Morocco-born French rider Richard Virenque, winner of a record seven King of the Mountains classifications in the Tour de France - an achievement that would be as impressive as it first sounds had at least some of these wins not been attributable to his EPO use - and, as such, held up by some as the greatest climber cycling has ever known, was born on this day in 1969 in Casablanca.
In 1998, as all cycling fans know, Willy Voet was apprehended by customs officials and found to be in possession of a vast haul of doping products, kick-starting the furore that had been waiting to happen for many years and which, due to the team for which Voet worked, became known as the Festina Affair. The team's directeur sportif, Bruno Roussel, claimed during the shameful "it's not my fault, they made me do it" rows that followed that when Virenque heard that Voet had been busted, his first reaction was to say: "My stuff! What am I going to do now?"
A number of Festina riders admitted to having used drugs, but Virenque continued to plead not guilty and escaped without the six-month ban that they received. He rode in the 1999 Giro d'Italia, but Tour organiser Jean-Marie Leblanc tried to prevent him from taking part in the Tour that year after his name began showing up in the investigation into Bernard Sainz, the shady Dr. Mabuse who would eventually be jailed for working as a doctor despite having no medial training. However, the rider had not yet been found guilty of anything and under the far less strict rules of the time, the UCI decreed that he would ride. He came 8th overall. That same year, he wrote a book and gave it the name Ma Vérité, "My Truth," and included within it a number of directions in which he said the Tour, UCI and other organisations should be taking in their efforts to stamp out doping. It is, quite frankly, virtually unreadable, valuable only in that now we know what we know about Virenque, it provides an insight into his rather disagreeable and dislikable character (meanwhile, some readers might find it useful to read before Voet's Breaking The Chain as, in comparison, Voet writes like a Classical poet).
In 2000, when the investigation led to trial, Virenque at first continued to protest his innocence and performed a cringe-making wounded angel routine before finally breaking down and confessing, but attempted to claim that he had been doped by others without his knowledge. Voet, meanwhile, who by this time had decided that the best course of action was to admit everything, said that the rider had not only doped through his own free will but had been involved in drugs trafficking. He was handed a nine month suspension, which was widely regarded as too lenient and resulted in many calls for an increase to a year (the maximum for a first offence, but it was eventually reduced at an independent tribunal to six and a half months. He returned to cycling once the ban was spent, but found himself persona non grata and experienced difficulty in finding a new contract - Cofidis apparently told him they might be interested, but would not take him for at least a year until the flack had died down. He was eventually taken on by Domo-Farm Frites, who had been supplied with extra financial assistance by Eddy Merckx after their sponsors refused to provide the money needed to take him on. He immediately proved himself by winning Paris-Tours; however, as Paris-Tours is a race for sprinters rather than climbers, this led many to wonder if his climbing abilities had always come from a syringe. Then. 2003, he moved on to Quick Step and won his sixth King of the Mountains. He won his seventh, a record, the next year.
The saddest thing about Virenque is the large amount of evidence, obvious from his early and post-Festina success, that he would have been a great rider even without resorting to doping - had he relied on honest hard work rather than drugs, he still would have enjoyed a remarkable career. However, his greed meant that being a great was not enough; only domination would do - the doping culture in cycling during the 1990s provided him with an easy route.
|Marijn de Vries
Happy birthday to Jessica Varnish, the English track cyclist and winner of a gold medal at the European Track Championships in Appeldoorn in 2011. She was born in 1990 in Bromsgrove.
Happy birthday also to Daniel Kreutzfeldt, the Danish track cyclist who was born today in 1987 in Roskilde.
James Lewis Perry, the South African rider who found fame with the defunct British team Barloworld for the 2003/4 season, then left and rejoined them for their final 2006/7 season, was born on this day in Cape Town, 1979.
Whittingham's 2003 Hour Record
(image credit: Nicola CC BY-SA 3.0)
Other cyclists born on this day: Philipp Wasleben (Netherlands, 1987); Alice Maria Arzuffi (1994); Maris Bogdanovics (1991); Jarlinson Pantano Gomez (1988); Lijun Bai (1988); Eric Bennett (1986); Stuart Shaw (1977); Mosquera Miguez; Jorge Contreras Vargas (1983); Francesco Reda (1982); Nikolay Kazakbaev (1982); Gianni Vermeersch (1992); Vincenzo Ianniello (1986); Itmar Esteban Herriaz (1983); Genki Yamamoto (1991); Prajak Mahawong (1981); Svitlana Galyuk (1987); Davide Mucelli (1986); Cinthya Coto; Andrzej Kaiser); Gerda Fokkerr.