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TdF + Bastille Day = Mont Ventoux

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Today is stage 12 of the Tour de France and it marks a special day for the French – Bastille Day, a national holiday and the hopes of a French winner on the famous mountain in a week where their footballers failed to deliver.

But it’s a special day for me too – it’s the first time the Tour has visited the Giant of Provence since my efforts in September 2013.  Whilst it’s not a national holiday where I live, I can assure you that I’ll be watching the stage somehow. More

Justifying Your Heroes & Villains

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Over the past few years people have asked me how I can hold up Tom Simpson and Marco Pantani as my heroes of cycling and yet also have such little regard for Lance Armstrong. I think the answer is fairly straightforward albeit probably very disappointing and its not about doping. Well, not exactly. Let me explain.
Hero # 1 – Tom Simpson

My original hero in the cycling world was and still is Tom Simpson. He died well before I was born, there’s very little, if any film footage of him in action and a similar dearth of photographic images. I don’t know what resonated with me about him or how his story was introduced to me. But he did and it was.

In 1962, Simpson became the first British rider to wear the Tour De France Yellow Jersey. In 1965, Simpson became Great Britain’s first ever World Road Race Champion, a feat which has only been achieved once since (Mark Cavendish 2011). That year he was also the first cyclist to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He wrecked his knee skiing in the Winter so his year in the rainbow jersey was relatively unsuccessful and he failed to maximise his earnings potential. He was the catalyst for the term “the curse of the rainbow jersey”. He knew he was at his peak and in order to secure his financial future he knew he had to deliver big results.  

On 13th July 1967, he started Stage 13 of the Tour De France which finished on Mont Ventoux. He shouldn’t have. He was ill with stomach cramps. I won’t go into details of his final moments on the bike but the combination of his illness, amphetamines, alcohol, the searing heat (54 degrees) and his obsession with chasing a high finishing place, proved too much.

It was Simpson’s death on Mont Ventoux that inspired me – some would say fooled me – to dream about climbing that mountain on the bike. Doffing my hat as I passed his monument less than a mile from the summit is a memory that remains with me with more clarity than any other I hold.

By all accounts he was a nice guy, liked by his peers in the peloton, adored by the fans at the roadside and was respectful of the sporting media of the time. He was fiercely competitive but a gentleman and I have found very few, if any, examples of unbecoming personal behavioural traits.

Hero # 2 – Marco Pantani

Marco Pantani, in my opinion was the finest cyclist of my generation. His climbing abilities and aggressive descending enabled him to offset his lack of time trialling prowess thereby making him a great Grand Tour contender. From 1993 to 2003, he podiumed five times in the Tour De France and Giro D’Italia, winning both in 1998 (the last rider to have done so. When he was on form, he could destroy the competition. He appeared to almost sprint up the mountains, mainly as a combination of his style (he climbed on the drops of the bars) and a significant use of performance enhancing additives.

He was adored by the tifosi, cycling fans generally and commentators loved him.

But he was a fragile human being, a deep thinker, a rider who was troubled in his mind probably because he had a conscience, possibly thinking of what cycling had forced him to do and what he therefore was doing to cycling.

When he was kicked out of the Giro D’Italia in 1999 after winning the previous stage on Madonna di Campiglio his career was effectively over in his head. He never won another Giro stage. He still raced and competed until 2003 but was troubled by ongoing legal battles, drug addiction and the feelings of being treated poorly by the sport of cycling.

On 14th February 2004, Pantani died alone in a hotel room in Rimini, as a result of cocaine abuse. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral.

And the Villain – Lance Armstrong

So that takes us to my villain, Mr Lance Armstrong. He’s the one that is known to us all, either as a supreme specimen who won the Tour De France seven times after surviving cancer, or as the biggest perpetrator of sporting fraud. Here’s a bit of controversy for you. I accept him as one of the finest cyclists of the modern era. Yes, he was a doper extraordinaire, his dominance could also be deemed as boring, but his prolific attacks and race tactics kept me on the edge of my seat for a good few years. His duel with Pantani on Mont Ventoux during the 2000 Tour De France is a YouTube favourite.

But his attitude always frustrated me. To me, he came across as a man who lacked a certain quality, namely respect for cycling history, his fellow professionals and those supporting the sport.

Some examples?

1999 Tour De France Stage 10 Sestrieres to Alpe D’Huez

The French professional Christophe Bassons had been writing a daily column in Le Parisien newspaper providing a rider’s eye view of life in the race. The peloton had decided to go easy for the first 100km but hadn’t told Bassons as he was being ostracised for his anti-doping opinions. In an act of defiance, Bassons decided to attack the peloton immediately. He knew he wouldn’t be allowed to get away and sure enough the entire peloton worked together to catch him. He recalled the moment he was caught in a Radio 5 interview in October 2012.

“…and then Lance Armstrong reached me. He grabbed me by the shoulder, because he knew everyone would be watching and he knew that at that moment he could show everyone that he was the boss. He stopped me and said what I was saying wasn’t true, what I was saying was bad for cycling, that I mustn’t say it, that I had no right to be a professional cyclist, that I should quit cycling, that I should quit the Tour. I was depressed for 6 months. I was crying all,of the time. I was in a really bad way.”

