On Wedenesday, Landis looked all set to win this year’s tour, in the absence of the big hitters like Ullrich and Basso, who had been suspended due to their involvement in a major drugs investigation.
But Landis hit the wall spectacularly. He didn’t eat enough, drink enough, or more likely, he suffered from heat stroke in the scorching Alps. He lost about 10 minutes on his rivals and finished a broken man. This has happened before, but rarely does it happen in such a drastic manner. Landis was written off, and odds of 40/1 were available about him recovering to win the Tour.
I can sympathise. I’m ginger , like Landis, and I too have suffered from heatstroke in the Alps. In 1998, I was at the summit of the Galibier when Marco Pantani came out of the mist on the crucial move of that year’s tour. It wasn’t even sunny at the top that day, but when I came down from that mountain, I couldn’t move for the rest of the day, and I was bed-ridden the day after. Surely, there was no way that Landis could even ride his bike, let alone compete?
But ride he did. From nowhere, this old team -mate of Lance Armstrong produced the greatest recovery that the Tour de France has ever seen. He attacked on the first climb, a suicidal move on that mountain stage. There was no way he could stay out front on his own when being pursued by the combined teams of his challengers. Nothing like it had ever been seen.
I love pro cycling. It moves me like no other sport. Or rather, it used to. When my hero, Marco Pantani flew past me that day on the Galibier, I got a bit emotional. This was one of the historic Tour moments. And I was there. It was the greatest mountain performance since the days of Bartoli, and Coppi.
Like this year’s race, the start had been rocked by a drugs investigation that implicated some major riders. That was the year of the great Festina EPO scandal. Pantani’s main rival, Richard Virenque had also wept, as he protested his innocence after his team’s soigneur Willy Voigt had been found in a car full of needles and drugs. He later wept as he admitted his guilt. Surely, the rest of the riders were clean under that sort of scrutiny?
Unfortunately not. Pantani was also later found out. He failed EPO tests in the late nineties, and I felt cheated. I had invested emotionally and felt like a complete mug. How could I trust professional cycling after that ? Pantani died last year in drug-riddled desolation. Several young riders have died with unexplained heart conditions in recent years, but still it goes on. It is now hard to watch this amazing race without some cynycism. Can you believe that what you are seeing is the result of bravery, training and honest endeavour?
Lance Armstrong dominated the race after Pantani’s demise. Armstrong had suffered from cancer, so surely he would avoid drugs ? Not according to Emma O’Reilly a soigneur with Armstrong’s US Postal Squad. She claimed that Armstrong had asked her to dispose of bags full of needles after one Tour.
In a seperate incident, other witnesses have also claimed that Armstrong admitted to drug use. The French newspaper, L’Equipe, claims that Armstrong would have failed a drugs test during the 1999 tour after his urine was tested using new methods in 2004.
Until recently, Landis was a loyal domestique to Armstrong in the Discovery team. His Tour finishes were mediocre and he felt that he needed to move out of Armstrong’s shadow. He joined Phonak as a team leader and finished 9th last year.
He took charge of this year’s race with a strong performance in the Time Trial. Until Wednesday, he seemed sure to win. But then came the big hammer, and he disappeared down the ranking to 11th.
His comeback yesterday was extraordinary. Really extraordinary. Almost unbelievable.
And when he finished after that superhuman effort, did he flop over the line? Did he collapse with exhaustion like so many great climbers before him ? Not this hero. He clenched a fist and bounced around aggressively in a manner not dissimilar to Diego Maradona, celebrating his goal for Argentina in the 1994 World Cup Finals.
These people. Where do they get the energy from ?