Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Tour is Won on the Alpe: Book Review

The Tour is Won on the Alpe, Jean Paul Vespini, David V. Herlihy (Translator), Velo Press, 2008.

The Tour is Won on the Alpe is the quintessential reference book, required reading for any cycling fanatic.  No matter what context, your favorite Tour, your favorite rider, controversies, doping, everything is there in well written, short concise summaries.

L' Alpe d' Huez, also known as the Wall of L' Oisans, or the Dutch Mountain, is the queen of Tour de France climbs.

What are the key elements that make this such a sacred cycling ritual?  For starters, it's the geography.  The 14 kilometer (8.7 mile) climb is truly hellish as the elevation rises from 800 meters (2,625 feet) at Bourg d' Oisans to 1,860 meters (6,102 feet) at the summit.  The grade averages 8 percent, a rise of about 50 meters (164 feet) from one hairpin to the next.  The brutal slope becomes especially taxing after the bridge at Romanche, where some sections reach a 14 percent grade before the hamlet of La Garde.  For the uninitiated, it's a voyage into the depths of hell. P.xiv.
The switchbacks of L' Alpe d' Huez are numbered backward from number 21 at the base of the climb to number 1 near the summit.  The turns list a past stage winner's name, the elevation, and the nearest distance to an emergency telephone; a fact that is the constant brunt of rider mirth.

The first climb up L' Alpe d' Huez was run in 1952 and was won by Fausto Coppi, "Campionissimo," who donned the yellow jersey at the summit, which he would retain all the way to Paris.  The 1952 Tour de France was raced during a heat wave of 40+ degree Celsius temperatures, when people all over Europe were dying from heat exposure.  To slow the pace and deter breakaways, the Tour organizers accused the riders of brandishing their bicycle pumps.  A cartoon depicted the event with Phoebus wilting the riders while they rode, while hammer man (the symbol of injury) and the witch with green teeth (the symbol of bad luck) looked on appalled.

Then until the 1976 Tour de France, L' Alpe d' Huez was forgotten.  The stage was added almost as an afterthought after a planned stage was dropped from the Tour route due to a dispute between a developer and city government officials.  The stage was won by Joop Zoetemelk who nipped Lucien van Impe at the line, winning by a three second margin.  Henceforward, the Alpe would become enshrined as a permanent fixture of the Tour de France forever, attracting over the years millions of delirious fans, who fight for prime viewing areas, and who cheer on their favorite heroes in a bedlam environment that defies description.

Jacques Goddet Goes Crazy

Everybody thought that the 1977 Tour de France would be the year of the resurgence of Eddy Merckx, who had won five Tour de France titles, and who was looking forward to a record number six.  However, during a rest day, after eating contaminated celery root, Eddy Merckx was visibly suffering from food poisoning, puking his guts out all over the road.  Everyone thought that Eddy Merckx would abandon at any moment.  Instead, on L' Alpe d' Huez, Eddy Merckx would regain his incredible fluid pedal stroke, and would boast at the summit that he had climbed the Wall of L'Oisans at a faster pace than Hennie Kuiper, who won the stage!  There were no objections to this assertion by Eddy Merckx; in fact, people gazed at the greatest cyclist of all time in admiration after he had managed another amazing feat of athletic prowess.

But other than the amazing feats of Eddy Merckx the rest of the 1977 Tour de France was raced at what Jacques Goddet considered a snail's pace.  Jacques Goddet claimed that the fanatics were dying of boredom because there were few, if any, breakaways during the race.  In an L' Equipe editiorial Jacques Goddet called for "A plea for a new Tour."

Goddet suggested new attractions, a 100 kilometer (62 mile) team time trial and a motorcycle paced event, along with increased incentives, such as a greatly enhanced prize for "competitiveness" and stiffer penalties, such as annulling all stage specific prizes if the average speed fell below a set minimum.  P.26; italics added.

Jacques Goddet's suggestion bordered on lunacy.  There were a huge number of big name cyclists who had tested positive for the drug stimul, an amphetamine based cocktail in 1977, including Bernard Thevenet, Eddy Merckx, and Freddy Maertens.   The riders were furious, insisting that they were racing under inhuman conditions, and that they were being denied even rudimentary medications they needed to treat their racing injuries.

Prior to the Tour, on the eve of the Giro in Milan, Eddy Merckx had called the racers to an impromptu meeting in which they demanded that the lists of banned substances be revised to distinguish medicines that cause little or no harm from those that are truly dangerous.  The former were to be tolerated and the latter "rigorously forbidden."  P.27.

