A short team time-trial through Nîmes on August 19 opens the Vuelta a España, the Spanish equivalent of the Tour de France and the third of the “grand tours,” the epic three-week races that are the summit of the bike racing season. (Yes, Nîmes is in southern France, but it’s a good deal nearer to Spain than France is to Berlin, Dublin, or Leeds, where the Tour has at one time or another held its Grand Départ.) Chris Froome will be attempting to become the first cyclist to win the Tour-Vuelta double in the same year since 1978. At the end of last month he won his fourth Tour, and he has come second in the Vuelta three times, behind Juan José Cobo, Alberto Contador, and last year the marvelous little Nairo Quintana, of Colombia.
This year’s Tour de France left many fans a little cold. It was blighted early by a crash that took Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan, the champion sprinter of the moment, out of the race, Cavendish because he broke his collar bone, Sagan because he was held to have caused the crash and was expelled. The French are in any case rueful that none of their compatriots has won their greatest sporting event for more than thirty years, since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
But it isn’t only the French who have mixed feelings about the way Team Sky, led by Froome, has dominated since 2012, when Sir Bradley Wiggins won his first and only Tour. Sky’s success has been based on careful calculation, what they call “marginal gains,” and few risks, all unlike the heroic days of Jacques Anquetil or Eddy Merckx, who took huge chances and imposed themselves on the race by dramatically seizing mountain stages. The Tour today can seem a little antiseptic by contrast.
At least Wiggins, a sometimes affable, sometimes truculent, often foul-mouthed Londoner, enjoys — or enjoyed — a degree of personal popularity. And Cavendish, from the Isle of Man, the on-and-off colleague with whom Wiggins enjoyed a tense relationship for so long, is one of the most likeable sportsmen of the age. (He is also, in the view of L’Equipe, the marvelous French sports paper, not noted for its rabid anglophilia, the greatest sprinter of all time.) By contrast, Froome is one of those athletes distinctly easier to admire than to love, a controlled, faintly dour personality, British through his parents but in a somewhat tenuous sense, born in Kenya, raised in South Africa, resident in Monaco, and it’s not wholly surprising that English fans haven’t taken him to their hearts.
The Tour-Vuelta double has become harder because of the calendar. At one time the Vuelta was run in April, then it was moved to September. That meant that the three grand tours were usefully spaced out with a month between each: Giro d’Italia in May, Tour in July, Vuelta in September. But the Vuelta has been brought forward and now begins in mid-August, when the rain in Spain stays far from the plains, which are too often parched and baking.
For weeks this summer the Mediterranean has been stifled by the heatwave called Lucifer, which has seen regular temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Provence and Corsica, higher still in southern Spain, and which might even convince President Trump that there was something to global warming if he experienced it for long. In recent years, the Vuelta cyclists have had to endure August heat, with unhappy consequences, and they are now praying for a break in the weather: even cycling through the rain, with the attendant danger of crashes, is better than the risk of heat stroke.
An indirect reason for Froome’s vague unpopularity is the shadow of doping that still hangs over so many sports. This can be seen in Bryan Fogel’s shocking new documentary Icarus, about what in effect has been prolonged state-sponsored doping of sports in Russia, of which the Sochi Winter Olympics was only an extreme case. Cycling has, alas but not unjustly, acquired a notoriety all of its own, with Lance Armstrong the most egregious of villains. For years Armstrong said that he was the most-tested athlete on earth and that he had never failed a test, which was true in the sense that it would be true if a mafia capo who had used every form of bribery and intimidation to avoid punishment claimed never to have been convicted of a criminal offence.
When the repellent Armstrong finally came clean, if one can use the word of him, what we learned was that the performance enhancing drugs he and his team were using had been undetectable at the time, at least at certain dosages. That’s quite easily explained. Cyclists more than most athletes have always used some form of narcotic to dull the senses and make the ordeal of long-distance racing easier to endure. It was alcohol before the Great War, cocaine between the wars, then amphetamine after 1945—and after another war in which that drug, which Italian cyclists called “la bomba,” had been handed out in copious quantities to German tank crews and American bomber crews alike.
