The Tour must go on

Breaking the Chain: drugs and cycling - the true story

Willy Voet, translated by William Fothering

Willy Voet is one of those unhappy figures whose lives, through chance or destiny, are transformed by a single, isolated event. In 1998, the modest soigneur of the Festina cycling team was stopped by customs officers on the France-Belgium border with a carload of drugs that would have startled the most ambitious hypochondriac. His arrest confirmed what had always been known, if not acknowledged, about professional cycling: that it takes more than a packet of raisins, a Mars bar and some pluck to compete in the Tour de France - this year a mere 3,462km, or three weeks of relentless torture. Did Job ever have to undergo suffering like this? It is a race of such diabolical invention that it is unsurprising that some competitors should take measures to counter its torments: analgesics, anaesthetics, glucogenic agents, stimulants, growth promoters, erythropoietin.

In Breaking the Chain, Voet provides a unique account of drug abuse in cycling. The book is a bestseller in cycling countries, but it will never enjoy such an impact in Britain, where many among the population are so overweight that climbing the stairs is beyond conception, let alone cycling up the sun-parched moonscape of Mont Ventoux. This is a shame, as the revelations about drug abuse that Voet publicises in his book are memorable, as are the consequences: police raids on the cyclists' hotels both in the 1998 Tour de France and last month in the Giro d'Italia brought the races to a strike and a halt. Professional cycling is a shambles of deceit, but le Tour, the icon of the French nation, must go on.

One of the most surprising aspects of Voet's memoir is his account of the ease with which drug-takers have always managed to evade the doping controls. Initially, "clean" urine samples were provided by tubes hidden under the jersey. Then, as the controls became more stringent and the riders had to strip, samples were hidden in condoms inserted in the rectum - uncomfortable at all times, but especially so after eight hours in the saddle. The most uncomfortable method of them all involved the injection of "clean" urine into the urethra, which the riders could then submit with genuine authenticity. There is a wonderful touch of absurdity to the story of one cyclist who provided a urine sample (which was itself provided by a mechanic) and then found himself suspended: the mechanic had been charged up with amphetamines to keep him awake.

Voet regularly took stimulants, first as an amateur cyclist in the 1960s, and then to help him ride the 130,000km every year as his job demanded. He writes of a savage pick-me-up called "Belgian mix", an improbable cocktail of amphetamines, caffeine, cocaine, heroin, painkillers and corticosteroids. The pharmacokinetics is bewildering enough, the effect unimaginable. It would be interesting to turn up to those races where anything goes - the so-called Chargers' Grand Prix - to see the preternatural eyes, the tortuous blood vessels, the ghoulish cheeks, the quivering muscles. The doping is as old as cycling itself. Henri Pelissier, the maillot jaune in 1923, spoke out against the torture of stimulants: "Under the mud, our flesh is as white as a sheet . . . our eyes are swimming, and every night we dance like St Vitus instead of sleeping."

And yet Voet adores cycling, accepting the heroic Faustian pact that the riders have made to endure the diabolical torment. Their life expectancy is roughly 15 years less than the average: the heart hypertrophies, the blood thickens (especially with erythropoietin), the lungs expand, and too much time in the saddle can lead to peripheral nerve damage and impotence. Some cyclists, with the fitness of racehorses, have died in their sleep. And some are unquestionably "clean" - such as Christophe Bassons, the innocent who was ostracised by other cyclists for refusing to comply with the doping regime and quit the Tour de France in 1999.

The problem, though, is that as tests are developed to counter the abuse of one drug, another is already being abused. Erythropoietin is now detectable. But what of muscular growth promoters, such as Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) and Interleukin 3 (IL-3)? Perhaps it is a tide that will never turn. But the riders will always suffer. The greatest of them all - the cannibal himself, Eddy Merckx - was unable to sit down for four days after breaking the world one-hour record.

Which leads on to the physical deterioration of Tim Moore, an anti-cyclist who oddly decided to cycle the route of La Grande Boucle with virtually no preparation or experience. His account in French Revolutions is an engaging mix of self-deprecation and naivety, as he trundles (or stops) along the routes nationales. Moore does not have the fitness of a racehorse. However, what he does share with some professional cyclists (and amateurs) is a weakness for performance-enhancing drugs. Loading up with caffeine and ephedrine (adrenalin), he attempts the ascent of Mont Ventoux - and fails. This is the most interesting part of an entertaining book, as the writer includes an apocryphal history of a century of doping in cycling, including flakes of cocaine being dropped on to cyclists' tongues as they passed by. This is not a cyclist's book, but the suffering is authentic.

Bikie, by Charlie Woods, is a cyclist's book. It is a personal history of one man's involvement with cycling, from the awestruck schoolboy who ogles the miraculous machines in bike shops, through the club cyclist to retirement. When Woods writes of the "whirr and tinkle of transmissions" and the "swish of tyres on tarmac", it is with the sense of wonder and joy that befits the true cyclist. It is an endearing voice. A genuine aficionado, he speaks of being "tempered in the furnace of suffering" and of his awe at seeing the great Belgian bulls charging on their bikes, of the pageant of colour and metal and the bronzed flesh of the peloton. When he changes to brief monologues on art, sex and myth, the book falters. But no matter. The most telling line - which Voet, Woods and any cyclist will understand - is a statement by Roger Lapebie, the maillot jaune in 1937: "I tell you this, I love my bike more than myself."

Like any affair of love, it is inexplicable, punishing and extreme. A cyclist does not require stimulants to dance like St Vitus. Vive le Tour.

Henry Sheen is a writer, ascetic and cyclist

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?