Title: The End Of The Road - The Festina Affair And the Tour That Almost Wrecked Cycling
Author: Alasdair Fotheringham
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport
Order: Bloomsbury UK | US
What it is: The story of the 1998 Tour de France, on and off the road
Strengths: Fotheringham's account of how the 1998 Tour was won by Marco Pantani and lost by Jan Ullrich has input from Telekom's Rolf Aldag and Mercatone Uno's Mario Traversoni
Weaknesses: If Fotheringham had quoted his brother William a few more times he might have merited co-author status
The chief model for every sports journalist ought be Homer: a poet who knew how to turn a fight between two bands of robbers over a slut into an immortal epic.
~ Benjo Masso, Sweat of the Gods
I was in Dublin that Saturday in July of 1998 when the Tour de France rolled off, stationed outside Hartigan's on Leeson Street, watching the riders pass as they completed the opening prologue of the eighty-fifth grande boucle, missing the odd one or three when I went off to get refills and maybe seeing one or two of them twice by the time the heavy-hitters came past. The 1998 Tour proved, for me, to be the easiest Tour I had by then tried to follow in the media, the Irish papers having gone large on it in advance, the British media - sporting and mainstream - diving in once everything started to look like it was going wrong, and the interweb's nascent cycling community offering a new way to follow the race. Afterwards, there were the usual cycling magazines to consume in an effort at autopsy, supplemented by books: the perennial Sam Abt, along with James Startt, served up In Pursuit of Yellow while Rachel Cugnoni's newly created Yellow Jersey Press continued to kick-start the UK bicycle book boom, following up the re-release of Paul Kimmage's A Rough Ride with the publication of Jeremy Whittle's Yellow Fever.
While the mainstream media quickly lost interest in the Festina affaire after the Tour had ended the internet excelled in providing coverage of its aftermath, Cycling News cementing its place as the pre-eminent site for, well, cycling news. Other books followed1, only one of them crossing the language barrier, in a lawyer-neutered fashion, Willy Voet's Breaking the Chain. In more recent years an increasing number of riders from that generation have published autobiographies and offered some comment on the 1998 Tour. In short, there is - and has been for a long time - a lot of information out there about the 1998 Tour. As we approach the race's twentieth anniversary, what has been sorely lacking is any critical perspective on the events of that summer, any attempt to see the events of the 1998 Tour in a wider context and analyse them properly.
Alasdair Fotheringham's The End of the Road is not the book to fill that void. Fotheringham offers up an account of the 1998 Tour that challenged nothing save my patience, the author not bothering to ask any real questions and just going with the tried and trusted argument:
"Drugs scandals like the one breaking at the start of the Tour de France were hardly new in cycling. But the intervention of the police, rather than the anti-doping authorities, the possible penal consequences for some of the protagonists, and above all the scale of the amount of doping products seized brought the Voet affair into a new, completely unknown dimension for the sport."
Let's examine that statement, as it is crucial to the portrait Fotheringham paints of the 1998 Tour. As Fotheringham notes, doping scandals at the Tour are not new. They've been coming around at least once a decade in the post-War Tours. Ten years before the Festina team brought the glare of bad publicity onto the race it was Pedro Delgado who was at the centre of a different affaire, his use of the IOC-banned but UCI-legal probenecid casting a shadow over events on the road in the final week of the 1988 Tour. A decade before that it was Michel Pollentier on l'Alpe d'Huez. Before that there was Tom Simpson's drug-assisted death in 1967. Which incident was preceded by the events on the Ventoux in 1955. Doping at the Tour, in 1998, it was most definitely not new.
So what was new? Fotheringham states that it was the intervention of the police that made a difference. But elsewhere in The End of the Road he is minded to recall incidents at other Tours involving the police, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s: in 1958 they seized amphetamines allegedly destined for Charly Gaul, in 1967 they searched the British team's hotel after Simpson's death. And, of course, there was their involvement in the Tour's first anti-doping searches, in 1966, which intervention encouraged the riders to down tools and go on strike, a pre-echo of events to come in 1998. Nor does Fotheringham totally ignore the Italian authorities' attempt to raid the Giro d'Italia in 1996 and their successful raid on the race the following year, both of which he is minded to mention many pages after stating that the involvement of the police helped push the scandal at the 1998 Tour into an unknown dimension.
