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Cycling: Caught in vicious cycle
PAUL KIMMAGE IN THE VENDEE
He’s a bright young star of cycling, but Philippe Gilbert believes that his talent will not be enough for him to make it big
Saturday morning in Nantes is mild and misty and grey. A woman in a bright orange sweater walks her poodle along the banks of the Loire; a young man in a bright yellow football shirt waves to his girlfriend as she leaves for work; and across the road, on the first floor of the Mercure Hotel, rider No 176 kicks his legs out of bed and his countdown to the Tour de France begins.
There is much that needs to be explained about rider No 176; he did not feature in any of the Tour previews yesterday morning and is unlikely to feature in the results this afternoon. On Tuesday he will celebrate his 23rd birthday with a lung-bursting 67km team time trial from Tours to Blois. It’s his first Tour, and you’ll get any price you like on him at your local bookies. His name is Philippe Gilbert.
He is a native of Verviers, Belgium. It’s his third season as a professional with the French team Francaise des Jeux and he has already accumulated some impressive results: stage winner in the Tour de L’Avenir; stage winner in the Tour Down Under, the Tour of the Mediterranean and the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque; winner of Paris-Correze; winner of the Tour du Haut Var; winner of the Trophee des Grimpeurs.
Known in the business as a coureur complet, he possesses the two vital attributes — the ability to climb and time-trial — required to win the Tour de France and in an ideal world we’d be reporting today that this is where his childhood dream begins. But it is not an ideal world, and the grim facts of this very grim sport are that Philippe Gilbert’s dreams have already ended.
Two weeks ago, on his return from a modest performance in the week-long Dauphine Libere — the traditional pre-Tour warm-up race — Gilbert received a phone call from a Belgian journalist, Philippe Van Holle, inquiring about his ambitions for the Tour.
“Will you be travelling to the start in Fromentine in hope or expectation?” asked Van Holle.
“With hope, certainly,” the rider replied, “but I also know, given the appetiser I’ve just had at the Dauphine, that I’m going to really suffer as well. Mentally, I’m preparing myself for a very hard time. I’ll just do what I can, when I can.”
“But at least now you have an idea of the gap separating you from the summit and the work you need to do to compete against the best?” Van Halle suggested.
“I can tell you now,” Gilbert said, “that I will never reach the level I saw at the Dauphine. It doesn’t matter how hard I train; I’m never going to get there. I understand now that I am never going to win the Tour de France — maybe I will shine for a day or two, but that’s it.”
Surprised at his response, the journalist asked whether Gilbert was implying what he thought he was implying — that the cancer of doping was still prevalent in the sport. Gilbert affirmed that he was. So perhaps you will forgive us for cheering his courage this morning or for dwelling too long on the dullness of the weather. It reflects the general lassitude.
It’s been a depressing few days for those who aspire to a dope-free Tour. On Thursday, as the teams arrived in Challans for the traditional pre-race medical, a soigneur (physio) with the Gerolsteiner team was sacked after a Danish TV reporter, Niels Christian Jung, produced a series of e-mails sent between the physio and one of the many sports practitioners/doping gurus operating on the fringes.
“What do you recommend when mixing Insulin and
HGH (human growth hormone)? What are the safe
doses for Synachten? (ACTH - red.) How long are you positive
with 2.5mg of Androderm? What are the
doses for euphyllin and theophyllin? Can you
send me some information on NESP (the latest
version of EPO)? What’s the procedure when using
lutrelef, (zeg maar: LHRH - red.)
Seven years after the Festina scandal, there is a sense that some of the old practises have started to take root again — not that there was ever much conviction about weeding them out. How do you begin to balance the following?
Christophe Bassons, the most courageous rider in the history of the sport, is the first to challenge the old omerta and is rewarded immediately by being ushered into retirement.
Marco Pantani, a celebrated drug-user and cheat, dies of an overdose and the sport responds with talk of building him a monument.
The British rider David Millar threatens to sue The Sunday Times for impugning his reputation, and six weeks later, when exposed as a cheat by French police, begs us to believe in his sudden conversion to morality and starts promoting himself as a role model for kids.
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual on the Tour, where the Spaniard Jesus Manzano narrowly avoids joining the legend of Tom Simpson when he goes into seizure after a dodgy blood transfusion.
In 13 months seven riders — Denis Zanette, 32, Fabrice Salanson, 23, Jose-Maria Jimenez, 32, Johan Sermon, 21, Mario Ceriani, 16, and Marco Rusconi, 24, die of heart attacks and we are still asked to believe in “the most beautiful job in the world”. How long can innocence and virtue survive in this world?
And if Philippe Gilbert prevails and continues to spurn the temptation of doping, what will be his reward? Will the sport promote him as the template to follow, or label him a pariah, like Bassons? Again, the signs are not encouraging.
For three days, Gilbert has been sharing a hotel with the Lampre and Quick Step- Innergetic teams. He will have noticed the presence in the Quick Step uniform of the recently retired Johan Museeuw. The former world champion is not listed as a member of the Quick Step staff, but that’s probably not a surprise, given his recent drug ban by the Belgian Cycling Association.
But what is Gilbert to make of Museeuw’s presence on the race and the back-slaps and handshakes that greet him at the start of each stage? Doping is wrong? Cheating doesn’t pay? And you can imagine Gilbert’s reaction on Friday evening, when he returned to his room after the team presentation and flicked on his television . . . Was that really Richard Virenque being unveiled in a three-year deal as Eurosport’s new correspondent? The same Richard who used to poke fun at Bassons during their time together at Festina because Bassons refused to cheat? Surely Eurosport could not justify such a thing. For what would happen in the unlikely event of drug cheats actually being exposed during the race?
“And now we turn to our analyst, Richard Virenque.
Richard, you’re the house expert, what do you think?” “Ehhh . . .”
“We’re talking life bans, right? We’re talking about teaching them a lesson they will finally understand, right?” “Ehhh .. . ”
Imagine what it must feel right now to be Christophe Bassons. Imagine how Philippe Gilbert will suffer in the next three weeks. Imagine a dream you’ve held since childhood dying before it begins. Allez, Philippe, bonne chance.