Just how widely it was used became sadly clear fifty years ago this summer, when Tom Simpson, the brilliant English cyclist, collapsed and died as the Tour de France ascended the fearsome Mont Ventoux in Provence. His jersey pockets were stuffed with amphetamine pills, as was he. Doping was prevalent and winked at, even though it wasn’t so difficult to detect.
Like alcohol and cocaine, amphetamine isn’t a natural bodily product and its presence in blood or urine is obvious. The great change in doping came with the introduction of steroids and then EPO, which are synthetic versions of natural metabolic products, which means both that they do actually enhance performance and that they are far harder to detect. Steroids bulk up muscles—a few years ago a baseball writer had a nice phrase about one slugger who had emerged from winter training looking as though someone had stuck a bicycle pump in him and blown him up—while EPO, erythropoietin, or “Edgar” (as in Allan Poe) to Armstrong and his teammates, enhances red blood cells. We had thought that this problem had been resolved and that the testers had licked Edgar. But Icarus begins with Bryan Fogel subjecting himself to a regime of everything Armstrong used—and then passing drug tests.
And so one of the worst legacies of Armstrong’s disgraceful career is that all cyclists are suspect, whether deservedly or not, especially if they win. On his way to his Tour victories Froome has had “Dopé!” jeered at him, and even had a cup of urine thrown in his face (bike racing fans have never been much of an advertisement for French politesse). Most detached observers, of whom I hope I may be one, think this is disgraceful and unfair, since we believe that he is clean and bike racing as a whole at any rate is much cleaner than it was not long ago.
But that’s not the whole story. Hanging over Froome’s Sky team in particular is what sounds like a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Case of the Mysterious Jiffy Bag.” The Critérium du Dauphiné is one of my favorite races, a week-long “prep” race shortly before the Tour that often offers clues to the great contest. During the 2011 Dauphiné a padded “Jiffy bag” arrived by air at Geneva from Manchester for the use of Wiggins and containing—what?
When this story emerged years later we were first told that the Jiffy bag had contained fluimucil, a decongestant, then that it might have been triamcinolone, a corticosteroid. Wiggins had previously received “TUEs,” therapeutic use exemptions granted to a cyclist by a doctor to relieve a genuine medical condition. But there was no TUE in this case, and since both fluimucila and corticosteroid can be bought without prescription from a pharmacy in France, the plot thickens, and darkens.
All this has tainted the reputation of Sky, Wiggins, and Sir Dave Brailsford, who was manager of both Sky and the British national team, and who was knighted like Wiggins after the annus mirabilis of 2012 when Wiggins won the Tour with Sky and an Olympic gold medal in a British jersey. This March, Nicole Sapstead, the head of the British anti-doping agency, gave very damaging evidence to a parliamentary committee about Sky’s apparent lack of medical records and the obstruction she had met with when trying to investigate this strange affair.
With all of that murky background, it’s still possible to look forward to the Vuelta. Froome calls the Vuelta “a race I love—it’s vicious but it’s three weeks that I enjoy.” By vicious he means that what the Vuelta itself boasts are several “leg-breaker” stages are made harder by “accumulated exhaustion and high temperatures.” One stage in the far south finishes at Alto Hoya de la Mora at 8,000 feet, followed by Sierra de la Pandera at 6,000 feet, and a brutal, possibly decisive, stage on the last Saturday from Corvera de Asturias to Alto de l’Angliru. Froome is a heavy favorite, but he should be made to fight for victory by Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, and Alberto Contador who says this is the last race in his chiaroscuro career, which includes two wins in the Tour de France and an “unwin” when he was stripped of the 2011 title after testing positive for clenbuterol (he claimed that he had ingested it from a steak which a friend had brought him, an excuse the authorities didn’t buy).
Even those with no interest in bike racing might try watching on television: the three grand tours are the best possible travelogues, with aerial shots of three countries ravishingly beautiful in different ways, landscape of mountains and valleys, meadows and vineyards, castles, cathedrals and churches, great cities and pretty little towns. It might make even the most zealous Brexiter or America Firster warm a little to the glories of Europe.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Controversy of Zion, The Strange Death of Tory England, and Yo, Blair! (October 2016)