The police involvement, then, for those who actually followed cycling, that was not new. It must therefore have been the "arsenal of illegal drugs" Voet was found in possession of after his "unprecedented arrest". Voet's own inventory of the drugs he was caught in possession of - in his Pierre Ballester-ghosted memoir Breaking the Chain - details "234 doses of EPO, 80 flasks of human growth hormone, 160 capsules of male hormone, testosterone and 60 pills called Asaflow, a product based on aspirin, which makes the blood more fluid." Even in 1998, there was nothing particularly shocking in that arsenal: testosterone was old school; HGH had been in use in the wider sporting world since the 1980s; and EPO had been being discussed by some cycling journalists for the thick end of a decade.
So it must have been the volume of drugs that Voet was carrying that kicked the story into a new dimension. A common enough belief - based on a claim made during the race by Festina doctor Eric Ryckaert's lawyer - is that Voet was carrying enough EPO to give all the teams in the Tour de France. But if you test that claim, if you actually look at the quantity of EPO Voet was carrying - 234 doses - could that be true? In Breaking the Chain Voet indicates that one dose of EPO was equivalent to 2,000 units (EPO typically comes in 2,000-unit phials). So Voet was carrying 468,000 units of EPO. Which sounds like enough to fuel an army, let alone a peloton. But when spread over nine riders in a three-week race that very big number becomes a quite manageable one: 2,000 units per rider per day2. Which - though at the higher end of expectations3 - is not a particularly shocking level of EPO usage, not in 1998 anyway: the Freiburg report quoted former Telekom soigneur Jef D'hont claiming that Bjarne Riis was on 4,000 units4 of EPO every other day during the 1996 Tour (a claim which Riis denies).
Was even the idea that Voet was carrying enough EPO to fuel the whole of the Festina team throughout the 1998 Tour shocking? To those who believe in the 'just in time' principle of inventory management - to that later, post-The Wire generation which enjoyed mid-Tour Deliveroo-like re-upping services - it might raise an eyebrow, but shock? Only of the Captain Renault variety. To those who did not realise that doping was as widespread as it was, though, to those who did not realise that there were team-wide doping programmes, to those who did not realise that doping was not down to the usual one or two rotten apples in the peloton it was normally credited to, well of course, to them it was shocking. To understand those people, we need a history lesson.
In 1997 the UCI had introduced the 50% limit hematocrit test, a health check that was seen as the only way of combating the widespread abuse of EPO, a drug banned by the IOC in 1990 and the UCI in 1991 but for which there was no test. In November of 1996 the riders themselves - most vocally Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Maurizio Fondriest and Marco Pantani - had called on the UCI to introduce such a blood test. They were echoing a group comprising Daniel Baal (president of the French cycling federation), Roger Legeay (head of the teams' union, the AIGCP), and Jean-Marie Leblanc (director of the Tour de France) - collectively the three most powerful men in French cycling - who the previous month had called for the introduction of the blood test. And they had been preceded, in June 1996, by Francesco Conconi, head of the Centre for Biomedical Studies Applied to Sport at the University of Ferrara and the man who had been charged by the IOC with developing a test for EPO, who made the same request of the UCI.
The urgency with which those calls had been made was a consequence of several factors. EPO was believed to be a dangerous drug and, since the start of the 1990s, bodies were believed to be piling up on mortuary slabs, even if no autopsy had yet declared EPO to have been a cause, or even a contributory factor, in what appeared to be a cluster of cardiac-related fatalities among cyclists young and old5. In 1994 Michelle Ferrari - then an employee of the Gewiss - Ballan team which had just completed a podium lockout at the Flèche Wallonne - had sought to dismiss this notion, claiming to journalists that EPO was no more dangerous than orange juice. Having worked under Francesco Conconi as a part of Francesco Moser's entourage in 1984 when the Italian veteran twice cracked the Hour record in the space of five days and having himself helped mastermind Tony Rominger's two successful attempts on the Hour record in 1994, Ferrari had built something of a reputation for knowing about such things.
