Alberto Contador is a 26-year-old professional bike racer from Spain who in two seasons has won the Tours of France, Italy and his homeland. It's a feat matched by only four other riders in history, and by last fall Contador's performances had depleted the European press of its supply of superlatives. Then, in March, wearing the yellow leader's jersey one week into the Paris-Nice stage race, he did what even the finest racers are occasionally known to do, but Contador since his rise to prominence had not yet done. During a mountain stage, he cracked.
What followed revealed the abiding gulf between the cultures surrounding pro cycling on either side of the Atlantic. European sportswriters spilled liters of ink on this revelation of Contador's humanity. He is one of us! He is plus sympathique! He is ... Sartre on a bike!
Contrast that over-the-top reaction with the off-the-radar response in the U.S.: [Crickets] ... and this terse tweet from Lance Armstrong, Contador's American rival on the same Astana team: Unfortunate day for Alberto. Amazing talent but still a lot to learn.
Even as the U.S. has produced, in Armstrong, the sport's most dominant performer, cycling remains a virtual cipher in the States. When it's consumed at all, it's consumed differently than in Europe. It's framed differently. And as Armstrong returns to the Tour de France after a three-year absence, that ongoing pas de deux of mutual loathing and suspicion, Lance vs. France, is only part of a larger cultural loggerheads.
Here's a stab at what's behind it: Bike racing in Europe is what boxing is in the States -- a poor kid's way out. A chimney sweep won the first Tour de France, and since then honors have gone to carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, welders, baker's apprentices and metalworking trainees. (One of the greatest, Italy's Fausto Coppi, wasn't even a butcher, but an errand boy for a butcher, which is how he learned his way with a bike.) The European peloton is a clan with a code, a sweatshop on wheels that doubles as a testing lab for designer doping products. Fans make the biggest heroes of those who suffer most; the founder of the Tour, Henri Desgranges, believed that the ideal race would be one survived by a single rider. If these hero-sufferers take drugs, goes the continental line of thinking, it's because no one can be expected to survive such an ordeal without palliatives, and besides, cheating has been woven into the Tour since its second staging in 1904, when the winner of the first, that chimney sweep, hopped a train for part of the route.
The men who plied the roads of Europe a generation ago run the sport today, and why should they begrudge their heirs the pharmaceutical relief they once enjoyed? Even fans see little stigma in a positive test. As the Sixties-era rider Rudi Altig of Germany once put it, "We are professional cyclists, not athletes."
In the U.S., bike racing is a way out too -- a way out of high school hell for geeky middle-class boys blown off by the jocks and cheerleaders. They take up cycling for the romance, for "breaking away," as that Indiana italophile, Dave the Cutter, did in the 1979 movie of the same name. Otherwise a bicycle is either a child's toy or an affluent middle-aged adult's means to health and fitness. In 1981 the first American to ride the Tour, Jonathan Boyer, traveled with a Bible, a blender, and a cache of nuts and dates. California's Bob Roll, who was living in a tent in Switzerland when the U.S. 7-Eleven team picked him up to ride the 1985 Tour of Italy, would inscribe his sidewheels with poetry.
Watching her adolescent son get bewitched by the John Tesh soundtrack on CBS's weekly Tour wrap-up shows 20 years ago, Jonathan Vaughters' mom had to tell him, "You know, when you're actually racing, there's no inspirational music playing in the background."
Vaughters learned quickly enough, competing in Europe for nine seasons before taking over as director of the current U.S. team Garmin Slipstream, whose rookie riders he now disabuses of his gauzy old misconceptions. "I tell them that European cycling is like working in a coal mine," he says. "You wake up, turn on the light on your miner's helmet, and go down into the ground. It's the furthest thing imaginable from wine-swilling aristocrats."
Yet if pro cycling is known today to the typical Stateside sports fan at all, it's through a single race, the Tour de France, which to casual followers exists only to supply climactic scenes in over-the-top red-white-and-blue Movies of the Week like Yank with shotgun pellets in body overtakes Frenchman on Champs-Elysees, and Texan dominates wine-swilling Euros seven times after cancer wracks lungs, abdomen, brain and testicles. "Greg [LeMond, who wrote that first narrative] and Lance [who wrote the second] brought the sport into the American mainstream, and once it was there, it was entertainment," says Andy Hampsten of the U.S., who won the Tours of Italy and Switzerland during a career that overlapped those of both of his superstar compatriots. "And once it's entertainment, do we really want to know that cyclists are on drugs? It would ruin people's fun."
