Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Cycling’s Greatest Ever Attack?*

That asterisk in the title is me being both coy and a bit of a smartarse. Its coy because the I’m using it to add some equivocation to an otherwise blunt statement - after all, my cycling viewing only covers three decades, and even in that period I’ll admit to having seen plenty of other contenders for the title of cycling’s greatest ever attack. Its smart-arsed because the attack in question was made by Bjarne Riis, a man whose 1996 Tour De France win is also marked with an asterisk that refers you to his later admission that he used PEDs to win.

The attack in question is one I recently found myself discussing on an internet forum, where the consensus opinion was that it was one of cycling’s most shameful moments, which was funny, because for me, it was one of its finest. Bjarne Riis’s repeated attacks on stage 16 to Hautacam were so exciting they became the default highlight reel of my imagination. Long walks home, boring lectures on dead linguists, sleepless nights, all would be made bearable by flicking a switch in my memory and replaying that sequence of fade-and-attack, fade-and-attack that broke the wills of some of the strongest cyclists in the world.

 Bjarne Riis was my GC rider back then, the guy I rooted for. Until 1994 the Tour De France was nothing more than a homo-erotic Kraftwerk song to me. I had a half formed idea that it was a bike ride, maybe something along the lines of the London to Brighton. Accidentally stumbling across Channel 4’s coverage of Stage 1 to Armentiere was a revelation. Long stretches of beautiful yet serene racing that seemed too graceful to be just a sport, followed by bursts of action that seemed too brutal, again, to be just a sport. Literally, in fact, as this is how my first encounter with cycling finished:
I’d missed the prologue of the 1994 Tour, but it would be 263 stages before I missed another day of the Tour. Nevertheless, in those early days I hadn’t really picked up on the nuances of the sport. In 1994 I watched Indurain win without really investing with his victory. By the 1995 Tour I was reading Cycle Sport and Cycling Weekly and knew enough to know that Indurain wins were the status quo. By 1996 I didn’t want the status quo. I wanted cycling to realise it had a new fan, and to oblige me with a new yellow jersey. I was rooting for Riis, mainly because his ride in the previous year’s Time Trial had suggested that he was the man to look to if you wanted someone to challenge Big Mig. It was an incredibly exciting TT that you can watch below, accompanied by Channel 4’s glorious electronic rendition of Frere Jacques played on porno-guitar and stylophone:
Seriously, that tune still brings a nostalgic tear to my eye. Riis’ detractors like to talk about the 1996 Tour De France as if Riis simply took unsporting advantage of a declining Indurain, but that sells him short. Like it or not, Riis defeated one of the strongest fields ever seen in a Grand Tour. Even if you only include the riders who had won or would go on to win a Grand Tour you’re still looking at a list that includes Indurain, Olano, Jalabert, Jimenez, Mauri, Zulle, Ullrich, Rominger, Berzin, Gotti, Armstrong and Savoldelli. That's a whole bunch of GT winners, with a few World Champions and World No:1s among them.

Then factor in the guys who’d never win a grand tour but would have a huge influence on stage racing: Virenque, Moreau, Leblanc, Chiapucci, Luttenberger, Ugroumov, Piepoli and Escartin.

Riis didn’t just happen to be in the right place when Indurain crumbled, he defeated the best riders of the decade. Of course we now know that he was using PEDs when he did so, but again, look at the people he beat: Virenque, Zulle, Ullrich, Moreau and Leblanc would all admit to using PEDs, while Chiapucci and Berzin would both fail “Health Checks” (wherein the UCI would rule that it is not healthy, nor indeed normal, for riders to have blood as glutinous as wallpaper paste and only need to inhale once a fortnight.)

Even among the guys that never fell foul of either the vampires or their consciences, suspicion has always dogged Jalabert and Armstrong’s transformation into GC riders from porky sprinter and grumpy classics man respectively.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending doping and I love the progress cycling is currently making towards becoming a squeaky clean sport, but I find it hard to call Riis a cheat simply for riding under what seems to have passed for normal working conditions at the time. No one can actually know what percentage of the peloton were doped back then, but my feeling has always been that it was a majority, and a very sizeable majority at that. Rider after rider tested positive. Entire teams fell under suspicion and in many cases were caught with more than just beers in their coolboxes.

These days, when I genuinely feel that the clean riders outnumber the dirty ones, the use of PEDs makes a rider a cheat in my eyes, but back then? I just regret that they had to do some of the things they did. And what did Riis do? He crushed his rivals. This wasn’t defensive riding. It wasn’t even targeted aggression on one strategically vital day. This was a pop-eyed gurning Viking taking the axe to his rivals. He’d already taken the maillot jaune with a mountainous sprint to the finish on the weather-shortened stage to Sestriere, but his rivals were still on his wheels, expecting him to crumble. Instead he flattened them with series of hammer blows.

