A Clean Break, Christophe Bassons, Bloomsbury, 227 pages, $29.99
Reviewed by Adrian Rollins, Editor, Australian Medicine
Even before Italian cyclist Vincenzo Nibali rolled across the finish line on the Champs Elysees on 27 July to secure victory in the 101st Tour de France, questions about possible doping were being asked.
The air of suspicion that hangs like an unpleasant smog over every major cycling achievement is virtually inevitable given the revelations in the last two years of industrial-scale doping that pervaded the top echelons of road cycling through the late 1990s and 2000s.
But the fact that Nibali’s victory, emphatic though it became, was not achieved by a single, outrageous demonstration of superhuman strength, but rather the dogged pursuit of opportunities to snatch a handful of seconds on major rivals here and there throughout the three-week marathon, should give sceptics some pause.
Where Armstrong’s dominance of the Tour between 1999 and 2005 was underpinned by an all-conquering team and fearsome performances in the high mountains and time trials, Nibali was often left isolated as teammates fell away on the big climbs, and his well-timed attacks (he won four stages) were rarely more than a couple of kilometres before the daily finish line.
The convincing nature of Nibali’s victory (his nearest rival, French rider Jean-Christophe Peraud, finished 7 minutes and 37 seconds behind) was due in no small part to the fact that his two main rivals – reigning champion Chris Froome and former winner Alberto Contador – both crashed out of the race early on.
Nevertheless, you have to go back almost 20 years to 1997, when doping in the peleton was getting into full spate, to find a similarly emphatic victory. It is an uncomfortable set of facts for those who insist the sport has cleaned its act up.
It is a period that brings back unpleasant memories for former pro cyclist Christophe Bassons who, in his autobiography A Clean Break, recounts how he was essentially hounded out of the sport because of his blank refusal to dope.
Bassons was a very strong athlete who fulfilled his dream to enter the ranks of professional cycling in 1996, and met with some early success.
But as the decade advanced, a depressingly familiar pattern began to assert itself in the race calendar. In the early races Bassons would perform well. But as the Tour de France approached, the pace of the peleton would accelerate and Bassons had to increasingly push himself to his physical limits just to keep up.
During multi-day races, he would come under pressure from team management and medical staff to take “recuperatives”. Initially, he was offered vitamin tablets, then it became vitamin injections, and, finally, out-and-out doping with products such as growth hormones, corticosteroids, and Erythropoietin (EPO).
His stubborn refusal angered the team managers and his teammates, who viewed his position as a personal indulgence that undermined the team’s competitiveness, robbing them of prize money and putting the team’s long-term future at risk.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Basson’s experience is the role played by doctors in promoting and enabling systematic doping.
Cycling teams at the time employed doctors knowledgeable about the using of drugs to enhance athletic performance, and who had few qualms in administering them to athletes.
Bassons, in his obstinacy, found himself to be increasingly isolated in his chosen profession – particularly after he decided to speak out publicly about the degree of doping in cycling.
Though a series of columns and interviews published during the 1999 Tour de France, Bassons expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of dope testing and doubts that riders were racing ‘clean’.
His outspokenness earned him the enmity of Lance Armstrong who, during a stage through the Alps to Alpe d’Huez, sidled up next to him in the peleton and said, “You know, what you are saying to the journalists is not good for cycling”.
Basson’s replied that he was simply saying that doping was occurring, provoking Armstrong to snarl in reply, “If you’re here to do that, it would be better for you to go home and find another job…Get the hell out!”
Bassons comes across as a difficult character, as highly principled people can sometimes be.
But A Clean Break is a valuable account of what it was like trying to compete clean in a sport that, at the time, was riven with doping – particularly the enormous pressure brought to bear on athletes to take performance enhancing drugs in order to keep up with the competition, and the questionable ethics of medical professionals who connived in systematic doping.
For the sake of the health of the current generation of cyclists, Basson’s experiences are, hopefully, a warning of what can happen rather than something that continues to be replicated to this day.
The former pro cyclist is himself sceptical that the sport has cleaned up its act.
Asked by the Sunday Advertiser last month if he believed the 2014 Tour de France was clean, Bassons said: “Even today, cyclists ride as quickly at the end of Tour de France as at the beginning of Tour de France. Is that normal?”
“Cyclists with very little muscle are very powerful. Is that normal? Some teams dominate the sport. Is that normal? No cyclist wants to talk about doping. Is that normal?” Bassons continued.
“Cycling says it is clean thanks to the biological passport. For me, the biological passport prevents big doping but allows small and constant doping. That’s perhaps even more dangerous.”