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The Unusual Suspects: A history of cheating in cycling

Cheating cyclists
Roger St. Pierre
10 Mar 2016

Lance Armstrong may have turned cheating into an art form, but bending the rules has been endemic since the start.

Drug abuse, blood doping, race fixing, jersey tugging, rough riding, illegal pacing, towing, taking short cuts – professional cycling has witnessed a whole litany of offences down the years. Even the very first Tour de France, back in 1903, was shrouded in controversy when the big favourite, France’s Hippolyte Aucouturier, retired with fearsome stomach cramps on the epic 467km opening stage from Paris to Lyon having been handed a spiked bottle of lemonade by a roadside spectator. Aucouturier was allowed to continue and duly won the following two stages but was ruled out of the overall classification. This left victory to Maurice Garin, a man famous for riding with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

The big race’s second edition was nearly the last because of foul play. Garin was again the winner but was subsequently disqualified, along with his three closest challengers. This stiff verdict followed a four-month investigation that uncovered a panoply of cheating and dirty deeds that ranged from putting itching powder in rival riders’ shorts, sabotaging bikes and taking illegal feeds to covering bits of the course by train and inciting supporters to spread broken glass and tacks in the path of following rivals, some of whom were physically attacked and beaten with sticks.

Eugene Christophe snaps his forks at the 1913 Tour de France

This time Aucouturier was among the bad guys, being spotted on one stage taking a tow from a car by means of a length of string attached to a cork that he gripped between his teeth. The inquiry handed the victory to fifth-placed Henri Cornet, the race’s youngest ever winner, at just 19 years and 11 months of age. He too had been guilty of some infractions, but they weren’t deemed serious enough to warrant disqualification.

It was the biggest scandal ever to hit the race until the Festina and Operación Puerto drugs busts of the modern era, and it was all too much for a justifiably embittered Henri Desgrange, the race organiser, who wrote in his newspaper, L’Auto, which sponsored the race: ‘The Tour is finished and I am very afraid that the second edition will be the last.It will have been killed by its own success, driven out of control by blind passion, by violence and filthy suspicions worthy only of ignorant and dishonourable men.’ But the circulation boost provided by such an epic event proved too good to resist and so the show went on. 

The following year, 1905, saw more skulduggery, with an estimated 25kg of nails scattered along the first day’s route from Paris to Nancy taking out all but 15 of the 60 starters, though those who finished the stage by car or train were allowed back into the race.

‘For me, the perfect Tour would be a race in which there would be just one finisher,’ Desgrange once famously commented. The sadistic old man, a World Hour Record holder in his own racing career, sought every means of making the race demonically tougher while the riders looked for ways to take the edge off their suffering.

One pre-War Belgian rider who wasn’t too hot a climber found his own way to make the cols easier. He would ride alongside Desgrange’s open-top car and pick an argument with the race’s rule-obsessed organiser. ‘Rule 72, sub-section four, paragraph three doesn’t make sense,’ he would proclaim, sparking a vigorous debate, sure that in the heat of the moment, Desgrange wouldn’t notice that he was holding onto the car door.

Gearing up

Rene Vietto cries on a wall at the 1934 Tour de France

In the sport’s early days riders rode heavy bikes with few gears. Climbing Alpine cols was truly punishing, and competitors at the back of the field would often rely on helpful spectators to push them up the slopes. When the race commissaires were watching, the riders would pretend to shove away such helpers while whispering under their breath, ‘Poussez, s’il vous plait, poussez!’

It was all deemed a simple act of mercy until the hotly contested 1964 Giro d’Italia, when French superstar Jacques Anquetil became more and more irate as his Italian rival, Gastone Nencini, repeatedly came hurtling past on the stiffest slopes of the Dolomites as a relay of fevered Italian tifosi pushed him towards the summit.

It was the Italians’ turn to be the victims of partisanship during the 1950 Tour de France. As the race entered the Pyrenees, the Azzurri had Fiorenzo Magni ensconced in the yellow jersey, when his team-mate, the great Gino Bartali, got into a spat with Frenchman Jean Robic, winner of the first post-War Tour in 1947.

A headline-grabbing media stirred up the row and after he had been kicked, spat at and even hauled off his bike by irate French fans, Bartali pulled both Italian teams off the race and headed home. ‘I really was in fear of my life,’ he told the journos who had helped cause his predicament in the first place.

A pugnacious little man with sticking-out ears and a trademark leather crash hat to help protect the metal plate he had inserted in his skull after a particularly nasty crash, Robic was never far from controversy. The Breton was once accused of throwing an aluminium feeding bottle at a rival rider in a fit of pique. In proclaiming his innocence, Robic let slip a little secret: ‘I would never have done that,’ he protested. ‘If I had done so and I’d hit the target he would have been dead,’ he added, revealing that the bottle concerned had been handed to him by a team helper at the summit of a big climb and was filled with lead shot, to make his bike heavier and therefore faster for the ensuing descent.

Rene Vietto gives his wheel to Antonin Magne

Now, that might not have been fair but there was nothing in the rules to forbid it. The fact is, the line between cheating and mere gamesmanship is a very fine one. For example, sitting at the back of a break pretending to be a spent force then miraculously reviving to hurtle past the others and win the sprint is an underhand but legitimate tactic that’s all part of racing.

