Tour de France 2015

Jason Dasey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

As five-time champion Jacques Anquetil once remarked: 'The Tour de France is not won on mineral water alone'. He was underlining the fact that nobody really wanted to know what it took to survive three weeks of agony through the mountains, hills and plains of Europe.

The Frenchman spoke those famous words half a century ago, but they seem to have more truth today than ever, despite the ongoing mantra from the sport's bosses that cycling has cleaned up its act.

For the second straight year, the Tour de France ended last month without a single rider detected for drug use. But German doping experts described the new tests as 'a joke' and 'very poor', that did little to stop cheating, while the French Anti-Doping Agency said the procedures were organised in such a way that the riders knew about them beforehand.

This week, the Chinese Cycling Association confirmed that Lance Armstrong's RadioShack teammate Li Fuyu had tested positive for a banned substance. The 32-year-old, a ground-breaking first Chinese professional on a ProTour team, was found to have used the anabolic agent clenbuterol at a race in Belgium in March and now faces a two-year ban.

And less than two weeks after his final Tour de France appearance, Armstrong himself was embroiled in a fresh row, his lawyer accusing the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) of illegally offering 'sweetheart' deals to cyclists to testify against the seven-time champion in a federal investigation.

Representing Armstrong, Tim Herman said that by dangling the carrot of reduced suspensions to tainted riders if they dished the steroid dirt on the 38-year-old American, Usada was breaking a law that prohibits a private party offering anything in exchange for testimony. But the anti-doping body countered that there was nothing illegal in simply asking riders to be truthful about drug use.

Armstrong (pictured) agreed before the 10th stage of this year's Tour to co-operate with any fair investigation as long at it didn't degenerate into a 'witch hunt'. But the icon of the sport must now be questioning the wisdom of his comeback, with the accusations of disgraced former teammate Floyd Landis still ringing in his ears.

Landis' claims - in leaked e-mails to senior cycling and anti-drug bosses - related to the 2002 and 2003 seasons from which he accused Armstrong of using erythropoietin and blood transfusions and having knowledge of a financial deal arranged by the US Postal Service team with the International Cycling Union to cover up details of Armstrong's positive test.

The claims were denied - Armstrong and Team RadioShack say that Landis was acting out of sour grapes after being refused a riding contract - but they form the basis of that joint investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and the US government.

Before his comeback, the most common words associated with Armstrong, according to online tracking firm Zeta Interactive, were 'hero' and 'legend'. Today, they are 'scandal', 'lie' and 'steroids'. Zeta has also charted an approval rating that has dropped from 86% in early July to just 58% this week.

For now, the sponsors are sticking behind him, and the donations for the Lance Armstrong Foundation are still rolling in. Since 1997, the charity, with its Livestrong bracelets, has raised a staggering US$325 million for cancer research.

But the example of Tiger Woods shows just how quickly a premium sports brand can be tainted.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Armstrong - third last year and 23rd this - had a lot more to lose than gain from his return to Le Tour after a four-year gap.

As one cycling journalist put it: 'My admiration is greater than my suspicion.' Armstrong has frequently described himself as the 'most tested athlete in the history of sports' and claimed that his antagonists - including former-rival Greg LeMond, ex-WADA boss Dick Pound, investigative journalist David Walsh and former massage therapist Emma O'Reilly - were grudge holders or axe grinders.

But by putting himself in the public spotlight again instead of basking in the glory of his septuple success, there was always a risk of further scrutiny of his 20-year competitive career, which spanned cycling's most notorious drug years.

Winner of the 2006 Tour de France, Landis, no doubt, feels like Ben Johnson did stripped of the 100m gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. History showed Johnson wasn't the only man 'juiced up' in the final, and Landis clearly believes that other cheats should be made to pay, just like he has.

Publicly, the Armstrong legal team is putting on a dismissive front about 'unfounded' allegations, raking over 'old stuff'. Privately, they will be very careful not to make even the smallest slip-up.

Because, as the example of Tiger Woods proves, an unforeseen event or random circumstance - like a seemingly innocuous fender bender in your own neighbourhood - has the potential to open up a whole can of worms. And if that happens, those 72 million Livestrong bracelets could quickly end up in the recycling bin.