Once Upon A Time

Scandal on the Tour de France

The legendary race's long history of thugs, drugs, and cheating.

By Benjamin Soloway

Tour de France

For 112 years, in a tradition that has been disrupted only 11 times for two World Wars, bicyclists have come together every summer to ride a frenzied circuit. The Tour de France -- an event as French as Bastille Day -- pits men against themselves and each other: For three weeks, riders take to the Pyrenees and the Alps, riding clockwise or counterclockwise around the country -- the course alternates direction year to year -- for some 2,087 miles in daylong stages at altitudes as high as 8,600 feet, making it one of the most grueling events in sports.

But in recent years, the race has become known less for its athletes’ feats of endurance than for their rampant cheating. Indeed, more than a third of top finishers between 1998 and 2013 have been linked to doping, with official investigations uncovering widespread abuses ranging from the use of anabolic steroids to riders transfusing themselves with their own blood. Most famous, of course, is seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, who admitted to doping and to evading testing measures and was stripped of his titles in 2012.

And yet, despite the notoriety surrounding Armstrong’s fall from sporting grace, deception and doping have always been nearly as central to the Tour de France as bicycles.

Roger Lapébie (right) crosses railroad tracks during the Tour de France, 1937. Lapébie won the Tour that year, despite a sabotage attempt that caused his handlebars to fall off, after early leader Gino Bartali fell into a river. (LAPI/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Crowds cheer on Tour de France cyclists. (Date unknown.) (Culture Club/Getty Images)

Frenchman Jean Robic, winner of the 1947 Tour, rides Mont Ventoux on his way to winning the 14th stage of the Tour de France in 1952, before losing the overall title to Italian Fausto Coppi. British cyclist Tom Simpson would die on these same slopes 15 years later. (Staff/AFP/Getty Images)

French cyclist Georges Speicher, winner of the 1933 Tour de France, receives a kiss from his wife after his arrival at the Parc des Princes in Paris on July 23, 1933. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images)

Cyclists ready bags of provisions for the Tour. (Date unknown.) (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Belgian Maurice Blomme inflates his tire on July 22, 1950 -- the year both Italian teams left the Tour after crowds knocked cyclist Gino Bartali off his bike, whereupon an onlooker threatened him with a knife. (Staff/AFP/Getty Images)

Italian cyclist Aldo Ronconi and French cyclist Roger Lapébie (1937 champion) on June 30, 1948, in Saint Germain en Laye, France. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Competitors waiting to ride in Le Vésinet, France, in July 1929. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images)

Spanish cyclist Federico Bahamontes on the slopes of Col de Romeyere in the Alps. Bahamontes reached the top first, but stopped to eat ice cream when he got there, letting everyone else catch up. "He's a very good climber but completely mad,” his teammate remarked.

From the earliest days of the race, entrants drank to deaden the monotony, huffed ether to tamp down the pain, took amphetamines for stamina, or opiates to ease aches and cramps. Henri Pélissier, who won the Tour in 1923, described his winning regimen to a journalist the following year: “Cocaine to go in our eyes, chloroform for our gums, and do you want to see the pills? We keep going on dynamite. In the evenings, we dance around our rooms instead of sleeping.” In 1960, then-second place contender Roger Rivière plunged into a ravine and suffered a double fracture to his spinal column -- in part, many believe, because of his slowed reaction time due to opiate use.

Spectators along the route of the Tour de France, July 1951. (Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

From the 1960s onward, teams (first introduced to the race in the 1920s after years of every man for himself) kept up their nefarious ways but also began taking advantage of pharmaceutical advances, switching from drugs that primarily affected the brain to hormones and steroids, which help build physical strength. Whole teams dropped out mysteriously from time to time, presumably when doping went wrong. The sport banned drug use in 1965 and began drug testing in 1966, but riders largely shrugged it off, relying on evasive tactics: Some fled their hotel rooms when they heard testing officials were on their way; others went on strike in protest of the new testing regime, walking their bicycles instead of riding. In 1967, British cyclist Tom Simpson -- in a dramatic demonstration of how ineffective the new rules were at preventing doping -- dropped dead during the race after drinking brandy and taking amphetamines. His last words to his team, according to reports, were: “Go on, go on.”

Drugs, which weren’t even banned for the race’s first six decades, were never the only way riders tried to exceed their physical limitations. The race also saw blatant attempts to cut corners: During the very first Tour in 1903, Italian-born racer Maurice Garin won by nearly three hours, the widest margin in history, after a close competitor was disqualified for riding in the slipstream of a car. In the next year’s Tour, every single top contender -- and nine riders in total -- were disqualified post-race for having skipped part of the course, catching rides in cars and trains, leaving 19-year-old fifth-place finisher Henri Cornet, who crossed the finish line with two flat tires, with the title.

