At three o’clock in the morning somewhere between Auxerre and Lyon on the European Bike Express bus, I dreamed that I had an exclusive interview with Lance Armstrong. Armstrong is the Texan cycling supremo who recovered from advanced testicular cancer to win the Tour de France five times in a row. One condition was imposed: the interview had to be conducted on bicycles. This seemed reasonable. The greatest cyclist since Eddy Merckx could not be expected to sacrifice training time to journalistic chatter. In any case, there was a noble precedent. In the first Tour de France, in 1903, a journalist rode along with the competitors for the first part of the 467-kilometre stage from Paris to Lyon, before heading for the nearest train station and rushing back to Paris with his report. Only two things prevented this from being the high point of my career as a writing cyclist. First, for reasons that remained obscure, the interview was conducted in an English town where the car-centric ‘cycle network’ forced us to push our bikes through a maze of potholed lanes and ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs. Second, I woke up before Lance could reveal his secret strategy for winning the Tour de France a record sixth time.

The bus deposited me and my wife and our bikes on the outskirts of Valence at 5 a.m. From there, we crossed the Vercors plateau to join the two million spectators and two thousand journalists hoping to witness the three crucial Alpine stages of the 2004 Tour de France. At the finish line of Stage 15, in a sunny ski resort above Villard-de-Lans, remembering the dream, I wonder what the point of an interview would be. A shiny sliver of blue has just darted across the line: Armstrong has won the stage and now leads the Tour de France. Four other logoed sylphs follow close behind, drenched in sweat but already recovering from the effort of crossing the mountains of the Vercors for five hours at 40 kph. The slightly bulkier sylph in pink is Armstrong’s long-time rival, Jan Ullrich. His Tour is now practically over. With only five stages and 600 kilometres to go, a gap of 6 minutes 45 seconds is too big to be bridged. Ullrich turns his bike, spits, and heads for the team bus. In the time it takes to give an interview and a blood sample, Armstrong will appear on a gigantic plastic podium in front of the several thousand excited, disappointed or pleasantly bored spectators spread out on the sun-baked hillside. He will exchange his blue team jersey (‘United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor’, a Belgian flooring company) for the leader’s maillot jaune. Half an hour later, the last of the 147 riders (198 began the Tour) will haul himself across the finish line while Armstrong’s televised grin beams down from the landscape-eclipsing screen.

The best inside information on the Tour is not to be found in a competitor’s words. In The Rider, his 150-page account of a 150-kilometre bike race, the Dutch novelist Tim Krabbé compares the mind of a professional cyclist to a flawless ball-bearing: ‘Its almost perfect lack of surface structure ensures that it strikes nothing that might end up in the white circulation of thought.’ On a long, fast ride, the run-of-the-mill cycling brain can turn the tiniest flaw into a grinding, unignorable obsession: ‘a pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone’. A rider was once forced to abandon the Tour when a mark on his front tyre became the single focus of his thoughts. Armstrong has long since smoothed away any imperfections. Even the pidgin French he uses in interviews sounds like a lightweight, customised idiom, reduced to essential components, designed to repel the sludge of ambiguities and misperceptions.

We walk beside the riders as they skim through the thinning crowd to their air-conditioned buses. This is the first time I have been close to professional cyclists, apart from the times a whirring blur of colour has passed me on the road. They are a visibly distinct type: small-bodied like jockeys and muscled like acrobats or ballerinas. Even the virtuoso French television coverage of the Tour fails to convey their lightness, just as it never shows the true gradient of a climb. Their faces are familiar from the screen, but the thrill of recognition has a deeper source. These are the ideal shapes that the ordinary cycling body briefly and rarely assumes in the imagination when the bicycle has just been tuned and the rider has yet to notice that the wind is pushing from behind on an imperceptible descent.

