Henry Jeffreys

The Tour de France

I want to believe, I really do. But this is a sport with a 25-year record of letting down its fans on doping

On Saturday at Mont St Michel, the 103rd edition of the Tour de France begins, and the favourite to win is again British. As a long-term cycling fan, even typing those words gives me a frisson. When I started watching in the 1980s there were few British riders to cheer on — and none challenging for overall victory. Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win in 2012. He was followed by Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015. The French haven’t won since 1985. Britain is now a cycling superpower and cycling has become a popular sport. So why aren’t I celebrating?

The problem is the lingering doubt that none of this is real. There’s no reason to question Froome’s performances, except that there are few champions who we can confidently say never took drugs. Jacques Antequil, five times winner in the 1950s and ’60s, is quoted as saying: ‘You can’t win the Tour de France on mineral water alone.’ To ride 3,000 kilometres, you need a bit of help.

Pre-war riders took cocaine and even strychnine washed down with brandy. Later amphetamines came in, followed in the 1980s by steroids. Drug tests were introduced in 1966, but not rigorously enforced. This wasn’t really a problem because neither speed nor steroids gave riders much advantage over a three-week Tour de France: in the late 1980s, an anti-doping crusader like America’s Greg LeMond could win.

The problem came in the 1990s with the introduction of EPO. This drug enabled an athlete’s blood to carry more oxygen and therefore produce more power for longer. LeMond and his fellow 1980s star Laurent Fignon suddenly seemed way off the pace. When Miguel Indurain, who won five times between 1991 and 1995, rocketed past Fignon in the 1992 Tour, Fignon said that the performance was ‘extraterrestrial’.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in