When the 105th edition of the Tour de France starts Saturday, departing from Noirmoutier-en-l’Île on its twenty-one-day, two-thousand-mile route around the country, for the first time in seven years I will not be physically following the race. I’m recovering from a broken hip, and a finish-line press scrum full of sharp-elbowed journalists and 200-pound cameramen is no place for a man on crutches. But my absence this year has left me with time to reflect on the job of reporting on a sport in which the truth always seems to be in flux.
At the 2013 Tour, I was at the summit of the savage climb of Mont Ventoux, on a baking hot day, trying to shelter from the sun under a small gazebo in the press area along with about twenty other reporters. There was a small TV set cable-tied to one of the gazebo’s uprights, and we were watching the race on it as the riders made the ascent toward us.
Chris Froome, riding for the British-based Team Sky, accelerated away from his main rival, Alberto Contador. Contador was a two-time Tour de France winner, but he could not match Froome’s speed. It was the dramatic, decisive moment of the race, which Froome would go on to win.
“Bullshit,” said a US reporter behind me. “Fantastic,” said an Australian. “Wonderful racer,” said another American writer. “Doping bastard,” said someone else. “Unbelievable,” said my own, British colleague. In cycling-speak, “unbelievable” can be the compliment it sounds like, or it can suggest, more literally, that what’s happening should not be taken at face value.
We could see the last kilometer of the race with the naked eye. Froome, on his own, stormed up the steep road toward his first overall Tour win; Contador, a beaten champion, labored behind. It was… well, what exactly? As a cycling fan, you use epic performances to judge greatness. You also use them to judge honesty.
I had to write a report as soon as the riders crossed the line, but beyond a bald description of the finishing order and the time gaps, I had no idea what I’d just seen. Had it been the coming of a new champion, or the arrival of a new scandal? Was Contador—a rider whose past doping conviction had caused him to forfeit one of his Tour victories—a villain or a victim? Was Froome, whose rise to stardom had been so swift that even I had beaten him in a race just three years earlier, a new hope or a new problem?
The piece I produced, when I go back to read it now, is weirdly devoid of context. It is isolated from the events it’s supposedly reporting; if you didn’t already know the significance of a new Tour de France champion announcing himself, you’d never have worked it out from anything I had to say. When Prince George was born, five years ago, the satirical magazine Private Eye headlined the news as “Woman Has Baby.” That’s how my account of Froome’s Ventoux win reads now.
In cycling, the problem of understanding what you’re watching, of knowing if what you’re seeing is for real, is about more than simply the secrets you know you don’t know. Even if we knew whether riders were doping, which riders they were, and what they were doping with, we still wouldn’t be able to reach a consensus. Some fans simply accept that cycling has always had doping and cheating. They see it as part of the sport’s texture and its history, crystallized in the sentence “They’re all at it.” For others, the rules matter very much. They want riders to stick to the letter of the law. And for some, even that’s not enough: they want athletes to abide by a set of ethics—though these remain only vaguely defined, even as the clamor for their restrictive application increases.
Take the so-called therapeutic use exemption (TUE) system, for example. This allows a doctor to prescribe a drug that would normally be banned, as long as there is a genuine medical need for it. When Sir Bradley Wiggins, the Tour winner in 2012, was revealed to have used a normally-prohibited asthma drug with the approval of the relevant authorities, it was still a scandal. Suspicions were aroused by the timing of the prescriptions, which were always made just before major events. The drug was one that had been abused illegally by riders in the past as an aid to weight loss. Though he was technically within the rules, some observers still see Wiggins’s prescription as cheating. Yet, in the same moment, it’s easy enough to find cyclists willing to defend Lance Armstrong, who admitted to an elaborate system of doping for all of his Tour de France victories—on the basis that, in a dirty era, he was still the best of the dirty.
Now, all the arguments and uncertainty have been amplified by social media. A sport that for decades had evasion and conspiracy knitted into its DNA is perfectly attuned to all the batshit elements of Twitter and Facebook. To arouse suspicion, a rider need do no more than win something significant, or show a notable improvement in form. Equally, losing a race or showing a decline in form will be taken as evidence that a rider used to dope but has now stopped. Not only can you not win, you’d be well advised not to, even if you could.
Most significantly of all, evidence changes nothing, as this season’s main saga shows. Chris Froome has now won four Tours de France. He has been under deep suspicion from many since that day on the Ventoux, based on the performance, the man he beat, his improvement over the past few seasons, and that he shared a team with Wiggins. Yet he had never returned a positive sample, nor been linked to doping by any independent investigation.
Then, last summer, during a race he won, he gave a urine sample that showed an excessive quantity of Salbutamol, another asthma drug. It’s one that is permitted, but only up to a certain dosage. The rules gave Froome the possibility of avoiding a doping offense by showing that the test didn’t accurately reflect the dose of the drug he had used, an option he chose to take up. Nine months of legal argument and contradictory rumors followed. There were trenchant criticisms of Froome from other riders (one of his Tour rivals, the Frenchman Romain Bardet, said he would be “ashamed” to be linked to such a case), and attempts to prevent him racing while a decision was pending. The official verdict finally came earlier this week. After hearing evidence from Froome’s team, the authorities dropped the case entirely. They apparently accepted that their test was flawed and could give false positives, a judgment that may have major repercussions for the current dope-testing regime.
Though the case is now closed, none of the ups and downs in the saga seemed to change anyone’s mind about anything. This week, my Twitter feed is full of people demanding that Froome be banned from the Tour anyway, just as his fans had protested all winter the injustice of investigating an innocent man. Others advance dark conspiracy theories that the race organizers are trying to stoke up such anger that Froome is attacked by vigilante spectators, leaving the way clear for a French rider to win.
There are regular demands for more openness in cycling, for teams to release performance data that will “prove” the riders are clean. Occasionally, teams actually try this. Froome’s team released such data about his recent win in the Giro d’Italia: power outputs, heart rates, nutrition. More information does not help. Facts are powerless in the face of a complete breakdown in trust—and that’s assuming you believed the facts weren’t fabricated in the first place.
For cycling fans, the arguments are not external distractions from a pure sport; rather, they are part of the drama. At the Giro in May, Chris Froome raced and won while the asthma drug case was still pending, a possible ban and disqualification hanging over his performance. I referred to it as Schrödinger’s bike-race, and I didn’t have to explain what I meant to anyone. When he won the race with a sudden return to top form in the last few days of the race, it only increased the intensity of the debate. It was like Mont Ventoux all over again.
I will miss being at the Tour this year. Following the race is hectic, there are hours spent in a car, the press rooms are hot and stuffy, and France, surprisingly perhaps, has the worst coffee in Europe. But being at the center of the race has magic to it. You can stand inside the security cordon at the finish, right on the road itself, to watch the riders come in. With the authority granted by a press pass and a notepad, you can ask riders who are still gasping for air what it was really like out on the road. Though, as I found out a long time ago, being there doesn’t guarantee any certainty about what you just saw.