French cyclist Jean Robic, winner of the 1947 Tour, kisses his wife upon arriving at the Parc des Princes in Paris, 1952. During this race, teammate Raphaël “Gem” Géminiani held Robic’s head underwater in a hotel room sink after a team squabble. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Cyclists at rest in 1930 -- the first year a publicity caravan accompanied the race. (Ullstein Bild/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

A cyclist with escort cars, 1930. (Ullstein Bild/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Tour de France competitors pass soldiers in Amiens on July 8, 1936. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

A man dispenses advice to British cyclists Brian Robinson (left) and Freddie Krebs on July 30, 1955. (Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

A bicycle mechanism, sans derailleur gears -- which allow cyclists to shift between a range of gears while riding -- around 1930-1935. The Tour forbade gears until 1937. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Austrian cyclist Max Bulla after being thrown from his bike on the descent from the Col du Galibier mountain pass in the Alps, probably in 1931. (Ullstein Bild/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Supporters in Charleville wave as Italian cyclist Learco Guerra crosses the finish line of the second stage of the Tour on June 28, 1933. He goes on to finish second overall. (AFP/Getty Images)

Antonin Magne, winner of the 1931 Tour de France, receives congratulations from his brother on July 26, 1931, in Paris. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images)

As is still sometimes the case today, early Tours were dangerous and messy. Riders crashed often; broke bones; had to stop to repair shredded tires; fell on their faces and kept riding, covered in blood. In 1913, French racer Eugène Christophe’s bicycle broke when he was in the lead. He walked over six miles to the nearest village, carrying the bike over his shoulders. “I was weeping so badly that I couldn't see anything,” he said. Upon reaching the nearest village, he sought out a blacksmith, who had to coach the athlete on how to weld the frame back together, in order to comply with race rules that forbade riders from receiving direct assistance. Christophe still came in seventh.

But the chaos also meant opportunities for sabotage were rampant: In 1904 -- the same year nine were disqualified for hopping onto trains and cars -- four masked men in a car ambushed and roughed up Garin and another leader. They were never caught. "If I'm not murdered before we reach Paris, I'll win the Tour de France again," Garin reportedly said. (He finished first but was disqualified for cheating.) Hundreds of fans swarmed the racecourse to block the way of riders who were not their favorites, and organizers had to fire shots in the air to calm the situation. (These sorts of shenanigans continued for decades. As late as 1950, both Italian teams competing that year withdrew from the race after crowds knocked cyclist Gino Bartali off his bike, whereupon an onlooker threatened him with a knife.)
In 1905, the Tour instituted a series of sign-ins in an effort to prevent shortcuts. Riders had to sign papers proving their presence at points along the route -- except that rider Louis Trousselier smashed an inkstand, which prevented others from signing, and went on to win that year.

The modern Tour -- as it has been since the beginning -- is captivating, dramatic, thrilling, and terrifying. The one thing it has never been, however, is clean. Here, in anticipation of the 2015 Tour, which begins on July 4, Foreign Policy looks back at the early years of a messy annual rite.

Mishap, Scandal, Duplicity, and Triumph:
A Tour de France Timeline
    1903
    The first Tour de France. Maurice Garin of France, who chain-smokes and drinks red wine while riding, wins the race.
    1904
    Riders skip portions of the race, take shortcuts in cars and trains, and encounter crowd interventions. Masked men attack Garin, who is favored to win. All of the top finishers are disqualified. Henri Cornet, the winner, crosses the finish line with two flat tires.
    1905
    Fans begin scattering nails in front of unpopular riders, marking the birth of a tradition that takes years to eradicate. This practice never fully disappeared: In 2012, 30 riders lost tires to nails on the course.
    1910
    The race includes a mountain for the first time. Summits come to be regarded as the defining fixture of the Tour.
    1911
    Paul Duboc vomits after drinking from a bottle proffered by an anonymous ‘fan’ who may have been seeking to poison him, but goes on to finish second.
    1924
    1923 Tour victor Henri Pélissier, whose brother Francis is also a top cyclist, tells a journalist that his winning strategy included cocaine in his eyeballs, chloroform on his gums, and “horse ointment.”
    1930
    For the first time, competitors may seek outside assistance if they face mechanical issues.
    1937
    The race legalizes bikes with gear shifting systems. In prior races, riders had the option to dismount and change their wheels to suit different legs of the race.
    1949
    Fausto Coppi of Italy -- known as “Il Campionissimo,” the champion of champions, due to his winning record in a wide variety of races -- wins for the first time.
    1950
    French cyclist Roger Rivière falls and breaks his back, and officials find stimulants in his pocket. He never walks again.
    1951
    Rider Willem van Est survives a fall into a ravine.
    1952
    Il Campionissimo wins again, in the first Tour to include three mountain summits, all three of which he reaches first. He tells a journalist that he uses drugs during the race “only when I have to” -- that is, “almost all the time.”
    1954
    Federico Bahamontes is first to the top of Col de Romeyere in the Alps, but stops to feast on ice cream, letting everyone else catch up. "He's a very good climber but completely mad,” his teammate remarks.
    1963
    Jacques Anquetil fakes a mechanical problem in order to switch bikes for a long descent and goes on to win.
    1965
    The race bans drug use for the first time.
    1966
    Competitors flee their hotel rooms to avoid drug tests. Some riders go on strike and begin walking their bikes to protest the newly introduced testing regimen.
    1967
    British cyclist Tom Simpson dies on the slopes of Mont Ventoux after consuming a fatal cocktail of brandy and amphetamine pills. His last words were, reportedly: “Go on, go on.”

Top photograph by George Grantham Bain / Courtesy Library of Congres