A drugged rider won the 75th running of what may no longer be the world's greatest bicycle race, and alarmingly few people seemed troubled by it. The arrival on the Champs-Élysèes on Sunday of Spain's Pedro Delgado, wearing what must be the most soiled yellow jersey in the history of the Tour de France, was greeted not with the shame and condemnation it deserved, but with the usual pomp and honors, all thanks to a technicality.
On July 15, with a firm hold on the lead after 12 of the race's 21 days, Delgado paid a required visit to the drug-control truck when the Tour came to a halt in the Alpine village of Villard-de-Lans. The test turned up traces of probenecid, a drug favored by athletes who use outlawed anabolic steroids and don't want to get caught. Probenecid delays the steroids from reaching the urine, keeping the urine "cleaner" longer. Under the International Cycling Union (UCI) rules that govern the Tour, Delgado was entitled to a second test, and it confirmed the results of the first. All this would have been moot but for a bit of bureaucratic bungling that would shame even Inspector Clouseau: Since probenecid is not on the UCI's list of banned substances but is on the lists of the International Olympic Committee and the French Cycling Federation, the officials could simply have reported that Delgado had tested negative and no controversy would have arisen. (The UCI won't get around to adding probenecid to its list until next month.)
That left the Tour to explain how Delgado, a 28-year-old from Segovia, had tested positive, yet wouldn't be penalized. Never mind that he wouldn't be taking probenecid for any reason other than to hide steroid use, unless he had gout—an unlikely prospect considering that he covered the 2,020 miles of the race more than seven minutes faster than the runner-up, Steven Rooks of the Netherlands.
"Pedro didn't do anything wrong," said his team manager, Jose-Miguel Echavarri, disingenuously. "What counts in this race are the rules of the UCI." A headline in Marca, the Spanish sports daily, howled, "They want to take the yellow jersey away from us." while one Iberian radio commentator said, "This is just another whorish French plot!"
July 31, 1988
Actually, the French were relieved when the maillot jaune was blanchit, ox laundered, if only because Delgado was clearly the best rider. "The Tour can't commit hara-kiri," said the Parisian daily France-Soir. "It can't lose its champion."
Perhaps because of the very unreasonableness of what they ask their bodies to do, professional cyclists have long resorted to drug use to make it more bearable for them to go about their gritty business. Over the years, many of the sport's champions, including Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon, Sean Kelly and Joop Zoetemelk, have tested positive for one banned substance or another. Cycling is rich in tales of stolen urine samples and threatened doctors. There's the story, perhaps not apocryphal, of a male rider who turned in a sample, only to receive the verdict: negative but pregnant.
During the 1966 Tour the riders were so hostile to the rising clamor for testing that in protest they dismounted and walked for a stretch, chanting obscenities in unison. Controls came about only with the death the next year of Britain's Tom Simpson, who collapsed on a climb up Mont Ventoux when amphetamines pushed his heart past the breaking point.
Testing on the Tour takes place every day but only for four riders—the race leader, the stage winner and two chosen at random. If you're caught, the sanctions are humorously light: A first offender stays in the race but is demoted to last place for that day, fined about $750, assessed a one-month suspension that may be served during the off-season and docked 10 minutes in overall time. As feckless as the penalties are, though, they would have sufficed to drop Delgado from the lead.
Is everyone doping up? "No," says Andy Hampsten, the American who won this year's Tour of Italy, finished 15th in France and is one of the few riders willing to speak out. "But what can you think when the best guy in the world is on drugs? The yellow jersey is a symbol for me and everyone who admires cycling. This is essentially saying that to win the Tour de France you have to take drugs. Morally I don't believe that, and practically I don't believe that. In fact, you can do much better without drugs, certainly, in the long run. The attitude I hear isn't that drugs are bad for the sport, but the public knowing about it is bad. It's criminal for someone to use the stuff. It makes people wonder...."
Delgado was cheered warmly at the finish by Parisians as well as by numerous Segovians who filled some 40 buses for the trip to Paris. "I want to forget all this as quickly as possible." Delgado said of the controversy swirling about him. But anyone who cares about the integrity of the great bike race knows that the plague of drug abuse cannot be so easily dismissed.