You know, there are times I think professional cycling has the honesty of Bulgarian weightlifting.
You remember that? A stocky little man with a belt would turn up and lift some improbable weight, and the crowd would cheer, and a week later he’d be done for steroids.
I don’t know it actually was Bulgarians who cheated most but there seemed to be an awful lot of them.
The two things I know about Bulgaria is that they don’t write the way we do and, more entertaining, they nod up and down for No and side to side for Yes. To be fair to the weightlifters, therefore, they were possibly nodding No to drugs but the salesmen took it for Yes.
So far as I know, weightlifters began unscrewing the tops of pill bottles only after Californian beach boys spread the word that two blue pills of anabolic steroids a day could have a remarkable effect. Until then they probably trained on raw meat and uncooked eggs in the way they were supposed to.
Cycling Under the Influence
You can’t, of course, say the same of cycling. Nor will the latest bunch to find themselves in a fix tell you much. The riders from the Italian Lampre team, whether they are innocent or guilty, will follow strong Italian tradition and maintain an omerta. It is how it is in cycling. Everyone knows it’s happening but nobody will say.
Cyclists have been relieving the toil of their work for as long as they have raced. Track riders took cocaine and road riders got drunk. There wasn’t much traffic on the road and the more pie-eyed you were, the less it hurt and the more easily passed the monotonous hours of races more than 300km long.
Emptying a wine bottle at intervals lasted well after riders had discovered ether, which they sniffed from soaked handkerchiefs tied round their neck (which will explain a lot when you look at old photographs) and which made them numb even faster than alcohol did.
Alcohol died out only under the influence of the three Pélissier brothers, French stars after the First World War, who wondered what it would be like to race sober and found it quite tolerable. But by then they’d discovered cocaine and Henri and Francis Pélissier gave Albert Londres the newspaper story of his life when they opened their drugs caseand showed him what they took.
They were still unusual in talking about it, though. That was what made Londres’ story the more striking. But everybody knew and when in 1930 Henri Desgrange opened his Tour de France to only national teams, whose expenses he would have to pay, his instructions to riders were that they could expect free board and lodging but they’d pay for their drugs themselves.
The Trail of Drug Detritus
By the 1950s, you could follow the last hours of the Tour de France route without looking for the arrows. You just watched for the trail of discarded syringes, small bottles and pill wrappings. You may think that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not; there were so many that level-headed folk began to worry about the danger of the syringes on children and, this being rural France, cattle.
Did you see much about it in cycling reports? No, you didn’t. Reporters knew where their living came from just as much as the riders did. Their job, they recognized, was to create a fairy tale sport in which riders were jolly good sports, if a little rough round the edges sometimes, and all soigneurs were genial, pipe-sucking men you wouldn’t mind having as an uncle. The deceit lasted until television showed it was otherwise.
Sometimes, though, something would happen to force even the most cynical reporter to admit what was going on. In 1962 — a long time ago, but it does show how long the problem’s been with us — the Tour was open once more to sponsored teams. And one, Wiels, sponsored in Belgium but led by a German, was to get more publicity than the men back at the brewery were hoping.
It seems unbelievable now, but the Tour agreed to set off 10 minutes late because Hans Junkermann, Wiels’ top man, had been ill most of the night. He was slow getting his shoes on in the morning because he still felt rough.
It was a sunny day down on the Mediterranean, and it soon turned hot. The riders weren’t in a mood to go flat out but Junkermann was soon at the back at even that gentle pace and after 50km he’d been dropped. He collapsed on the first hill, crawled to the side of the road and sat there with his head in his hands.
Not Just Another Fish Story
“It was the bad fish at the hotel,” he complained. “It made me ill all night.”
The first cynical smiles were smiled. And there was a lot of bad fish about, too, because no fewer than 11 other riders abandoned that day, they or their teams gratefully taking their lead from the fallen German and blaming fish. Among them, former winners or yellow jerseys.
Well, that really was too much. Reporters were happy to keep a secret, but they resented being made fools of. Riders were free to tell tales, but they should at least use their initiative.
It wasn’t hard to call the riders’ hotels. And the hotel-keepers, who liked to keep their reputation and weren’t keen to be accused of serving stinking fish, hit the roof. One by one they proved the riders hadn’t eaten fish. They could show their menus to prove it. And fish hadn’t been an option.
So what did happen? Well, who knows? The tale was fishy, it occupied the papers for days, but the omerta was as dark as ever. Just as it remains now, half a century later.
I wonder if it’s the same in Bulgarian weightlifting.