Dangerous or not, the judicial authorities in Italy were beginning to show an interest in the use of EPO by elite cyclists. In 1996 Italy's Nucleo antisofisticazione (NAS), the branch of the Carabinieri dealing with health and hygiene matters, had planned on searching team vehicles at the Giro d'Italia, a plan scuppered after Giro organiser La Gazzetta dello Sport made it a news story. Stymied in 1996 NAS were more successful in 1997, raiding the hotel of the Maglificio MG - Technogym squad ahead of the Giro's nineteenth stage and arresting team boss Giancarlo Ferretti.
And then there was the media. Over the winter of 1996/1997 both L'Équipe in France and La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy had run major exposés on doping in cycling. La Gazzetta's articles revealed the existence of a suppressed report about drug abuse in Italian cycling produced by the respected anti-doping campaigner Sandro Donati in 1994 for CONI, the Italian Olympic committee responsible for anti-doping. "The abuse has spiralled out of control," wrote Donati, "in some of the races, they are now climbing hills at speeds they used to reach on the flat! And why? Because the majority are pumped to the gills with shit like EPO, HGH and testosterone. For the good of sport, it is imperative we act immediately to stamp this out." L'Équipe's articles focused on personal stories, with riders like Giles Delion, Graeme Obree and Nicolas Auber discussing the difficulties of riding clean in a dirty peloton, making it clear that doping was institutionalised at a team level.
So in July of 1998, for someone to look at the volume of drugs Willy Voet was caught in possession of and be shocked at the notion that he had enough to fuel a whole team? That, to my mind, merits questioning. Instead, here's Fotheringham interviewing Frankie Andreu:
"'We were a small team, trying to get through and hunting for stage wins,' Andreu recalls. 'But once that Festina thing happened the stress level was immense - and the shock, too. EPO was around and everybody kind of knew that other people were taking this product and stuff like that. But the thing that shocked people was the amount of crap that this guy Willy Voet got caught with. It was unbelievable. Holy cow, this was a whole 'nother ball game.'"
What did La Gazzetta and L'Équipe know about these things, eh?
* * * * *
That The End of the Road fails to treat the 1998 Tour the way I think it needs to be treated is not my real complaint with what Fotheringham has done here. My real complaint is that even he doesn't seem to believe in what he has done here, on one page making grandiose statements that elevate the race to exalted status only to slowly walk those claims back and show the scandal closer to its true scale (at one point in the book Fotheringham seems to forget his thesis that the Festina affaire was the biggest in the whole history of the ever ever and calls it just the biggest in decades). And, while Fotheringham deals with the 1998 Tour on a chronological basis, the important pre-1998 history - the stuff that helps you see that the 1998 revelations were not nearly as much of a shock as they were portrayed at the time and have been portrayed since - is tossed in willy-nilly. Tempting me to say of the book that, like Eric Morecambe's attempt to play Grieg's Piano Concerto, it has all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
That, though, is a degree of generosity I am not minded to offer this discordant mess of a book, on account of a bigger issue. The End of the Road highlights, for me anyway, a particular problem in that part of the British publishing industry dedicated to producing cycling books: it desperately needs an editor willing to actually read the book. That might have helped save Fotheringham from referring to the 1999 Vuelta a España when he meant 1998, from saying on one page that blood doping was banned in 1985 and another in 1986, from having Felice Gimondi win the Tour in 1965 on one page and 1966 on another, from a host of other silly little mistakes that time and resources should have been available to save him from.
