GUEST POLEMIC: The Festina Affair - Suze Clemitson

Image: ©CorVos

They were my beaux gars. The only team I’ve ever followed, really invested in emotionally. Where other superteams have left me cold, Festina – with their buccaneering style, their panache (yes, I went there) and their effortlessly cool jersey – filled my cynical heart with joy.

Which is what brought me to a Campanile – I’m pretty certain it was a Campanile, maybe a Novotel, a cheapish budget chain anyway – on the edge of Cholet, an unremarkable town in the Poitou-Charentes region of France, a 40 minute drive from my front door.

I didn’t know then that Cholet was where it all began. Where the needle went in and the blood was spun and the decision made. But it was Cholet where it would all fall apart. Where Bruno Roussel would be arrested even as I was getting Neil Stephens’s autograph and perving over Mario Cipollini (Seaco were at the same hotel) and battering my way through the crowds to shout ‘Allez Richard!’ and catch a glimpse of the worst mullet ever, perched like a dormant beaver on the bonce of Laurent Brochard.

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I watched it unfold on France 2. The defiance and the defeat. The peroxide and the tears. The speech Virenque gave as he renounced the Tour, so prescient of Armstrong’s infamous words seven years later. I devoured L’Equipe, guiltily pleasured by the drama of the Tour de France tearing itself to pieces and, somewhere in the middle of it, all the Last Double.

Pantani and Virenque. One the fragile angel, the other the stubborn mountain goat. I was always a Virenque girl – I loved the long-range attacks, the swagger, the sexy shoulder shift. There was something muscular and balletic about him, like the Gene Kelly to Pantani’s Fred Astaire. Gritty grace versus angular elegance.

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Of course Virenque is now cycling’s pantomime villain par excellence. And therein lies our essential hypocrisy. We casually cry ‘doper’ when we see that tip tilt nose and those familiar curls, greyer now, the nose set in a fatter face. His King of the Mountains record is derided, he has become nothing but a points-bagger, the swooping, swooning exploits of his solo victories derided as merely dope-fuelled nonsense.

And yet we applaud Pantani. We enfold him and his tragedy in our collective bosoms. We forgive him his trespasses for the victories he gave us. And yet, and yet – when Virenque beats him we scoff, we sneer. But when Pantani beats Virenque we cheer him to the echo. Both in their way were genies, magicians of the models. And both doped. Yet we embrace one and vilify the other.

Why? Because we’re human. Because we respond to personality – and despite Voet’s pen portrait in ‘Breaking the Chain’ we know, from the comfort of our judgemental sofas, that Virenque was an arrogant little shit and Pantani a misunderstood and tortured genius. We execute twisted little semantic dances to explain why some doping is acceptable – innate talent, hard work, personality. We know we’re hypocrites, that we blind our eyes to one and give side eye to another based on nothing more than the way a gear is spun or a bandana knotted.

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Festina carry a toxic legacy. And yet the sport missed its chance to clean up. To make the Festina Affair a definitive watershed for how we approach the age-old question of doping in the sport. Instead it was business as usual. Pantani, a doper, eventually won what was left of the ‘99 Tour in a duel with Ullrich, another doper. From 2000 onwards the race was won not by a rider but a doctor.

And yes, those roots of evil that Roussel described took hold long before Pantani or Armstrong or Ullrich or even Virenque were born. They are simply the fleurs du mal. But the Roundup has been poorly applied. The canker is still in the bud.

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Of course there has never been anything romantic about a sports event created to flog newspapers. It’s always been commercialised, the riders mobile billboards, the race ultimately an entertainment. The fictions that L’Auto and L’Équipe created, the idea of France, the inhuman challenge, the Giants of the Road made great copy. The doping was always there with the idea of winning. But that’s another myth – of the amphetamines taken to meet the unbearable demands of the endless road, of something to take away the pain, the unbearable pain. It’s bullshit. Results mean money and in a career that remains brutally short, that can be made shorter by a badly navigated descent or a rogue race vehicle, it’s the bottom line.

And what do we demand, as fans? Entertainment. Thrills. A bit of vicarious, innocuous pleasure. We pick our favourites. We include them in our fantasy games and bet on them like jockeys. We make our judgements. And we blind our eyes to some and turn a death stare on another because some strike us as ‘good guys’, or gifted, or they speak our language and others are arrogant little shits. Dopers.

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I’ve never fallen out of love with Festina. Not through Virenque’s absurd denials. Hervé’s bizarre self imposed ‘suspension’. The revelations and the recriminations and the accusations. They have always fascinated me – the dichotomy at their heart, the choices made. The way they exposed our innate hypocrisy, revealed the corruption and weakness behind the façade, forced us to confront the very stuff that cycling was made of – the shady deals and the magic potions, the grisly gristly stuff inside the sausage.

There has never been a team so real again – who took the magic 10% that doping offered them and ran with it, pushing their capabilities, their strengths and fallibilities to the ultimate. Banesto were boring, ONCE chaotic, Postal robotic. None of them prodded and shoved at the envelope to see just how far it could be pushed like Festina did.

And what if it wasn’t just the dope? What if the training that Vayer was doing – the innovative, forward-thinking, sports-science-based programme - was paying as many or more dividends? Do Sky truly show us what Vayer’s vision could be when you do it ‘clean’ – whatever ‘clean’ really means?

I deliberately haven’t written about Christophe Bassons. The Bassons and Delions of this world, who did it on pan y agua, deserve better. Better than being laughed at for their courage and bravery. Better than being bullied and decried by their own teammates.

Better than a sport that failed them then and continues to fail them now. A sport without the real appetite for change.

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    • Matthew Bailey
  • With the greatest of respect, how can I take your publication seriously when you can’t even get the winner of the 1999 Tour de France correct? Allow me to remind you that Lance Armstrong won the 1999 Tour… or didn’t… whatever… What isn’t the case is what you wrote: “Pantani, a doper, eventually won what was left of the ‘99 Tour in a duel with Ullrich”. I thought it was a typo until I saw that you implicitly stated that Lance’s first win was 2000 immediately after. Come on!!

    • Anonymous