Brian Gilley is an anthropologist at the University of Vermont who studies the sport's constituent parts and how they interrelate. He attributes European fans' cynical sophistication to what Italians call dietrologia, or "behindology" -- the widespread belief that there's more to anything than what appears. Gilley is struck too by what seems like the guild system that began in Europe during the Middle Ages. "You can't get a job in European cycling unless you know someone," he says. "The guild has its rules and customs -- and 'the rules' don't have as much to do with doping as with paying your dues and kissing the ring."
LeMond had been different from his American predecessors in his talent, but he was also willing to kiss the requisite rings -- moving to Europe, learning French, and faithfully riding in support of French teammate Bernard Hinault's 1985 Tour victory. "Greg was perfect for the 'American invasion' -- all smiles, Opie Taylor, everything fascinating to him," says Joe Parkin, the Minnesotan who raced in Belgium during the LeMond era and learned Flemish by reading subtitles on Alf re-runs. "Things started to go south when Greg realized he could just concentrate on the Tour. Europeans didn't really like that."
The guild also permits sundry corruptions and collusions, which Parkin would discover in Belgian kermis races that were fixed on the fly, and Dutch criteriums that involved more aforethought: "All the riders would dress in the same room and a list would get passed around," he recalls. "At the top was the time the winning breakaway would go. There'd be a check mark next to the names of the riders in the winning break. And the name of the winner would be underlined."
Then there was the expectation, even obligation, of doping. A cyclist who failed to ride "lit up," Parkin explains in his new memoir A Dog In a Hat, was made to feel unprofessional. If Belgium is the West Virginia of Europe, pot belge or Belgian mix, a speedball that might contain cocaine, amphetamines, caffeine, heroin, liquor or corticosteroids, was continental crystal meth. "A lot of riders in the European peloton stop going to school at age 13 or 14," Gilley says. "They put their trust in a directeur sportif and basically accept what he says -- and he may say, 'Here, take this.' That's part of the guild, too: It removes from people the power to use knowledge to challenge authority. With American riders, by contrast, doping is their own calculated risk. They're being American about it. Every U.S. small business owner I know has committed some sort of tax fraud. Whereas Europeans tend to see it as, You either ride by the rules of the guild, or you don't ride."
In the early years many American riders, especially those on American teams, felt exempt from the guild's encouragement to dope. "We were willing to talk to journalists about doping," Hampsten says. "While Europeans within the sport were telling us to shut up, our attitude was, 'F--- you, it's our sport too.'"
But by the end of Hampsten's career, crude fixes like pot belge had given way to more systematic stuff. It was one thing to be a member of "the League of Ceiling Starers," as a Dutch rider once described the sleepless aftermath of an amphetamine episode, and quite another to overhaul one's entire cardiovascular system with the banned blood booster EPO. Because of its risks -- EPO can turn blood to sludge, and is suspected in the sudden deaths of dozens of riders, usually in their sleep -- the drug requires a comprehensive "medical program," and thus deception on an institutionalized scale. But the 10 to 15 percent advantage in output that EPO can deliver, and the substance's undetectability 20 years ago, didn't merely present a temptation. It ensured the competitive exile of the clean rider. And so, like innocents abroad in a Henry James novel, American riders reached a moment of reckoning. You can leave Colorado or California with your water bottles and Clif Bars, but eventually you'll discover, as Mart Smeets of NOS Dutch TV puts it, "If you want to dance, you put on your dancing shoes."
For Americans, doping is entwined with questions of character, with goodness and evil. For Europeans, doping is simply something that cyclists are known to do. C'est le métier, the French say: It's the job. ... [It's] the same divergence that occurs when a politician is caught out with a mistress: Americans get outraged -- How could he? While Europeans shrug -- But of course.
-- Daniel Coyle, in Lance Armstrong's War
For the longest time the peloton sang a chorus of but of course. It staged work stoppages to protest doping controls, and you can still hear the bien sur dripping from the lips of five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil of France, who once said: "You'd have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants." Britain's Tom Simpson, who died in 100-degree heat on a Provencal hillside during the 1967 Tour with amphetamines in his bloodstream and his pocket, had only a year earlier said, "If it takes 10 to kill you, I'll take nine." And Coppi, once asked if he doped, replied, "Only when I have to." Which was? "Almost all the time." A legendary chronicler of that era, Antoine Blondin, wrote in the French sports daily L'Equipe of "a certain nobility in those who have gone down into lord-knows-what hell in quest of the best of themselves. We might feel tempted to tell them they should not have done it. But we can remain, nonetheless, secretly proud of what they have done. Their wan, haggard looks are, for us, an offering." In Europe the rationalizations can come like merchandise at Target -- cheap, but of pretty good quality.
