Still strung out

Doping scandals continue to tarnish the glory of cycling's top event - the Tour de France. A book by

Bad Blood: the Secret Life of the Tour de France
Jeremy Whittle
Yellow Jersey Press, 288pp, £12.99

Ten years ago, the Tour de France was about to start when the stunning news broke: the car of the Festina team, driven by Willy Voet, the Festina soigneur, or masseur-cum-minder (and, occasionally, masseur-cum-dealer), had been stopped at the French-Belgian border for a casual spot check. In Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, the customs official at Le Bourget airport who examines William Boot's vast array of humidor, mistletoe holder and cleft sticks enjoys "one of those rare occasions when the humdrum life of the douanier is exalted". It must have seemed like that on the July day in 1998 when the border officials found a veritable mobile pharmacy in that car, with every known performance-enhancing drug from old-hat growth hormone to the tout ce qu'il y a de chic EPO. And so, Jeremy Whittle says, "the house of cards finally collapsed and the full extent of cycling's doping culture was laid bare".

No wonder this is a manic-depressive sport. Cycling obsesses those who follow it - of whom there are far more than British newspaper sports editors seem to be aware - and its traditions are ostensibly heroic. In his essay "Le Tour de France comme épopée", Roland Barthes celebrated this mythic quality "of courage, loyalty, treachery or stoicism". Barthes's rhapsodic language about landscapes where "man is naturalised and nature is humanised" and where the riders are at grips "with a real question of existence" might puzzle the average reader of Cycling Weekly, but he wasn't so wrong.

On the other hand, no sport has been more stained, above all by doping. As he relates in Bad Blood, Whittle learned this the hard way. He describes how his own absorption grew and he made cycling journalism his career: he used to edit Procycling magazine and now writes for the Times. And yet, when he covered his first Tour de France in 1994, he still innocently believed that the Tour "was built on decent old-fashioned values - in everything I had read, the chivalry, self-sacrifice and honour of the sport shone through". He had yet to realise the extent of the doping culture.

After mere alcohol before 1914, cocaine had been the riders' drug of choice between the wars, and then amphetamines. It was an overdose of la bomba, as Italian cyclists said, that killed poor Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967. But amphetamines were neither as dangerous nor as tempting as what came next: steroids, corticoids and erythropoietin, or EPO. This was a change of kind rather than degree. Unlike coke and uppers, these performance boosters are "natural", in the sense that we all have steroids in our bodies, and the drugs of that name are synthetic versions of healthy metabolic products.

Likewise, EPO artificially reproduces the hormone that encourages red blood cells, which is why, more even than growth steroids, EPO really does enhance performance. And yet, because it makes the blood thicker and harder to circulate, it is literally lethal. Its advent can be dated to the late 1980s, when there was a mysterious rash of deaths from nocturnal heart attacks, first among Scandinavian orienteering enthusiasts, then Dutch and Belgian cyclists. Even so, it works if you survive, and by about 15 years ago, many of the Tour field were certainly using it.

One rider who was absent in the year of the Festina "Tour de Farce" still looms very large over Bad Blood. In 1993 Whittle had shattered his knee in Battersea Park playing in "my usual position just in front of 'Big Dave' Milliband" (sic: there's only one "", and it is tempting to say that anyone who played park football with new Labour apparatchiks had it coming). He was thus hobbling when, as a novice journalist, he went to conduct his first big interview in Leeds with a young American cyclist called Lance Armstrong, already a fine rider in the making.

Then the sportsman was diagnosed with cancer. Armstrong's recovery was a heroic story in its own right, let alone the incredible sequel. Even though illness kept him out of the Tour the year of the Festina scandal, he went on to win the race the next year, the first of an unprecedented string of seven victories between 1999 and 2005. Not only was this astonishing in itself, but it seemed a healing balm for a sport that was in a bad way, a worse way, indeed, than anyone then quite knew.