Armstrong, predictably, looks different – more compact and pugilistic. A few days later, an expert on France 2 with a freeze-frame monitor and a felt-tip pen will analyse the eerily aerodynamic shape of the Armstrong back. The words bionique, incroyable and extraterrestre are used, hinting at unfair advantages. Why is a nation of alleged Cartesians so troubled by the Man Machine? The TV expert and his colleagues prefer the old-fashioned panache of the boy from deepest Provence, Richard Virenque, who charges up the mountains with his tongue hanging out (and who is now signing autographs from the door of his bus), or the gleeful grimace of little Thomas Voeckler, the Tintinesque hero from Martinique known as ‘le p’tit Blanc’, who has implausibly managed to hang on to the yellow jersey until Armstrong’s victory today.

The ‘instinctive’ rider Virenque was convicted of doping in 1998. He has since been forgiven by the public, and has also become a more efficient rider. (His syringe-wielding trainer admitted that Virenque worked best on placebos in any case.) Armstrong, by contrast, has never tested positive. He perfected his riding position and the aerodynamic shape of his helmet in the wind tunnel at Texas A&M University. The heroic tale of his recovery from the cancer that spread to his lungs and brain has been told so many times that it is surprising to find a fresh detail. The propeller in the A&M wind tunnel came from the Enola Gay. It sounds like a Marvel comic written by Don DeLillo: the American hero, blasted bald by radiation, re-creates his body with the help of the B-29 that wiped out Hiroshima. No wonder the competition seems uneven.

The four-lane N91 leads up from Grenoble to the Col du Lautaret and the Meije glacier, then gradually descends to Briançon and the high passes on the Italian border. Bourg d’Oisans lies in a flat valley 40 kilometres east of Grenoble. Stage 16 is an individual time trial beginning in Bourg d’Oisans and ending at the high-rise ski resort of L’Alpe d’Huez: nearly 16 km up a slope of 8 per cent (1 in 12). This is a common gradient on French mountain roads: 18th-century engineers found that a fully-laden mule could manage 7 or 8 per cent. On a fully-laden bike, it allows for slow but steady progress. In competition, it is gruelling.

In Stendhal’s day, it took ten hours to travel between Bourg and his birthplace of Grenoble on the overnight diligence. Today, it takes less than two hours on a bike. Almost half the men of the Oisans region then were travelling salesmen. When the snow melted, they set off down the mountain with forty-kilo baskets strapped to their backs, carrying trinkets, toys, knives, herbal remedies and Alpine plants. Places such as Huez were small, suspicious communities where neighbour competed with neighbour. Those who made enough money never returned. Now, the customers come to the mountain. ‘Inhabitants of the Oisans, be patient and understanding,’ the local paper urges. ‘The visit of the Tour de France can only be of economic benefit to the Oisans.’ The mayor of Bourg has paid the company that runs the Tour €80,000 for the privilege of hosting a stage. He also has to pay for barriers and policing. But since a million people are expected on the Alpe, ‘this will be an excellent advertisement for the resort.’ ‘On the horizon of 2010, L’Alpe d’Huez can see €2 million in the savings bank.’

In the misty dawn, at the entrance to the Romanche gorge on the N91, a cyclist’s fantasy is being acted out: cars and camper vans are turned back by gendarmes who wave the cyclists on with a smile and a greeting. The road has been closed to motorised traffic since 6 a.m. Unfortunately, the Tour de France is big enough to make the whole 40-kilometre stretch to Bourg d’Oisans as busy as any route nationale. On the flat section near the Route Napoléon, we are passed by a giant roast chicken travelling at 100 kph in a shopping trolley. Its fibreglass body is oddly reminiscent of Armstrong’s back in the yellow jersey. The chicken is pursued by high-speed gas canisters marked AntarGaz, press cars and team cars, a fibreglass Spider-Man, and the bus of the cycling team sponsored by the agricultural supplier RAGT Semences (‘Ploughing the Furrow of Progress’). Some of these vehicles belong to the Tour sponsors’ ‘Caravane publicitaire’ which precedes the race on every stage and showers the public with disappointing trinkets – buttons, key-rings, balloons. The gendarmes, too, take part in the Caravane, in bright blue cars marked ‘Choisissez la Gendarmerie.’ Presumably they’re looking for recruits.