2004 Tour De France Stage 18 Annemasse to Lons le Saunier

Early into the stage Fillipo Simeoni was in what ended up being the winning break. But to everyone’s surprise and horror Armstrong also joined the group. None of the other riders were Tour contenders but as Armstrong was wearing the yellow jersey he most certainly was. With Armstrong in their company, the break had no chance of staying away. When Garcia Acosta asked Armstrong what he was doing, he replied that he’d go back to the peloton but only if Simeoni did the same. Simeoni reluctantly obliged and the break was allowed to succeed. Why? Simeoni was a witness for the prosecution case against Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferrari.

2009 Tour of California Pre Race Press Conference

Paul Kimmage, a journalist and former professional cyclist asked Armstrong a question about doping in cycling and specifically stated that “the cancer has returned” a reference to Armstrong’s comeback. What followed was an aggressive attack on Kimmage in an attempt to humiliate him. Armstrong intimated that he didn’t know who Kimmage was, or that he was an ex-pro however it was clear that his response had been carefully prepared and practiced. I can’t do it justice so watch it on YouTube here http://youtu.be/nZgns7CXeUI

There are others who suffered at the hands of Armstrong’s character flaw, Emma O’Reilly, David Walsh and Betsy Andreu to name but a few. Google them if you’re not already aware and see what you think.

In Conclusion

So after that brief and personal take on this trio of heroes and villains, what have I explained?  

Well all three were dopers – that’s not great and all three had significant moments on Mont Ventoux – none more so than Simpson. All three took cycling to a new level and all three ended their cycling careers in varied but tragic circumstances.

Well, as compelling as Armstrong is with his articulate responses to any questions put to him, the fact that he always has a reasoned argument for all his actions, his undeniable cycling talent and the good he has done through fundraising, I’m just not convinced that he’s a nice guy and believe it or not, I think that’s quite important.

But who am I anyway?

The Giant

So What About Lance?

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I did not intend my blog to include anything other than my musings in relation to me trying to succeed in the ridiculous challenge I Have set myself for this September but as a fan of cycling the giant feels it is necessary to pass at least an acknowledgement to the Lance Armstrong debacle.  Those who know me best also know that one of the few times I have ever been proven correct in my opinions was when Lance Armstrong finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs throughout his career.

I would like to say that this was because I had scientific evidence of shenanigans but my conclusions about Armstrong arose purely as a result of his lack of awareness of the history of cycling and the races he was competing in. He never came across as “a nice guy” so I didn’t like him. I didn’t enjoy his cycling. I didn’t like his attitude in the peloton, the way he reacted to opponents and the way he treated certain journalists. If you want an example of such you should watch this clip when Paul Kimmage (journalist and ex-pro Tour de France rider) attempted to challenge Armstrong about his suspicions http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZgns7CXeUI.

Or consider Filippo Simeoni, the Italian cyclist who was treated by doctor Michele Ferrari, who was also Armstrong’s doctor.  Simeoni testified in court that he began doping in 1993, that Dr. Ferrari had prescribed him doping products and was suspended for several months.  Armstrong reportedly called Simeoni a “liar” in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde in July 2003.  On the 18th stage of the 2004 Tour de France Simeoni gapped up to a breakaway of six riders that posed no threat to Armstrong’s leading position.  Nevertheless, Armstrong followed Simeoni, which prompted Armstrong’s rival T-Mobile Team to try to catch the breakaway.  This would not only catch Armstrong but also eliminate the stage winning chances of the six riders in the original breakaway.  The six riders implored Armstrong to drop back to the peloton, but Armstrong would not go unless Simeoni went with him and the two riders dropped back to the peloton.  When Simeoni dropped back, he was abused by other riders calling him “a disgrace”.  Afterwards, Armstrong made a “zip-the-lips” gesture but later said that Simeoni “did not deserve” to win a stage.

These stories were not promoted much at the time because Armstrong was “a living legend”, he had finally made cycling a global phenomenon, he had won his battle against cancer and his Livestrong Foundation was doing wonders.

But what about those who were trying to emulate Armstrong?  What about the riders who also fell by the wayside and took drugs during this period?  What about the  flawed characters and doping cheats but who didn’t deserve to die before their time?

So I say forget about Lance Armstrong forever, lets not give him any more airtime, lets not invite him to a truth and reconciliation commission because its too late for those of us who love the sport.  Let’s spare a few seconds of our time to remember:

Denis Zanette (Italy) – died January 11 2003, aged 32;

Marco Ceriani (Italy) – died May 5 2003, aged 16;

Fabrice Salanson (France) – died June 3 2003, aged 23;

Marco Rusconi (Italy) – died November 14 2003, aged 24;

Jose Maria Jimenez (Spain) – died December 6 2003, aged 32;

Michel Zanoli (Netherlands) – died December 29 2003, aged 35;

Johan Sermon (Belgium) – died February 15 2004, aged 21; and

Marco Pantani (Italy) – died February 15 2004, aged 34.

And for anyone who thinks that my desire to dof my cap to Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux this year is slightly hypocritical due to his own misdemeanours with amphetamines?  Tom Simpson didn’t fool the world, he didn’t fool financial institutions, he only fooled himself.

The Giant