second such revelation after a TVM team vehicle was seized in Reims three months earlier. French police shifted their anti-doping activities into high gear after Voet’s arrest on July 8, raiding the Cofidis HQ the next day while the riders warmed up for the start of the race in Dublin two days later, July 11.
The Festina Affair, as it came to be known, was unavoidable for even those fans who didn’t care about doping, because it put a huge dent into the high hopes of Richard Virenque, runner-up in 1997, and his French supporters who were otherwise staring down the barrel at either a German or Italian favorite for yellow in ‘98 — two pretty bitter pills to swallow. So, to recap, we had a very charismatic, intriguing GC battle shaping up... under not so much a cloud of suspicion but a series of increasingly deafening thunderclaps.
This is why I think it’s worth looking back at 1998. I don’t love rubbernecking at doping disasters, but even though doping makes you wonder if you should care at all, well, we sure did have some Shakespearian-level drama. Rather than a complete blow-by-blow retelling of the 1998 Tour, here are the main points.
- Police kept raiding potential dopers — over the course of the Tour they stopped all the cars coming back from Ireland, they raided the TVM and Casino-AG2R team hotel rooms, and they held numerous riders and staff from Cofidis and TVM for intense questioning. Cofidis were the first team to capitulate and leave the race en masse, but they were followed by TVM, ONCE, Banesto (Indurain’s old team), Kelme, Vitalico Seguros, and Riso Scotti. Journalists were dumpster diving for doping evidence. Riders began to feel besieged on all sides, and on both stages 12 and 17 they sat in the road, refusing to race, to protest their treatment. It sounds ugly now, but in context, let’s just say that years of winks and nods didn’t prepare them for this sudden wave of accountability demands. It seemed at one point like the Tour might not make it to Paris.
- One last thing about the doping is the sudden appearance of new tests, which the riders were unhappy about. Well, they weren’t great tests apparently, because none of them turned up positive, but the riders were right to be scared. In 2004, new tests were used to retroactively analyze samples from 1998 and they were nearly all positive for recombinant EPO, with Pantani, Ullrich, Erik Zabel, Mario Cipollini and Abraham Olano among the guilty.
- The racing part started as expected with Ullrich crushing the stage 7 time trial and ascending into yellow, 4+ minutes up on Pantani, then giving the jersey away, then retaking it in the Pyrénées, seemingly for good, though Pantani nabbed a stage to emerge from the first mountain phase a manageable three minutes back.
- Then the hot weather which Ullrich loved so much turned cold, and on a four-col ride to Les Deux Alpes, Pantani soared away from everyone on the Galibier, regrouped with a few climbers (not including the maillot jaune) on the descent, then rode into pure legend — on several levels — on the final climb, leaving Ullrich nearly nine minutes back after an ill-timed puncture, and now six minutes down on GC. The next day, Ullrich tried to turn the tables on another Alps stage to Albertville, but Pantani hung with him and the pair decimated the competition with the German taking the stage and the Italian consolidating his overall lead. By Paris, Ullrich had won another time trial and vaulted back into second place, still more than three minutes back, to be sure, but Pantani’s triumph came with at least one (non-doping) footnote: one bad day aside, Der Jan was still a force to be reckoned with.
There has never been another Tour like this in the modern era. Political (small-p) squabbles have arisen on occasion, but this time it wasn’t angry farmers or rider solidarity against bad conditions — it was an all-out battle for the soul of the sport, with the riders and teams and UCI on one side, and the Tour de France, probably 90% of the French public, some large contingent of French police, and the mostly-horrified international fan base on the other. The battles raged on and off the bike, and while fights for yellow have taken all sorts of twists and turns, this one came with the main characters all hopelessly intertwined with the off-bike madness. We were literally talking about whether the sport was about to disappear.
Last Saturday my partner Stacey and I went to a small, quirky movie theater over by the University of Washington where you can sit in comfy seats, in screening rooms as small as 30-person capacity, and sip on elaborate cocktails with vodka-infused non-dairy whipped toppings. Showing was The Last Rider, a documentary on Greg LeMond’s victory over Laurent Fignon in the 1989 Tour de France, which I wanted to see ASAP for several reasons. First, I suspected it wasn’t going to draw enough eyeballs to stay on the big screen for long, and sure enough we sat in the tiny screening room with two other people on a Saturday evening that coincided with the Grand Depart of the 2023 Tour. As of this writing it looks like it lasted four more days of mid-afternoon screenings on the other side of Puget Sound, and then was gone from theaters.
