As the Tour de France comes to Britain for the first time ever, what can three books tell us about the meaning of the world's most demanding athletic contest?by Jack Thurston / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
The Beautiful Machine: A Life In Cycling from Tour De France to Cinder Hill by Graeme Fife (Mainstream, £16.99) Push Yourself a Little Bit More: Backstage at the Tour De France by Johnny Green (Orion, £17.99)
Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France by Geoffrey Wheatcroft (Simon & Schuster, £8.99)
Kicking off on 7th July, this year’s Tour De France will be the first in the event’s 104-year history to start in Britain. Another first is that there will be no reigning champion. Just a week after the American rider Floyd Landis won last year’s yellow jersey, it was announced that he had failed a routine test for use of synthetic testosterone, a prohibited substance used to aid physical recovery (Landis continues to protest his innocence, and has spent close to $1m defending himself).
In the wake of the Landis case, the reputation of professional cycling has sunk to a new low. A series of German riders have made confessions, including 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis. The first Tour winner to admit to doping, this May, Riis told a press conference: “My jersey is at home in a cardboard box. They are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself.” In what looks like a plea bargain, the leading Italian rider, Ivan Basso, has admitted “attempted doping.” The German Jan Ullrich, Tour winner in 1997 and five-time runner-up, retired rather than face questions. How does a competition scarred by cheating, lying and hypocrisy retain its huge following in France, in Britain and beyond?
Since the Tour began in 1903, riders have used drugs of one kind or another to dull the pain and to stay alert. However, everything changed with the emergence of red blood cell-boosting hormones and blood transfusion techniques. The main factor limiting a cyclist’s performance is not how much air the lungs can breathe in, nor how much oxygen the muscles in the legs can use; it is how fast the oxygen from the lungs can be transferred to the legs. The body uses red blood cells to do this, and so boosting red blood cell count directly tackles the bottleneck in the system. The effect on performance is pronounced; clean and doped-up riders simply do not compete on level terms. But blood doping is a risky business. Because the extra red cells thicken the blood, there is a danger…