Italy’s Mario Ghella was a master of turning a race to his advantage without actually breaking the rules. Matched against the great Reg Harris during the 1948 Olympic sprint championship at Herne Hill in London, Ghella conveniently discovered his toe-strap was snapped. In a classic piece of gamesmanship, he kept Harris hanging about on the start line until the Brit’s nerves were as frayed as the toe strap. Having psyched out his rival, Ghella went on to the final and a gold medal.

Whistle while you shirk

Fausto Coppi, the ‘Campionissimo’ (‘Champion of Champions’) often wore dark glasses when racing. This wasn’t a fashion statement, as is usually the case today. The Italian legend said it was so that the competition could not see when he was suffering. Others have resorted to whistling or even singing when their rivals are making the pace too hot – this ploy fooling their antagonists into thinking they’re finding the pace easy, leading to an easing off.

For riders struggling behind the peloton it’s often a case of anything goes, but things can backfire. Riding a kermesse race on bone-shaking Belgian cobbles, back in the early 1950s, tough little Liverpudlian Pat Boyd found himself off the back after a puncture and tyre change. Chasing hard, he caught up with a local rider and they started working together, through and off, in a concerted bid to regain the out-of-sight peloton. After 10 minutes the Belgian signalled a short cut through a narrow alleyway and the bunch shot past just as they exited at the other end. Boyd sat in the pack for the rest of the event and managed a top-10 finish, only to discover they had joined a different race.

Road race sprint finishes can be tumultuous, no holds barred affairs, with hand slinging, jersey pulling and even fisticuffs rife – and these days even the fastest finishers need the help of a well-drilled lead-out train.

One of the most controversial sprint results ever was the one that led to fast-rising young Belgian rider Benoni Beheyt pulling on the rainbow jersey as the new road race World Champion at Renaix in 1963.

Rik Van Looy, the mighty ‘Emperor of Herentals’ had been designated as Belgian national team leader for the race with a squad that was committed to ensuring his victory on home soil. But in the event, as they hurtled to the line, Beheyt squeezed through the ever-tighter gap between his boss – who was leading the charge – and the barrier, eventually raising an arm to fend Van Looy off and taking the honours on the line. The judges saw nothing wrong, but Van Looy later called it ‘the great betrayal’.

Taking the piss – literally

Today’s usually much narrower finishes mean it’s commonplace for riders to be squeezed into the barriers by their opponents. Mark Cavendish’s contretemps with Dutch rider Tom Veelers at the finish of stage 10 of the 2013 Tour, when Cavendish was alleged to have switched his line, led to the Manxman being doused with a flask of urine by an irate fan on the following stage.

Mark Cavendish, Stage 8 2015 Tour de France

And it’s not only riders who bend the rules or cheat. Judges can be notoriously partisan and the results they issue may be suspect, especially when there’s a big bunch sprint and no photo-finish apparatus.

British pro Alf Howling made something of a career for himself in the hurly burly of the Breton road racing scene in the 60s. ‘I quickly learned that the most important port of call at the end of a race was not the toilets or the team car bottle box but the judges’ table,’ he recalled. ‘If you thought you were eighth they’d probably have you down as 12th, behind the local favourites, so you needed to insist you were fourth, at which they would bump you down to eighth.’

Protesting verdicts was a favourite ploy of the wily Swiss track sprinter Oscar Plattner, a man who was often penalised for steam-rolling anyone in his way. At one World Championship series in Milan he had a real shoulder-to-shoulder tussle with a local hero, resulting in protest and counter-protest. Finally, he seemed to have accepted the verdict but, when he was sure his rival had left the stadium and gone home, Plattner made another appeal and won the right to a re-run and, because the Italian was no longer on site, he was granted a ride-over. But he never managed to complete the 1,000m because the incensed crowd of several thousand spectators pelted him with fruit, bottles and anything else they could lay their hands on. 

Mob rule

Eddy Merckx attacks at the 1969 Tour de France

Down the years, right from those early Tour de France mobs with their cudgels and stones, much of the cheating in cycling has been by proxy, with over-enthusiatic fans interfering with their heroes’ rivals. Eddy Merckx suffered a punch in the kidneys, Bernard Hinault had his shoulder badly bruised by an attacker and the infamous Maurice Garin was even threatened at gunpoint. But the real villains of this tale have of course been the riders who swallowed pills, injected hormones and transfused blood in order to gain an unfair advantage over their rivals – and it’s easy to see why they did so. A recent poll of US students showed that 80% of them would be prepared to slice 10 years off their lifespan in exchange for garnering an Olympic medal. 

It’s the win-at-all-costs approach of competitors in today’s cycle sport that drives cheating in all its forms, but at least not all modern tales of cycling scams centre around drugs. When Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara blasted away from the rest of the field to a magnificent victory in the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, a rumour went round the sport that his win had been aided by a tiny electric motor hidden within the bottom bracket of his bike. Officials even cut open the bike to check, and fortunately the great man was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing. Now that Spartacus has won the Classic for a closely-monitored third time, in 2013 [First published March 2014], it proves that not all riders need to cheat to win… but you can be sure that someone out there is dreaming up new and devious plans to put themselves on the podium, whether they deserve to be there or not. 

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