The movie ticks off the details of LeMond’s incredible comeback story chronologically, leading up to the ‘89 Tour, updated from the last version of the story (which has passed through several books but no films) to include the role of LeMond’s struggles from having been sexually abused as a teenager by a family friend. It’s otherwise re-plowing old turf for LeMond fans until they start in on 1989, from which point the story of the Tour is told by LeMond, his wife Kathy, of course. Plus Pedro Delgado, the defending champion who lost the Tour in the first week by showing up 2:30 too late for his prologue start, then went into a shame spiral that saw him fall even further behind before turning back into the championship-level rider we all expected him to be that summer. And Cyrille Guimard, speaking for the late Fignon, who died of cancer in 2010, though he was LeMond’s DS for a while too and knew the race inside and out.
If you’ve heard it all before, then it’s Delgado whose perspective makes it all the more interesting. Not only because his story deserves to not get lost in the shuffle of events, but because he has a neutral perspective on what LeMond and Fignon were up to. He’s also a polished media personality and a likeable guy, a nice balance between the affable but very emotionally-driven (aka biased) LeMond and the absent, dearly departed Fignon whose presence is largely video of his prickly jousts with the media. The stories and footage are all pulsating with drama like no sporting event before or since... as you already knew.
If I feel differently about the story at all, it’s that maybe I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent of the pain Fignon was experiencing as a result of saddle sores and/or swollen testicles. It sounded frightful and Guimard reveals that there was talk of him not starting the final stage. It upends the narrative of LeMond’s heroism and aero bars and anything else you want to ascribe the final eight-second difference to — though of course all of those things were real, LeMond did ride heroically, even if a healthy Fignon probably finds a smoother rhythm and only loses half his 50-second lead rather than all of it and more. But that’s cycling.
After the movie Stacey and I went out to eat and talked about how amazing the story was, as well as how stunningly similar it was to the Armstrong comeback... up to a point. The only two American champions of the Tour (asterisk asterisk), precocious world champions who then found themselves on death’s door and really should not have survived their respective ordeals — LeMond’s shotgun wound and Armstrong’s cancer. They each struggled to resume their careers only to win the Tour de France on their first try after returning to health. The races themselves were incredible stories of overcoming uncertain fitness, but even more incredible lifetime achievements.
And then they diverge, rather jarringly. LeMond’s story is truncated by the very doping culture that Armstrong mastered en route to his version of redemption. After a while their stories didn’t just stop paralleling each others but became set against each other in an existential flame war, LeMond calling out Armstrong’s suspicious activities and Armstrong setting out to destroy LeMond’s life, business interests and so on. Two stories borne of incredible human will, one ascending to the heights of human decency and the other bound straight for the ultimate depths. It’s like a chapter of the Bible. And I’m talking Old Testament/Torah level. As I write and think about this for the umpteenth time, I still can’t believe it all happened.
Without the 1998 Tour, the story remains incomplete. That was the race where the warning alarms started ringing, when taking some action toward change became a notion, when the long march back to respectability took its initial, tentative steps. The Armstrong Era was a false redemption story, a desperate grab for an easy solution whose utter failure told everyone to stop looking for easy solutions. If 1998 brought the problems out into the open, 1999 and beyond showed how deep they ran and how pernicious they were.
Now? I won’t ask anyone to stake their reputation on declaring the doping era totally over now, absent some deep insider knowledge that I doubt any of us possesses. But I do think that doping has receded into the shadows and has either shrunk down to the size of a small blemish on the face of the sport, or has shifted in nature to something we know nothing about. I do think we have come full circle back to the glory days of my early cycling fandom, the 1980s, albeit as a sport looks and feels different, more calculating and less biblical. It’s fun to contrast this time with those days, as estranged as these generations of cyclists may be to each other ... provided we can skip over the 90s and Aughts for the most part.
So, to me, I feel like I can believe in Cycling again, like I did in 1989, because of that 1998 Tour de France a quarter-century ago, when we all collectively took that first step toward asking, finally, what are we doing? A lot of people played big roles in turning the sport around, but on this dark anniversary we must recognize the French public and the French police and the Tour de France all remembering cycling in its highest form and having that extra certainty and determination that the sport needed saving. Not to diminish the other people sounding the alarms, but the Tour has long been the sport’s backbone, and the people who knew that best became the backbone of the anti-doping movement. That car stop on the Belgian border 25 years ago was just what we needed.