With the investigation into Lance Armstrong bubbling away in the background and the WADA case against Alberto Contador still unresolved, I was interested to understand more about doping practice and the dark side of professional cycling.
The Crooked Path to Victory: Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bicycle Racing is from Les Woodland was initially disappointing in terms of providing technical insights, and it doesn’t touch on any of the current controversies, but it does provide rich returns in understanding the culture of doping in cycling and its long history, going back to the start of professional cycling in the late 1800s and its roots in the ultra-endurance athletics fad of the 1870s.
Starting in the early 1890s with the horrendous 6-day solo races, pharmacological assistance went hand-in-glove with these gruelling events, packaged by promoters and served to a mass audience hungry to be entertained by the suffering of others.
These weren’t 6-day stage races through the countryside, where the riders got post-stage massages, a civilised meal and a good night’s sleep. No, these went for six days non-stop, around rickety indoor wooden board tracks and around the clock. Clarification – are these track events? — yes The more tired and hallucinatory the riders got, the more the crowd packing into the stadium loved it. Shady promoters pulling out bottles of exotic substances with a grandiose flourish to keep the riders going were part of the spectacle. Dosed with cocktails of heroin, cocaine and strychnine, numerous talented riders met early and sad ends, a theme that is revisited numerous times throughout the book.
The book is not limited to drug-related cheating. In the early days of pneumatic tyres, it was common for riders and spectators to scatter nails across the road to slow riders they didn’t like. As the motor car became more accessible, drivers would from time to time attempt to take out riders from opposing teams. Sometimes groups of parochial spectators would lie in wait for competitors who were a threat to their local favourites. Sometimes they succeeded; sometimes competitors fought back or developed ruses of their own to beat the cheats.
The book is not all doom and gloom however, and the author, a cycling enthusiast, lightens the tone with amusing anecdotes of riders pulling the wool over the eyes of officials and other riders. Episodes are shared in which riders have played practical jokes on the peloton, some of which backfired spectacularly. The 1969 Tour de France stage between Clermont-Ferrand and Montagis is one example.
Rini “Tufty” Wagtmans attacked early in the neutral zone before the official start and then, out of sight around a corner, hid in an alleyway. The peloton, enraged, took off after him. What Tufty hadn’t banked on was how spectacularly successful his ruse would be, and instead of joining his pals at the back at a sedate pace for a laugh, he was reduced to chasing the bunch for miles, his face grimacing and his teeth clenched.
Through most of professional cycling’s history, making a satisfactory living has been extremely difficult. Except for the select few stars and team leaders who made good wages, the rest, the domestiques (whose job is to protect and assist the rider with the best chance of winning) would often only be given a couple of jerseys, some bike shorts and a bike, and make do with prize money that the team accumulated during a race. Endorsements from outside the bike industry were rare.
It come as no surprise then that “understandings” and “arrangements” were often made between riders to share out the limited money on offer, and race results were often the result of these arrangements rather than who was best on the day.
This background provides a rich vein of stories of riders bucking the arrangement and upsetting the established order, with personal feuds and careers made and destroyed. This is presented by the author in an entertaining style, as an example, riders who had won the World Champs or another major race and resulting in their cycling career finishing instead of being kick-starting.
Frequently race organisers would expect the “stars” and their teams to make their way from one multi-day stage race in Italy or Spain after having won or done well, and then a day later turn up in northern Holland or Belgium to start another gruelling race and somehow be in top form. It was difficult to resist the pressure to take “a little something to help” and ignore the long term consequences to one’s health for the sake of the team and the next pay-cheque. The “dirty little secret” of professional cycling was an accepted part of the peloton followed into the sixties.
The development of the anti drugs in sport laws by the left wingers in French politics began in the mid-1960s, up until which time the “dirty little secret” of professional cycling was simply part of the peloton. As this is explored it marks the start of the battle between riders and testers which unfolds as a cat-and-mouse game. In rapid succession the author shares tales of hidden tubes being used to supply samples before taking a journey closer to the pharmacological bleeding edge.
The tragedy and irony of the high-profile death on Mont Ventoux of British star Tom Simpson is explored and the seriousness with which detection was applied by sporting authorities through the seventies and eighties increase. Fascinating detail is given to explosive Festina affair of 1998 which even included a few political conspiracy speculations. The Festina Affair was a seminal event in sports doping and sent shockwaves through professional sport worldwide.
Interesting Whatever happened to…? vignettes look into the repurcussions for those who were caught and punished fleshing out how they dealt with (and sometimes didn’t deal with) the impact on their careers of being caught cheating.
A useful set of references concludes the book for avid readers wishing to explore cycling history and sports doping generally in more detail
While the book didn’t deal with the subject quite the way I expected, and doesn’t take a view on whether the current state of professional cycling is now “clean”, it was nevertheless a riveting read. Instead of quickly-dated technical information, the book deals more with the structural issues in professional cycling as a form of entertainment, particularly how the tensions between the interests of promoters and cyclists themselves have often led to riders burning their candles at both ends. That it does this while remaining thoroughly entertaining is a credit to the writer and his tabloid journalism background.
- Easy to read, entertaining style
- Doesn’t gloss over the seriousness of the human issues
- Thought provoking without being “heavy”
- Typesetting could be better
My Rating: 4 out of 5
This book and more are available from the Woodslane Online Bookstore:
The Crooked Path to Victory: Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bicycle Racing is from Les Woodland