Marc Jeuniau, a Belgian journalist and Merckx's longtime confidant, called for fewer mountaintop finishes in order to decrease the racers' incentive to use drugs.  "Whatever happened to all those promises to humanize the Tour?  Instead, the organizers have increased the number of mountaintop finishes.  They've shamelessly eliminated the transitional stages and have even hauled the racers from the end of the Alps straight to the foothills of the Pyrenees.  It is difficult, even inconceivable, to be a professional cyclist in 1977 and not resort to taking stimulants." P.27

But, in spite of racer pleas for a more rational selection of banned substances, more transitional stages, and rest stages to help the riders recover: here is Jacques Goddet, demanding that the riders ride above a set minimum time or be penalized.  This idiotic logic of increasing the Tour speed would be fully realized in future Tours de France when the tempo set by the riders exceeded what could be reasonably considered physiologically impossible without dope.  The Tour organizers preferred to turn a blind eye to what was happening because the later Tours of the steroid era featured long breakaways that were reeled in at the last moment by the sprinter teams, with the aid of race radio, well orchestrated by the directeur sportif, who timed these exploits with a stopwatch; very exciting, people were wide awake marveling at these spectacles.  And who can forget the look Lance Armstrong gave Jan Ullrich on L' Alpe d' Huez when Lance Armstrong sprinted up the Dutch Mountain at supersonic speed dropping the hapless German like a hot rock?  People were jumping up and down in an excited frenzy over these exploits with admiring expressions of wonder too.  Oui?  But then again there were people who wondered how every year the average speed of the Tour increased, or how Marco Pantani rode so much faster than Bernard Hinault up L' Alpe d' Huez.  Everyone suspected doping: there were too many positive tests during the steroid era from too many top riders, but nobody dropped dead on the hairpin turns of L' Alpe d' Huez like Tommy Simpson did on Mont Ventoux.  So what if your blood was a thick as mud, as long as you did not die on the course, nobody cared enough to intervene.

Dope, Deception, and Detection

There are plentiful examples of doping referenced in The Tour is Won on the Alpe.  In 1978 Michel Pollentier won the stage up L' Alpe d' Huez and the yellow jersey, but he tried to fool the doping control by hiding a bladder of clean urine under his armpit and extending a tube down his back ending behind his penis. The doping doctor on duty caught him because he insisted that Michel Pollentier pull down his pants and lift up his jersey.  Plus the tube seemed to be plugged up with something so Michel Pollentier could not provide any substitute urine anyway.  Michel Pollentier was stripped of his yellow jersey, relegated to the back of the peloton for the stage, penalized ten minutes in the general classification, and fined $5,000 Swiss francs for this fraud. Michel Pollentier claimed that he used an anti-asthmatic drug during the Tour, and he was afraid if found out, of being expelled from the race.  This episode leads to two important lessons.  (1) The need for a therapeutic use exemption for legitimate medical concerns, as was suggested by Eddy Merckx, and eventually implemented by the UCI, and (2) that the penalties for doping devolved from a reasonable and rational level into a draconian, arbitrary, irrational monstrosity.  Relegated to the back of the pack, penalized ten minutes in the general classification, fined, are a far cry from two year suspensions for a first doping offense, four years for a second offense, the death penalty for a third offense, endless litigation, and expense.  These barbaric arbitration "awards" benefit, whom?  Certainly not the athlete.  The UCI should return to the days where an infraction leads to a reasonable punishment.  That way cycling could dispense with the legal circus and dispense with outside actors who have no business passing judgment on anyone.  Of course, repeat offenders were suspended for up to a year, even in 1978.  Nevertheless, the draconian suspensions deter no one, because if that was the case, after the treatment Floyd Landis received, Alberto Contador would have never been stripped of his title for using clenbuterol.  But on the other hand, after the Festina Affair in 1998, Richard Virenque would have never have been allowed to exploit a loophole in the UCI regulations to start the 1999 Tour, in spite of the objections of Jean-Marie LeBlanc.  So where does the happy medium lie, in hypocrisy, persona non grata?

1989 Tour de France: Greg LeMond Versus Laurent Fignon: L' Alpe d' Huez

There were many great battles on L' Alpe d' Huez, but perhaps none more significant than the battle that emerged between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon during the 1989 Tour de France.  Simply put Greg LeMond started to self destruct on the climb giving Laurent Fignon an opportunity to bury him.

7 kilometers from the top, LeMond, began to falter, his shoulders rocking back and forth.  It was a sign that Cyrille Guimard, Fignon's directeur sportif recognized: LeMond was out of gas.  He threaded his car through the sea of crazed fans and pulled up to Fignon.  "You've got to go. Now!"  Fignon, his face wreathed in sweat, looked over, "I can't do it," he said, "I can't." P.94

Guimard dropped back and waited.  The three (LeMond, Fignon, Delgado) climbed as a group.  And then, at turn 6, just before the hamlet of Huez and only four kilometers (2.4miles) from the summit, Guimard once again pushed his car through the crowds.  "Attack!" LeMond is cooked.  It's now or never!"  Now Fignon made his move, throwing all his aggression and hopes into a painful effort.  He had 53 seconds to make up in order to retake the yellow jersey.  At turn 3, 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the finish, he had already taken back 52 seconds. P.95.

