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Cycling journalist Lionel Birnie reflects on the Tour de France's darker doping days
Take a straw poll of 100 people and ask them which cyclist's name they most associate with the Tour de France and doping and it is fair to assume the vast majority would reply Lance Armstrong.
The American may have been stripped of his seven Tour titles following the biggest doping scandal professional cycling has ever seen but Lionel Birnie does not believe the race itself suffered considerably because of his actions.
"I think the years that did the most damage weren’t necessarily the Armstrong years because the public at large weren’t really that aware," the cycling journalist who is covering his 12th Tour argues.
Lance Armstrong at his final Tour de France in 2010. Picture: Action Images
"There were pockets of the media that were making a noise and there were individuals that were casting doubts but really it was 2006 when Floyd Landis won, tested positive two or three days after the race and was eventually stripped of his yellow jersey and Oscar Pereiro was kind of elevated to victory.
“And then in 2007 Danish rider Michael Rasmussen was in the yellow jersey and there was a scandal. It’s long and involved but basically he’d lied to the anti-doping authorities about where he was in order to try and evade out-of-competition dope tests. It was more those kind of events that really damaged the race; when the race is ongoing riders are either testing positive as it goes along or being stripped of their victories afterwards.
"That’s what really scarred the Tour and yet, from my point of view, that was an incredibly positive and healthy thing because some of those riders were really taking the micky - not that there are degrees of doping. It’s not like light doping is in some way excusable and heavy doping isn’t, but there were riders who you thought ‘this guy is absolutely taking the mick’ and winning mountain stages at speeds that were just not credible.
"We knew from talking to people within the governing body and the anti-doping authorities that certain people were being watched and it was a really dark time but the Tour has survived a lot more. It’s not to excuse it, it’s not to sort of say 'oh well, it’s always been the way so therefore it’s ok' because I think we live in a very different world now where sport is a way to make a fabulous living and I think if you’re going to make a fabulous living you should do it honestly.
"But back in 1903, 1904, the first two Tours, there were allegations of all sorts of shenanigans - riders throwing tacks behind them so their rivals would puncture, people getting on trains and cutting out part of the course. In fact, in 1904 they didn’t confirm the results until nearly six months after the race because they wanted to have an enquiry into all the cheating that had gone on and they stripped the first four riders of their positions and elevated fifth place to victory."
Birnie, who will be co-hosting The Telegraph's Cycling Podcast during the Tour, refers to those years in the middle of the last decade as "bleak", but he admits that for those in his profession it was a remarkable time.
He explained: "There's always been a kind of a dark heart at the centre of the Tour in a way and as journalist it’s not perhaps politically correct to say, but when a big doping scandal was brewing it was great copy, it was exciting. 2007 was an incredible tour in a lot of ways because you had three doping scandals all broke open in a two-day period in the Pyrenees.
"I remember those couple of days being based in Pau and darting from one team hotel to the next, the police are taking team riders away for questioning and they’re searching hotel rooms. The whole thing was chaotic.
"Obviously afterwards it’s depressing because it’s deeply damaging the sport, but at the same time as a journalist when you’re there just to report what is going on, they were fantastic stories. I don’t want to get accused there of dwelling on negative stuff because it makes good copy but the Tour is bigger than all of those people, it’s bigger than any single winner and I think that’s why Armstrong’s downfall was so important because there came a point when people began to believe Lance Armstrong was bigger than the Tour de France and he clearly wasn’t.
"The Tour has endured an awful lot, fortunately the worst of those days do appear to be behind us but it’s such a hard event that you couldn’t rule out people seeking to find ways to make themselves better just to make it easier in terms of recovery and ensuring they are able to perform to their best on the last day as well as they are on the first day. That’s where all of the reliance on doping came from in the first place. There will always be someone who’s prepared to take some kind of risk so I don’t think we should be complacent about it.
"Like I say, the Tour is bigger than all of them. Even though there were a lot of riders that blackened the race’s name, it’s inconceivable that the Tour wouldn’t happen just because there had been successive doping scandals."
To read why Birnie describes covering the Tour 'as almost an addiction', click here.