Cycling's tacit acceptance of doping persisted even after European legislatures began to pass anti-doping laws during the mid-Sixties, and the Gallic shrug remained the default setting of riders, officials and fans. After Americans Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis got caught doping during the past decade -- Landis only days after having apparently won the 2006 Tour -- both tried to exculpate themselves with pseudo-scientific theories, cloying Web sites (ibelieveintyler.org, floydfairnessfund.com), and denials so reflexive and convoluted that, by continental lights, each man appeared to be an imbecile and a hypocrite. Whereas Europeans rarely protesteth too much. Oh, for two years in the aftermath of the 1998 Festina Affair, in which police seized EPO, steroids and syringes from a car driven by a Festina team soigneur on the eve of the Tour, Richard Virenque of France gave stonewalling a try, even publishing a book called My Truth before eventually confessing through tears in court.
But it's difficult to imagine Americans reacting like Alex Zuelle of Switzerland, another rider caught up in the Festina case, who told Germany's Suddeutsche Zeitung: "It's like being on the highway. The law says there's a speed limit of 100, but everyone is driving 120 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the speed limit? So I had two alternatives: either fit in and go along with the others, or go back to being a housepainter." Or like another Swiss, 1998 World Champion Oscar Camenzind, whom drug testers caught up with during a training ride along Lake Lucerne in 2004. Camenzind told them on the spot that he had used EPO, and that he'd just as soon not wait for his samples to come back from the lab. Whereupon he hung up his bike and did indeed return to his previous job -- not as a housepainter, but as a mailman.
American teams -- first 7-Eleven, then Motorola, eventually U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel -- weren't likely to set up shadowy doping programs; American sponsors would never take the chance. But by the Nineties individual U.S. riders, with no more stomach for losing than any European, had begun to weigh that calculated risk. They too knew the open secrets of the peloton, the dodgy doctors, flim-flam testing procedures and dubious soigneurs, a.k.a. chargeurs and dynamiteurs. Everyone knew -- or everyone but dilettante fans back in the States content with their Pollyanna storylines.
"Any 7-year-old Flemish schoolchild," Bob Roll has written, "knows 100 times more about cycling than all Americans combined." They know the sacrifice -- that, simply to train, a pro will log enough mileage each year to circumnavigate the earth. They know the suffering -- that Rene Vietto's toe, lost to sepsis during the 1947 season, sits in embalming fluid in a jar over a bar in Marseille. They know the fate that four Tour winners have wound up suicides, and that 1998 champion Marco Pantani shot himself up vocationally and avocationally and, finally, tragically. Moreover, they know the positives, raids and confessions that have implicated at some point during their careers half of the 18 men to win the Tour since 1974. They've read the corpus of European journalism devoted to doping in cycling, some of which implicates Armstrong, and find it more human and persuasive than any clinical positive test. They've heard the testimony of repentant dopers like France's Philippe Gaumont, who rubbed salt on his testicles until they bled so he could get a prescription for otherwise-banned cortisone; Ireland's Paul Kimmage, who after describing a drug-riddled sport in his book Rough Ride returned to the Tour with a press credential and was advised to leave because organizers couldn't guarantee his safety; and Spain's Jesus Manzano, who after an against-the-rules transfusion mid-Tour, which turned out to be of someone else's blood, suffered a seizure that nearly killed him.
Are you, gentle American reader, prepared to be baptized into the reality of European pro cycling? Are you ready to go from Cutter to continental, to travel the path that Dave Stohler did in Breaking Away when that Team Cinzano rider jammed a frame pipe into his wheel? My own Henry James moment came while covering the Tour for the first time, in 1987. After an early stage a strapping Italian sprinter turned up positive at doping control. Claude the press chief, his mouth framed by mustache and ascot, explained that the rider had been fined several hundred Swiss francs. He would go into the books as finishing last for that day's stage. And he would be subject to a ban if he were to test positive again.
Surely that wasn't the end of it, I thought. A rider had been caught doping in the Tour de Friggin' France ... and he would start the next morning? Over time my astonishment would gradually yield to something else: a sense of being unsophisticatedly and irredeemably American.