As well as needing thoughtful editing, The End of the Road appears to suffer from not having been read by anyone with knowledge of the subject. Maybe Fotheringham can be forgiven for repeating the myth that Urs Zimmerman had a fear of flying6. But for stating - in one of his amazingly few references to it - that the French Senate Report "revealed" Marco Pantani's "possible use" of EPO? For stating that when Casino's Rodolfo Massi exited the Tour in a Black Maria he was, as the then wearer of the polka-dot jersey, "the first leader of a classification in the Tour de France to disappear from the running"? Charitably, you can allow for Chris Boardman's exit in yellow to be overlooked here7 but not the exit of Festina's Pascal Hervé, who was wearing the maillot à pois when he and the rest of his team-mates were expelled from the race. Or how should one treat Fotheringham's claim that in 1924 (though he says 1926), when Albert Londres (here Artur) published his legendary interview with Henri and Francis Pélissier and team-mate Maurice Ville (said trio here becoming Henri and Charles Pelissier), Le Petit Parisien's readers greeted the story "with total equanimity"? That's a claim which is arrant nonsense. But serves the cause of letting the 1998 affaire eclipse all other scandals in the Tour's history.
Rescuing The End of the Road from simply being a poor rehash of the books that appeared immediately after the 1998 Tour and the various books that have followed since is that Fotheringham has done some proper leg work, interviewing various people in order to get their take on what happened in 1998, most notably Rolf Aldag, Bobby Julich, Mario Traversoni, Manolo Saiz and Jean-Marie Leblanc. Aldag and Traversoni very much deal with the on-the-bike action, the one on how Telekom lost the race, the other on how Pantani won it. Julich, he offers up a pleasant anecdote about Dag-Otto Lauritzen. Saiz and Leblanc? They offer a pair of self-serving interviews free of critical questioning. Saiz claims ONCE was clean, without having to explain Alex Zülle admitting he had doped there. Leblanc, he paints himself as an anti-doping crusader, forged in the crucible of the Delgado affaire, but doesn't have to explain away the story Pierre Ballester tells of him trying to ban mention of doping in L'Équipe in 1999 and after.
In among their self-serving twaddle, though, there are some gems. Saiz reveals an event early in 1998 that suggests the French judicial authorities were already copying their Italian counterparts even before they stopped Voet's car in July (and even before they stopped TVM's truck in March). And Leblanc actually sees Festina for what it was: a media led and media fed scandal.
"Leblanc felt that once the crisis blew open, excessive attention was paid by the media to the Tour's ills, overshadowing other doping problems in sport. 'At the time the disappointment of the journalists and their outrage about doping was concentrated on the Tour de France, it's like that saying on ne prête qu'aux riche [only the rich get lent money], because we were the number one race, so all the attacks, all the criticism, at the hands of the press, was unloaded on to us.'"
Acknowledging that Leblanc has a point in his comment about the media should not be seen as agreeing with him fully. He thinks the media were disappointed. Were they disappointed in 1924, in 1955, in 1967, in 1978, in 1988? Is disappointment really a fair explanation of how the media in 1998 turned the arrest of a soigneur into an epic of Homeric proportions? Of course it isn't. What is, then? Sadly, you'll not find that question answered by Fotheringham.
Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
~ Patrick Kavanagh, Epic
* * * * *
1 Most notably Wily Voet's Massacre à la chaîne, Philip Gaumont's Prisonnier du dopage, Erwann Menthéour's Secret défonce, Bruno Roussel's Tour de vice, and Richard Virenque's Ma vérité.
2 234 doses multiplied by 2,000 units divided among nine riders and across 26 days (21 stages of the race, plus the prologue, plus the rest day, plus three days before the race commenced)
3 Fotheringham quotes Jörg Jaksche telling him that "every day 1,000 units" had been his experience with the drug.
4 EPO is typically prescribed as X-units of the drug per kilogram of body weight, with X varying depending on why the drug is being prescribed and who's writing the prescription. In one EPO study - Michel Audran's 1999 paper Effects of erythropoietin administration in training athletes and possible indirect detection in doping control - subjects were dosed with 50 units per kilogram over 26 days.
5 On the subject of the dead bodies on mortuary slabs, Benat López's The Invention of a ‘Drug of Mass Destruction': Deconstructing the EPO Myth is a worthwhile read.
6 A long-standing myth, but one debunked by Zimmerman himself in Richard Moore's Étape
7 Succumbing to the Curse of the Yellow Jersey, Boardman crashed during the race's second stage (the first Monday) and exited the Tour in an ambulance, an event Fotheringham gives an inordinate amount of space to, along with Boardman's prologue victory and the state of the Wirral-man's marriage.