Zulle and Virenque have forced a selection by chasing after breakaway rider Laurent Roux, Tony Rominger has fallen off the back of the group of elite riders and Riis’ teammate Jan Ullrich is setting the pace up the middle slopes. Indurain, Olano, Berzin and Virenque are all still in the group of 16, as is Luttenberger, Leblanc, Escartin. Oh, and Paddy Jonker.

Riis suddenly eases up slightly, drifting to the right as the pack rounds a gentle corner, and drifts down the line. He's looking sideways at his rivals, eyeballing each of them and eventually drawing level with Leblanc. He’s halfway down the line, holding his position just in front of Berzin and Olano, with several dangerous men in front of him. Then, with a smoothness not normally associated with his burly, power-over-panache style, he smoothly accelerates back up the line, past Ullrich, and assumes a position maybe five meteres ahead of the pack. Indurain is forced to come around the naturally unhelpful Ullrich and drag the group back up to Riis’ wheel. It doesn’t sound like much, but anyone who’s ridden a lengthy hill will tell you that changing rhythm does more damage than any number of miles at your chosen pace. Closing that gap has hurt a lot of riders.

Next, Riis gets out of the saddle, riding just fast enough to force the others out of their seats, lifting the pace high enough to string them out and have Berzin and Olano drop off the back. The group is down to Dufaux, Jonker, Leblanc, Virenque and Indurain. Riis pulls off to the side again, and the lull in pace momentarily turns the line into a pack, as Riis again eyes his rivals, before another slow, smooth acceleration takes him up the road. He’s already dropped his nearest GC rivals, and this third burst claims the biggest scalp yet, as five time Tour winner Miguel Indurain is left behind, unable to up his rhythm a third time. He drifts back to and eventually through the distanced group that contains Olano and Luttenberger.

With only Leblanc, Virenque and Dufaux on his wheel, Riis stays out of the saddle, keeping the pace high. Dufaux still seems comparatively sprightly behind Riis, Leblanc looks solid. Virenque, wearing the King of the Mountains jersey is hanging on by his fingernails. It’s an illusion. Another few hundred yards at this pace and Dufaux can hang on no more, peeling off to the side, creating a bike’s length gap that Leblanc hasn’t the reserves to close. The stage is already won by that bike length, all that remains is to see how far Riis can pull it out.Here, watch it, and enjoy that theme tune again:
People often talk about ‘the look’ that Armstrong gave Ullrich in 2001, but eyeballing an overweight German boy doesn’t compare to Riis torturing the cream of cycling, deliberately making little gaps that would force them to make agonising shifts of pace that would ruin their legs. Doped or not, the dominance of the winner over such a strong field makes Hautacam 96 the most exciting of cycling’s many rounds of mountain warfare.

I’m anti-doping. I want the sport to be clean, but I have a harder time getting angry about a doped victory in the Pre-Festina days than I do nowadays. I genuinely believe that cycling now has a sizeable core of clean riders who are being cheated by dopers. Back then? Well, I suppose the saintly Gan team were getting it in the neck, but nine out of 219 riders is a proportion I find it harder to get wound up about.

More to the point, I don’t think that witch-hunting past riders and punishing current dopers is as important as planning for the future and praising clean riders. Yes, the guilty have to be punished, but this recurring talk of four years for a first offence and lifetime for a second is too much. Most dopers say the same thing-they got a stagiare contract, it was their first time away from home, they didn’t know anyone, they didn’t speak the language. Performance was the quickest way to carve themselve’s a desperately needed niche, and PEDs were the quickest way to boost their performance. Most dopers have made a terrible but understandable mistake. A potentially reducible two year ban allows them to pay for their crime and come back to the sport, it allows riders wishing to ‘break the chain’ the chance to confess and repent without going straight back to the factory or farmyard.

More importantly, bitching about Riis’s win and wishing they’d take his jersey away only begs the question, who do you give it to? Ullrich? Virenque? Dufaux? Taking a win from one confessed doper and giving it to another only muddies the waters. What we need is clarity. We need a message that says clean riders do exist, and the do win races. We need those clean riders to be lionised in the press and to run the teams when they retire. We need more Roger Legeays telling riders to stay clean. More Aldo Sassis telling them how to ride clean. More sponsors like Gan and Garmin who tell the riders that their paycheques will survive a loss of form but not a loss of integrity.

2011 was a bumper season for exciting racing by riders with spotless reputations. Instead of pretending that races of the dirty old days weren't exciting, lets keep reminding ourselves that even as the sport cleans up its act, we're still seeing great races. This year's Tour, Vuelta and Worlds could be the keystones of a program of positive reinforcement.

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