A week or so later a British journalist decided to introduce me to the Tour's most storied stage finish, L'Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 switchback turns to the top. "After I covered this for the first time," he told me, "I never again used the word 'heroic' to describe an athlete in any other sport." Sure enough, Ireland's Stephen Roche clinched the Tour that day, clawing back seconds in the final meters before collapsing from the effort. He had to be revived at the finish, whereupon he oh-so-continentally pronounced himself "not ready for a woman just yet." Years later it emerged that Roche's Carrera team had been in the medical care of Dr. Francesco Conconi, whom an Italian magistrate would conclude had supervised the systematic administration of EPO to riders, Roche included.
I returned the next summer, when with the Tour only days from Paris word leaked that the yellow jersey, Spain's Pedro Delgado, had turned up positive for probenicid, a masking agent for steroids. Enter Claude, brandishing another communiqué: Probenicid would not be formally added to pro cycling's banned list until a week after the conclusion of the Tour, meaning that Delgado was in the clear. My question then -- How could this be, when the substance was already prohibited by the IOC? -- waited more than a decade for a satisfactory answer. In something close to a deathbed confession, Jacques Goddet, who supervised the Tour for 51 years, explained in 1999: "The controls we developed after Simpson's death were a lie, covered up by the highest scientific and medical authorities, and I condemn them."
Time would solve another mystery from that 1988 Tour: the puzzling equanimity of the runner-up, Steven Rooks of Holland. Asked if he begrudged Delgado the title, Rooks had said, "Pedro has been the strongest rider. It is he who deserves it." A dozen years later the reason for that graciousness emerged, when Rooks admitted that he had used testosterone and amphetamines throughout his career. An honor among thieves apparently prevailed, but it was a kind of honor nonetheless, and by accident of nationality I would never fully understand it.
I had begun to appreciate the suffering, however, and grasp the sport's place in the culture. In 1987 I would miss LeMond's comeback from his near-fatal hunting accident, the Tour in which he made up nearly a minute on the final day to beat France's Laurent Fignon by eight seconds. But after SI named LeMond our Sportsman of the Year, I found myself sitting around the kitchen table of the American sports fan, as a guest on WFAN Radio's Mike and the Mad Dog, where co-host Chris Russo took up the cause of the jocks and cheerleaders. How could SI possibly choose Greg LeMond? Cycling was "a yuppie sport," he said, as if anybody could "tour France," and LeMond had done it on the modified American plan. I would have thrown up my hands, but the gesture is generally lost on listeners to sports talk radio.
I swung off the beat just as Armstrong emerged, but not before covering his domestic coming out, an impressive second in the Tour du Pont in the spring of 1993. It was easy to see how he would rock the guild as soon as he hit the continent. In Europe a truck driver who sees cyclists out training invites them to grab hold of his rig for a tow; Armstrong could recount many times that pick-ups and semis in Texas literally ran him off the road. What made Armstrong different -- what would make him a seven-time winner of the Tour, when you get right down to it -- is that he would flip those truck drivers the bird.
Armstrong touched off a couple of low-grade diplomatic incidents soon after his arrival in Europe that summer. By prearrangement with his American Motorola team he dropped out of his first Tour de France with a week to go, only to hear Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc decry his absent "sense of duty" to finish the race. Then in October, invited to meet Norway's King Harald after winning the Worlds in Oslo, he insisted on bringing along his mother, Linda. Armstrong carried the swagger prized by every high school football coach in Texas, and in him Europeans found an American of their imaginations -- "Like from the old TV show Dallas, affluent, arrogant and dismissive of the old style," says John Wilcockson, the British author of Lance, who points out that as a kid Armstrong actually cycled past South Fork Ranch on training rides. "[Eddy] Merckx, Hinault, even LeMond, didn't ride the Tour until they'd been pros for years, while Lance the impetuous kid just wanted to do it."
Armstrong went on to subvert the guild even more than LeMond had. "It wasn't just that he had one goal, the Tour," Gilley says. "He built a team around himself. He used the latest in science and technology. He commanded a superstar salary. And he talked about conquest and battle and manifest destiny, all American concepts."
