Tuesday 23 January 2018

Cycling was never the same after '98 Tour ramifications

Dean Goodison

The End of the Road
The End of the Road

They lined the streets of Enniscorthy as stage two of the 1998 Tour de France burst out of the town's streets towards Cork. It was a novelty, no doubt, to see cycling's biggest race, and craziest show, come to town.

By that stage the ramifications of a major performance-enhancing drugs find, back in France, were reverberating around the sport and the race was soon to be completely overtaken by the controversy that surrounded it.

There are plenty of publications out there that deal with drug-taking in the sport of cycling. It's pretty much impossible for a rider of the era to bring out an autobiography without delving deep into his own sordid past. There were the handful that remained clean, but even their stories are filled with the 'what might have been'.

'The End of the Road', a book released by the Bloomsbury stable, written by Alasdair Fotheringham, is one that deals almost exclusively with the 1998 tour and the sideshow that surrounded the multi-million euro race.

Fotheringham's insight comes from a sturdy base, as the author covered the tour as a working print journalist and displays an extremely strong knowledge of the sport's biggest event and the surrounding pantomime.

He also displays his love of reading on the subject, with multiple sources of information quoted, and his use of other's work is pertinent to the adventure he takes the reader on through the most turbulent of races.

Doping and the lengths riders went to get away with illegally boosting performance form the core of this book. If approximately a quarter is about the actual racing, then the rest is heavy on the off the course stuff. The writer also gives examples of where the offending material was stashed to avoid detection, and some are almost beyond belief.

Apart from the heavy drugs focus, and obviously the flashes of racing action, the other key underbelly of what happened was the political landscape surrounding the tour. Mostly focusing on the relationship between the tour hierarchy, Fotheringham also delves into the U.C.I. (Union Cycliste Internationale) and even draws in members of the French government.

The publication deals with the race stoppages in detail, or the 'strikes' as they were known. It shows how close the tour came to ending midway through and what the General Director of the tour, Jean-Marie Leblanc, had to do to get the riders back on their bikes.

There are also sections written from the perspective of the journalist at the time. The changing relationship with the riders, the rooting for information, the stories that weren't true, and the sudden lack of sources; it reads like an exhausting three weeks of stress and sleepless nights.

The obligatory picture section is quite strong too. As well as pictures of the main characters that appear throughout the book, including tour winner Marco Pantani, there is a fantastic shot of a crowd-lined Main Street in Arklow as the riders fly past.

Would the average sports fan want to pick up a copy? Honestly, despite how well this is written, it does have limited appeal. It's understandably heavy on the drugs angle but that makes it a tough, drawn-out read for the general fan of sports.

The cycling fan will have a harder choice to make. For the real lovers of the sport, who want to get the full story, then this is the place to go. If you are one of those who would prefer to forget the past wrongs and focus on the future, then this is one to bypass.

Visit The Book Centre on Wexford's Main Street for the very best selection of sports books.

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