Two days before, on the Tour’s second rest day, we made the same journey to Bourg d’Oisans and cycled up L’Alpe d’Huez. In the cycling world, L’Alpe d’Huez is called ‘the mythical climb’ or ‘the ultimate challenge’. The mythical mountain is plastered with camper vans and tents. Some Dutch and German encampments have been at ‘le Woodstock du cyclisme’ for a week, wedged into the elbows of the steepest bends. The campers are shaving, reading the paper, spraying messages on the road: a tricky task, with cyclists passing at a rate of ten a minute. Instead of the usual Alpine sounds of breeze, bird and cowbell, there is the crackle and hum of barbecues, generators and radios. A man in a grey leisure suit prances about in front of an immense sound system, karaoke-ing to the music of ‘Johnny B Goode’: ‘C’est Basso qui s’ra premier à L’Alpe d’Huez!’ (Ivan Basso, the young Italian rider, is now second in the Tour). A flailing German flag slaps me in the face. A Dutch fan dressed in orange offers to spray us with a giant water pistol.

Hundreds of other cyclists – about twenty men to every woman – are churning up the mountain on expensive racing bikes. This is the grimmest bike ride I have ever seen: a sluggish danse macabre of people who are not quite as fit as their leisure activity budget should allow them to be. A small boy pedalling uphill turns to shout at his father: ‘I’m not slowing down!’ Postcards of the road that zigzags up the mountain are captioned ‘Cyclists’ Hell, Tourists’ Paradise’. The clouds have vaporised and the thermometer reads 37°C. The grampus approaching me from behind has not spent thousands of euros and hundreds of hours in a gymnasium to be stuck on the wheel of a touring bike with panniers ridden by a cyclist in long trousers accompanied by a woman who talks and admires the view (glaciers to the south-east, a mountain to the north-west called, obviously, La Grande Lance). The grampus surges past, ageing visibly with every pedal-stroke, and slows down again immediately. The heart-rate monitor on his handlebars will tell him when the end is near. In three hours on the mountain, we see only one death – a middle-aged body and an ambulance blocking the traffic just above the hamlet of La Garde. At that part of the climb, the road swings upwards like an optical illusion. The cause of death is heat exhaustion, not collision.

On the day of Stage 16, we stay at the bottom of the Alpe to watch the riders warming up on rollers, which make it possible to pedal without going anywhere. Awnings are erected next to the team buses. Towels draped over the handlebars prevent the sweat from moistening the bar tape and the brakes. Eddy Merckx watches his son Axel pedalling up a sweat and adjusts his clothing with the care of a mechanic. Jan Ullrich, pumping his heart rate up to the necessary level, looks up only once, very quickly, at the spectators three feet in front of him. Everyone is too startled to take a picture. The man who has come second in the Tour de France five times wears a terrible look of bitter, futile determination. But perhaps it’s just exertion. Most people who warmed up like this would be dead before the race began. Ullrich is about to cycle up L’Alpe d’Huez in an amazing time of 40 minutes 42 seconds. In the background, on the vertical slopes, a television helicopter slowly tracks each rider’s progress up the white line of camper vans.

Armstrong leaves last, to a mixture of cheers and boos. He climbs the mountain in just under 40 minutes and wins the stage by a margin described as ‘incroyable’. The two slowest riders take more than 53 minutes and are eliminated from the Tour (the cut-off point is the winning time plus a third). In the après-vélo festivities, competitive amateurs will generally admit to a time of 80 minutes or less. Double the winning time sounds quite respectable and there is general approval of Armstrong’s new girlfriend, the rock star Sheryl Crow, who climbed the Alpe a few days ago in 90 minutes. But a far more accurate impression of relative speeds can be gained on the descent. Whizzing back down to Bourg d’Oisans, fast enough to feel a twinge of fear on every bend and to overtake all motorised vehicles, took us almost 30 minutes. This means that in a rerun of Stage 16, with Armstrong starting at the bottom of the mountain and ending at the top, and ourselves setting off from the top and ending at the bottom, we would have beaten him by just under ten minutes.

