Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
a webzine of new and unpublished work

Belgian Pots and Pans in Cycling

Cycling had the honesty to go professional more or less from its inception. The Tour de France was started in 1903 to increase sales for the journal l’Auto. The sponsor’s famous yellow pages gave the Tour’s leader’s jersey and he got paid handsomely for the advert. As the third oldest professional in the world (the second, boxing, beats it hands down, blatant fixings), cycling learned to contain cheating by a collective bending of the rules. All the top teams worked together towards an agreed level of ‘medical preparation’ and a fair distribution of results according to riding ability. This knock-for-knock bargaining made it possible for wrens to ride on the eagles in the mountains, and tortoises to beat the hares in the sprints.  But the Tour in its crucial stages was open. The eventual winner was likely to be the best rider. The public knew what was, or not, happening, and were more than happy to line the highways and byways of France to catch a glimpse of the passing fair, preceded by a commercial spectacle, which paid teams for the advertising. It was institutional cheating of course but controlled. 

After Greg Lemond stole the Tour from his team captain, France’s Hinault, on the Champs Elysee, in 1989, big money went directly into the pouch of individual riders. An American winner increased massively dollar sponsorship. Lemond got paid a million, ten times more than riders in the peloton. Team mores broke down. Sensible team doctors were replaced by less scrupulous individual ones. The sport became a shambles as top riders scrambled to tap into the new money. The riders health and safety became secondary.

Prize money for racing seemed hardly worth the effort for top riders. Most of them targeted the major Tours (France, Italy and Spain) and merely ‘attended’ a handful of Classic events, often not bothering to finish them. Investigative journalists associated their absences with medical preparation (off training in the mountains on their own with endurance drugs). The waning of public confidence coincided with the dwindling interest.

The results of doping tests were doubted by race watchers. If you have right money and ‘pusher’ you too can be Lance Armstrong and beat the ban with the latest unregistered drugs or have a blood transfusion before tests. Less sponsored riders were reduced to Belgian pots: a drug cocktail that takes pot luck with testing times, and is dangerous to health in later years. The death rate of ex-riders was alarming. Confessions by surviving professional cyclists of the 1990 and the first decade of the 20th century reveal most riders were encouraged by their agent to try drugs and team managers turned a blind eye as long it was their own decision. Since becoming a winner wasn’t usually the result, assisting the stars as a domestique assured you of a contract.  
My love of cycling is not because it was a fallback when other sports failed me or I failed them. It is, I think, related to my natural talent for climbing. As a rugby mad schoolboy, our training pitch was in the barracks located on top of Patrick Hill, an almost sheer climb. Challenged to ride up it I got half way before falling off. It was the best performance of my rugby friends. Indeed, I believe in a Cork stage of the Tour of Ireland Sean Kelly had to dismount. Several riders, however, managed it but unlike Kelly they were not necessarily winners.

EPO was the climber’s drug of choice, I was disenchanted when Pantini, the greatest climber ever, apparently resorted to it (never actually proved, rather assumed by default), and only watched the major Tours to guess who was

cheating. Being ahead of the tester was the way to cycling fame and fortune. Eventually the testers caught up using stored blood. And Armstrong who was stripped of his Tour victories, nevertheless continued on influencing amateur cycling lovers in America with charity rides. He could afford it. His transgressions made him a millionaire. He was reported as saying that forty kilos an hour average for the Tour is not possible without some help from your pharmaceutical friend. The pharmaceutical company that made a fortune out of EPO (it had been developed as cancer treatment) sponsored an alternative Tour of California, a race that Lance Armstrong likes to win. He is promoting a new cancer medication.   

But there is hope on the horizon. Those cheating in training are tested randomly. Miss one and you’re presumed guilty   Moreover, science is catching up with manufacturing by keeping samples of blood or urine until a fool-proof test is developed. And so, Big Pharma is vulnerable to legal redress and less likely to make drugs available by the back door to special clients. Teams are seriously looking to clean alternatives.  Altitude training is routine to increase lung capacity and gymnastic mechanism for muscular refinement. But the biggest change is the recruiting younger and younger leading riders. Once tainted riders in the late twenties plus accept being their domestiques. The sudden emergency of late onset winners is a think of the past. Any suspicion is a scandal. Some concern is shown when young riders who come from flat countries like Holland and little Slovenian lead to whispers. But, the best of them, Tadej Pogacar, is such a joyful, uncomplicated boy, and is a saddle stylist like the elegant Stephen Roche, that I tend to see him as squeaky clean, if not clean as a whistle. Caution is called for. Teams are businesses and their history of medical preparation goes back a hundred and twenty years. During the early days of the EPO scandal even Sean Kelly, a ‘clean as a whistle’ rider to judge from his performance profile, fell under suspicion of an illegal medical preparation.  Declared an ‘honest mistake’ by the doctor, the team was withdrawn from the Tour and Kelly escaped the drug test.

Am I continuing to fool myself for love of the sport? Possibly not. I am not alone. The Tours still draw out the crowds lining the routes. But terrestrial television only shows them as they happen in the host country. Big business recognizes a dropping off in popular confidence. This could be return to team management of rider’s health. Advertising money will not be forthcoming for individuals but for the sponsors of teams as in the previous century. A healthy degree of control could return. Happy at the thought, I’m off for my daily cycle in the hills. Since my three decades in London when the canal towpaths were my way of getting around my legs need twenty kilometers a day or they cramp. The gears are getting lower with the years, but I haven’t bowed to electrics. I’m my own engine.     

Then I think of Sam Bennett, Ireland’s star sprinter, and Green Jersey in the Tour de France. He didn’t become an advert beneficiary and two years ago his agent pressed his team for a rise. Sam is in his thirties and the coach was looking to the younger riders amongst his sprint support domestiques. The refusal was disgracefully made public and Sam had to leave the team. The following year he rode for a mediocre outfit and accidents and illness kept him out of the Tours.  It seemed his career was prematurely over. But I underestimated Sam. 

The 'explanation for the unpredictable' that I have always found in sport is in his origins. Bennet grew up in Kelly’s home town, Carrick-on-Suir, and Sean was his cycling father.   Shakespear celebrated the character of the men there in a song in Henry V. about a girl from the banks of the Suir, and her good luck. This year Bennett has been recruited by a better team on a modest support rider’s salary. But it isn’t about money for Sam, and this week in the prestigious Dunkirk Four Day classic, he not only won the sprint stages but the race outright having done well climbing the hills. I await his reincarnation in the Tours.