Of the three Tours before Armstrong's first victory, one was inexplicably won by the distinctly minor rider Bjarne Riis, who years later confessed that he had been on EPO. In 1997 the winner was Jan Ullrich, who has had many clouds hanging over him, but has not been busted for recreational drugs. And the 1998 race was won by Marco Pantani, whose career subsequently disintegrated before his death four years ago of a cocaine overdose. Cycling badly needed a redeeming hero, pur et sans reproche.

That was what Armstrong seemed to be, but slowly his halo slipped. As the extent of the doping culture became ever clearer, any cyclist, and in particular any Tour winner, was bound to arouse scepticism. Armstrong responded by saying over and over again that he was the most tested athlete in history and had never failed a test. Yet the circumstantial evidence began to look ugly, especially in the repulsive form of the Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari, a "cancer in sport", in the words of Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour. Ferrari has repeatedly been investigated by the Italian authorities, and although it would take too long to summarise the legal ramifications and the technicalities on which Ferrari avoided imprisonment, he told us what we all needed to know when he breezily said that he had no problem with EPO, which could be bought unreservedly in Switzerland.

This was a man with whom Armstrong was openly working. As Armstrong's palmarès, or roster of victories, grew, so did the volume of accusations, with David Walsh of the Sunday Times his chief accuser. Whittle describes their electrifying confrontation at a press conference in Pau during the 2001 Tour. Walsh pressed his charges, Armstrong replied: "I've never denied the relationship. I believe Dr Ferrari's an honest man," and "Walsh raged at Armstrong, like a demented Catholic priest - 'Yew preeesent yerself as the cleaaanest of the cleaaan!'"

That illustrates the weakness, as well as the strength, of Bad Blood. The book is none the worse for being personal and episodic, but the laddish tone can become wearisome, and Whittle has a cloth ear for speech. To the extent that the words quoted sound like anything at all, it's more Dr Paisley's Antrim bellow than Walsh's soft Kilkenny brogue (all the more effective when he corrects an error he thinks one has made: "In my whole fecking life, Geoffrey, I don't think I've ever read such nonsense from a so-called fecking journalist").

Still, Whittle tells the tale with immediacy and verve. It does not have a happy ending. "When Lance Armstrong retired from racing, the Tour de France fell apart," he writes; "the house of cards finally collapsed" (hadn't that happened in 1998?). The last two Tours have been further stained by the "Puerto" investigation in Spain, under whose shadow several of the favourites were kicked out in 2006 before the race was won by Floyd Landis, who then became the first winner in the history of the Tour to be stripped of his maillot jaune. Last year brought more disgrace, and 'Équipe, the great Paris sports paper, has accused Armstrong directly of having used EPO when he first won the Tour, a time when there was no effective test for it. Armstrong in return insists he is the victim of a witch-hunt.

In truth, nobody can be absolutely certain about what happened in the years of Armstrong's triumph - or what is happening still. As I write, three riders have been slung out of this year's Tour and there may be more before the Champs-Élysées on Sunday. Mark Cavendish is the hero of the hour, his four stage victories twice as many as any Englishman has won before, but he was bound to be asked, as happened this past week, "Why should we believe any rider is clean, inclu ding you?" There was a long, crestfallen silence before Cavendish replied: "These people are getting caught. It's making it a cleaner sport."

Sometimes Whittle's humour is unconscious. The funniest single line in Bad Blood is when a would-be sports journalist turns up by way of Downing Street to meet the champion: "Alastair Campbell and Lance Armstrong had some similarities." He means that they both loathed the media and believed themselves to be misunderstood; or, as Campbell wrote, "Armstrong was attracted to meeting someone who feels even more deeply about the press and its misrepresentations than he does."

As it happens, Armstrong did not support the invasion of Iraq by his friend and fellow Texan George W Bush, abetted by his stooges in London. Still less did he concoct grotesquely mendacious "dossiers" on behalf of that illegal and catastrophic enterprise. Whatever else we learn about him, let that always be said in his defence.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England", "Yo, Blair!" and "Le Tour: a History of the Tour de France", which was shortlisted for the NEC Sports Book Prize

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class