It later turns out that Armstrong was spat on as he raced through the crowd. Consistent winners of the Tour have never been popular. This time, the excuse for drunken jeering is drugs. The white lines in the middle of the road have been turned into syringes, and ‘LANCE EPO’ appears in billboard-size letters near the top of the Alpe. EPO is the synthetic form of erythropoietin, which is used to treat anaemia. It stimulates the production of red blood cells and makes it possible to train for longer periods. About 10 per cent of professional cyclists are thought to be using it, probably fewer than in some other sports. Just before the Tour began, the British rider David Millar – very popular in France, almost unknown in Britain – confessed to taking EPO. He has now been stripped of his world time-trial title. This is the first time since 1978 that no British rider has taken part in the Tour.

Suspicions about Armstrong are being fuelled by a book which appeared in France a few weeks ago with a yellow cover and a childish title, L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong.* The authors are a French journalist and the chief sports reporter of the Sunday Times. It is a long, boring and passionless book based on four years’ investigation, hundreds of interviews and almost nothing but innuendo. ‘Not to investigate would have been an insult to our profession,’ the authors say. They manage to insult it all the same. They quote an unidentified report which links doping with Armstrong’s cancer, but a note in small print at the back of the book admits that no such link exists. The main witnesses for the prosecution are a prickly masseuse with petty grudges, a former team-mate and self-confessed cheat, who is bitter at being dropped from Armstrong’s team, and Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France.

LeMond has recently repeated his accusations in interviews. He finds Armstrong’s comeback incredible and dates his own decline to the advent of EPO. In 1990, LeMond won his third Tour de France. In 1991, ‘a radical change had occurred’ and ‘the speed was so high that neither I nor my team-mates could keep up.’ I checked the average speeds of the two Tours in question: 38.62 kph and 38.75 kph. An increase of 0.13 kph is insignificant, especially given improvements in training and equipment. The big difference was Miguel Indurain, who went on to win four more times.

EPO comes up in almost every conversation with spectators at the Tour. Everyone knows that drugs are used predominantly by the domestiques, who bring water bottles from the team car to their leader and desperately try to finish the stage within the time-limit. The well-known sign – in the absence of a reliable test for EPO – is inconsistency. David Millar was always erratic: a brilliant stage win followed by a day of collapse. (And unlike Armstrong, he had smug, incompetent team managers.) Winning the Tour de France six times in a row is not a sign of inconsistency.

Here at the Tour with a million other people, it is obvious that something more important is at stake than the health of a few self-destructive individuals. Doping dissolves the vital connection between professional cyclists and ordinary pedallers. It may have taken us almost twice as long as the slowest rider in the Tour to climb L’Alpe d’Huez, but we negotiated the same 21 hairpins, felt the same tug of gravity on every bend and were cheered, with only the merest hint of sarcasm, by the same crowd. We rode the last four kilometres of the Villard-de-Lans stage two hours before the Tour itself. In the spring, cyclotouristes and professional cyclists share the same mountain passes. It is partly in this spirit of intimacy and common experience that the Union Cycliste Internationale continues to impose its unpopular restrictions on the lightness and design of professional bikes.

In the car-clogged country of obese children that invented the ridiculous word push-bike (with proper gears, it takes more energy to push a bike uphill than to ride it), doping scandals have a more pernicious effect. They confirm the impression that cycling is an unnatural, arduous activity that requires unusual assistance. The L.A. Confidentiel book inflates this false impression into an argument. The authors interviewed several doctors with no personal knowledge of the case and recorded their amazement at the achievements of Tour de France riders. A typical example declares himself ‘suspicious’ and asks: ‘Is it possible for a normal human being to climb four cols, to get off his bike at the finish and to give a press conference without being out of breath or tired? I do wonder.’