Suddenly, wrote Philippe Bouvet in L' Equipe, LeMond sat back down in the saddle.  He reached for his shift lever, he wavered.  The narrow corridor that the fans had yielded was not wide enough; LeMond was all over the place.  For 500 meters, it was terrible: the yellow jersey was drowning in a sea of spectators.  No car or motorcycle could follow him carefully enough to keep the crowd from closing in on him. P.95

Laurent Fignon took over the yellow jersey from LeMond on L' Alpe d' Huez and wore it all the way to Paris, where in the final stage time trial he lost the race by 8 seconds.  LeMond had used aerodynamic tri bars, disc wheels, aerodynamic helmet, while Laurent Fignon used a standard safety bicycle.  Why would Cyrille Guimard allow this discrepancy to happen, aerodynamics verses a standard bicycle?  The reason, according to Jean-Paul Vespini, is because Cyrille Guimard thought that Laurent Fignon had squandered his chances on the turns of L' Alpe d' Huez, so Laurent Fignon did not deserve to win the Tour de France!

The Decline of Greg LeMond

Francesco Conconi predicted that the newly emerging Miguel Indurain would dominate the Tour de France in two years during the 1989 Tour de France.  How insightful!  Greg LeMond had a penchant to win the Tour at the last second like Zorro!  But one insight I gleaned from Jean-Paul Vespini's book that never occurred to me before is the fact that Greg LeMond resembled Jan Ullrich, the off season slackness, the lack of preparation and work ethic, and the crash course of training to get into Tour de France race shape.  Plus Greg LeMond was always a fragile, psychologically unstable man, who was never sure of himself in the face of stress.  Greg LeMond also never learned that the top of the cycling world is very short lived, the young men are always waiting to depose the old men, like Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon did to Bernard Hinault.  Greg LeMond always complained that his misfortunes limited his number of his Tour victories, that he could of outdistanced even Eddy Merckx, without the curse of the witch with green teeth!  But Fignon and Hinault suffered injuries that made them miss Tour de France races in their primes, so Greg LeMond's excuses are superficial at best.  Let us just say that father time caught up with Greg LeMond.  His era, though great, had passed, and it wasn't merely a matter of EPO, but perhaps more importantly, a matter of mitochondrial myopathy.  The fact that Greg LeMond was forever bitter about his bad luck, and the fact that he tried to transfer his bitterness into accusatory expedients of others' behavior is inexcusable and shows that Greg LeMond, even though he was a great cyclist, is not a great person to emulate.

Update:  This review is unusually truncated.  I wrote down pages of notes that I thought were pertinent; but as I have done in some posts, I may add the notes to future discussions.  The book begins with Fausto Coppi and ends with the 2006 Tour de France.  The 2006 L' Alpe d' Huez stage was won by Frank Schleck, and the 2006 Tour de France was won by Floyd Landis, who tested positive for synthetic testosterone in a highly suspicious test result. Floyd Landis was stripped of his title, and was banned from cycling for two and one half years.  If the circumstances were more reasonable, Floyd Landis would have lost his title anyway, if he would have been retroactively penalized ten minutes in the general classification and relegated to the back of the peloton for his doping offense.  There would have been no need for USADA, or Travis Tygart, no need to revoke his racing license, no need for Floyd Landis to spend two million dollars in litigation fees, no need for USADA to spend millions in litigation costs, no need for the American Arbitration Association, the Court of Arbitration of Sport, no need to lampoon Floyd Landis in the press or to smear his character.  Some people might say, "Ah, come on man, don't do the crime, if you can't do the time, don't do it," or some other trite cliche.  I don't agree because people are not infallible, science is not perfect, and people have tendencies to make mistakes.  Eliminate the mistakes and I will adopt your philosophy that the best way to avoid punishment is to avoid engaging in behavior that requires punishment.  But guess what gang, police arrest the wrong people, witnesses identify the wrong people, people languish in prisons who are innocent!  Re-examination of cold case DNA have cleared many a man sentenced to death; the facts were in error!  The judgement was in error!  The witnesses were in error!  The police were in error!  And I insist that LNDD was in error!  USADA was in error!  The Court of Arbitration of Sport was in error!  And I insist that Floyd Landis was punished in error!

Marco Pantani, the fastest time up L' Alpe d' Huez ever.  His record could not be beat even by Lance Armstrong in a time trial up the Alpe.  With all the reforms the record may stand forever.    If the Alpe is your stage, The Tour is Won on the Alpe is the book for you!