It has become almost a mantra, a way to dismiss pro cycling's entire dope-saturated era in one disgusted swoop: Everyone did it. Tour de France organizers said as much last month, when they declined to redistribute the seven Tour titles stripped from Lance Armstrong for what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called "one of the most sordid chapters in sports history."
Every podium finisher but one during Armstrong's seven tainted Tours has been implicated in doping. So to write off the era bookended by the Festina Affair of 1998, and Operation Puerto in 2006, seems at first blush like a worthy way to bring closure to a shameful period.
There's only one problem. Not everyone did it.
Who is The Unknown Rider, the most deserving cyclist who stuck it out clean?
There's no way of determining how far down those results tables we'd have to go to find him. But we do have the example of a Frenchman named Christophe Bassons. And for his courage, principle and symbolism, he's my Sportsman of the Year -- the year we'll remember as the one in which we finally lanced, as it were, cycling's boil.
The Bassons story begins on the eve of the 1998 Tour, which Armstrong sat out while recovering from testicular cancer. That's when French police found a small pharmacopeia in a car driven by a Festina team soigneur. Even as the team was expelled from the race, Festina riders told policemen to spare Bassons, for they knew him to be the one member of their team who refused to dope on principle.
A year later, now riding the 1999 Tour for the FDJ team, Bassons wrote a regular column for the French daily Le Parisien. In it he asserted, among other things, that cycling still suffered from doping, and that the sport proceeded "a deux vitesses"--one speed for the dirty and another for the clean. Armstrong lit into him. "His accusations aren't good for cycling, for his team, for me, for anybody," the Texan told French TV. "If he thinks cycling works like that, he's wrong and he would be better off going home."
To his face, Bassons says, Armstrong was more direct. Riding up to him during the stage to Alpe d'Huez, Armstrong grabbed Bassons by the shoulder and berated him, called him a disgrace, and told him to "f--- off." Isolated and abused by riders, including some of his own teammates, who took their cues from the Tour's patron, Bassons soon abandoned the race. He fell into a depression that lasted months. A hugely talented cyclist with an impressive VO2 max, and the winner of a stage at the Dauphine Libere that spring, Bassons would break the sport's omerta before he would break the rules. Two years later, after other riders tried to run him off the road during the Four Days of Dunkirk, he quit professional road cycling for good, having "died at the stake," as the French sports daily L'Equipe put it, "burned by his passion."
Today Bassons, 38, rides a mountain bike, the velocipede on which he first fell in love with cycling. He also works for France's youth and sports ministry, where the anti-doping effort is part of his portfolio. Thus the thick irony that, in September, after dropping out of the French marathon mountain bike championships 20 kilometers from the finish, he hopped in his car for the long ride back to his home near Bordeaux -- and, two and a half hours later, fielded a call on his mobile phone from a race official who demanded that he return to the finish for doping control. For choosing to continue to head home, Bassons is currently serving a one-year doping-related suspension.
There's something felicitous in that incident, which took place only days after USADA announced its sanctions against Armstrong. The fates had yoked the two together again, as they ought to remain forevermore.