But in one critical respect Armstrong did go native. Arriving in Europe just after EPO had presented American riders with that Hobson's choice, Armstrong in 1995 hooked up with a guild-approved personal doctor, Michele Ferrari, who had trained at the knee of the infamous Dottore Conconi. A year earlier Ferrari had publicly said that EPO was "no more dangerous than orange juice," and that "anything that can't be found in drug tests isn't doping." Armstrong has said he consulted with Ferrari only on benign training matters. But until 2001 he concealed their relationship, even from many within his own team, and he would insist on an arrangement whereby the Italian could work with no other Tour contender. After their connection became public Armstrong defended it, though Ferrari then stood trial in Italy on charges of directing cyclists' doping programs. Armstrong broke with Ferrari following the doctor's conviction in 2004 for "sporting fraud" and "abuse of the medical profession," and has kept his distance even after that conviction was overturned on procedural grounds.
Armstrong has never wavered in his denial of having used performance-enhancing drugs. But Armstrong teammates Landis and George Hincapie would go on to work with Ferrari too, and at least a half-dozen of Armstrong's most trusted support riders over the years have now been implicated in doping. The cases of Landis and Hamilton may come closest to classical tragedy: European fans admire both for their Blondinian offerings, in Hamilton's case a fourth-place finish in the 2003 Tour despite a broken collarbone, and in Landis', brief glory as the first to Paris in 2006 despite a degenerative hip. If they were only Basque or Bavarian, alas, their positive tests might be but-of-course blips.
Armstrong has long broadcast on two frequencies -- one to the European peloton, another to cycling-innocent followers in the States. A perfect example took place several months ago, after an out-of-competition tester from France's state-run anti-doping lab doorstepped him on the Riviera, and Armstrong, just back from a training ride, disappeared for 20 minutes to take a shower. Europeans know that the one thing a cyclist may not do under any circumstances is leave a tester's sight before providing a sample. They can recount the sport's colorful history of doping-control subterfuge, from hastily swallowed diuretics and blood-thinners, to stand-in urine delivered through concealed rubber tubing. When this departure from protocol briefly looked like it might lead to his suspension, Armstrong tweeted indignantly, Was winning the Tour seven times that offensive?!? That in turn cued up reactions Stateside of the "Of course they wouldn't let him take a shower -- they don't believe in showers!" variety. Not that Armstrong necessarily had something to hide; given his relationship with the French, he may have simply been up for a game of chicken, to dare them to expel from their great race its biggest name. The point is, he took them on and won, again.
Within the guild Armstrong has been a but-of-courser to the bone, bullying riders like Italy's Filippo Simeoni, who ratted out Ferrari, and France's Christophe Bassons, who earned a "f--- off" from Armstrong for flaunting his own unwillingness to dope. But he's careful to cover his how-could-you flank. At the outset of the 2000 Tour he denounced what he called "the myth of widespread doping," and when Irish journalist David Walsh, author of From Lance to Landis, first laid out the skeptics' case in 2004, Armstrong's response was, "Extraordinary accusations must be followed up with extraordinary proof." Europeans laughed at the first of these comments, and scratched their heads at the second, for it's hardly extraordinary to doubt a run of Tour victories that sits squarely in the sport's EPO era, bookended by the Affairs Festina and Landis. Millions of Americans with little knowledge of cycling are invested in the symbolism of Armstrong's clean, triumphant return from cancer, while Europeans simply hear American hypocrisy and prudery. And so the divide opens wider. Today the relationship between Armstrong and the French has deteriorated into schoolyard namecalling.
After Armstrong, the U.S. will likely continue to send innocents abroad. Gilley is studying attitudes toward doping among 18- to 23-year-old American amateurs, and of 116 confidential responses fielded last summer, only 13 percent of riders with professional aspirations said they would or might dope to win the Tour de France. But Gilley's research also indicates that young cyclists become more willing to consider doping as the potential prize escalates. "Americans who sign with European teams know within two days what's going on," says Smeets, the Dutch broadcaster. "It's not just taking dope. It's deeper than that. Cheat, lie, deny, survive -- it's a way of life. The truth is always different from what seems to be the reality. I always tell my viewers, lying is permitted in cycling. It's a constitutional part of the sport. The U.S. audience has no clue.
"Last year, when CERA hit" -- CERA is third-generation EPO -- "we were expecting fans to turn against the Tour. Instead it was more popular than ever. It doesn't seem to matter."
In the States we're not much for shades of gray in our heroes. But in Europe people take their riders as they are: Wan and haggard, "for us." If doctors and drugs can help a fellow human being survive cancer, Europeans dare ask, why shouldn't doctors and drugs help one contest the world's most difficult bike race? As its most dominant rider contests the Tour de France once more, it's worth pondering not just whether we Americans want the truth, but whether we can handle the truth.