Well, yes, it is. From exhaustive tests, I know that it is possible for a moderately fit, uncompetitive, middle-aged person to eat a medically unsupervised four-course meal, with half a bottle of wine and a couple of cigarettes, and, the next day, to cycle up Mont Ventoux or the Col du Tourmalet, carrying luggage, chatting all the way, and to arrive in the next valley in a sufficiently relaxed and fragrant state to see the sights, order a room and devour another epic meal. With a bicycle of the right size and an on-board supply of energy bars, bananas, pâtisseries and water, it is possible to keep this up for three or four weeks, averaging 80 km a day, until exhilaration turns to exhaustion. As far as I know, I fit the medical definition of ‘a normal human being’. So, too, I suspect – despite superficial eccentricities – do the Austrian schoolteacher I once saw pedalling briskly up Mont Ventoux on a shopping bike, the middle-aged cyclist who passed me on the Col du Galibier with one arm in a plaster cast, and the couple who were cranking a tandem up L’Alpe d’Huez with two hefty-looking toddlers in a trailer.

If the cyclist has an abnormally large lung capacity, a carbon and titanium racing bike, a crew of masseurs and mechanics, eight devoted team-mates to shield him from the wind, a million cheering fans and a desire to ‘rip the legs off’ the opposition, then an average speed of 18 kph up an 8 per cent gradient is the very least one should expect.

The delusion that cycling is hell is clearly not recent. In Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi by Bicycle, Dervla Murphy lamented

the general attitude to my conception of travelling, which I once took for granted as normal behaviour but which strikes most people as wild eccentricity, merely because it involves a certain amount of what is now regarded as hardship but was to all our ancestors a feature of everyday life – using physical energy to get from point A to point B.

That was in 1965. Since then, many of the old inconveniences have been removed: rubber brake pads worn to a wafer by a single descent, sweat-retaining clothes, merciless saddles that pushed the underpants’ seam into tenderised buttocks, and, of course, punctures. After 13,000 km on French roads, including approximately 160 km of cobbles, potholes, level-crossings, glass, grit, hedge-clippings and tiny animal skeletons, my puncture tally stands at zero.

Despite these enhancements, the bicycle in Britain is still treated as an instrument of self-punishment: plastic bags on handlebars instead of panniers, saddles low enough to cause instant damage to the knees, chunky tyres and flaccid, oily chains to leech away what little energy the creaking knee transmits to the wheel. The cycling population of Britain celebrates inconvenience and needless pain. Any bike ride over ten miles now invites the question: ‘Are you doing it for charity?’

On the day after L’Alpe d’Huez (Stage 17, from Bourg d’Oisans to Le Grand Bornand), there is little evidence on the roadside of Armstrong’s unpopularity. We ride up the road to the Col du Glandon until our calf muscles indicate a slope where the peloton will be forced to slow down. We wait for an hour, during which very little happens. This is most people’s experience of the Tour de France: children forced to wait for something that turns out to be almost nothing, making a picnic last, and then, years later, inflicting the same experience on their own children. There is an atmosphere of village fête, diluted by the different nationalities. The peloton itself contains riders from 27 countries. Even the US Postal team is only a third American: the other six are Russian, Czech, Portuguese and Spanish, and the manager is Belgian.

When the peloton finally whizzes past, all the riders are cheered equally. There is a sense of joint endeavour, a joyful beating of the bounds. The village fête continues, minus the people who rush indoors to watch the race on television. Armstrong is no more unpopular than the boy from the next valley who came and won the sack race, the donkey derby and the greasy-pole competition and took his winnings home. He wins this stage too. This is the first time since 1948 that the same rider has won all three Alpine stages.

While the Tour heads for Paris on its final stage, we cycle across the Vercors plateau towards the Rhône, back along the route taken by the Tour four days before. At the top of the Col des Limouches, a small boy with a giant water pistol – recently used to spray the riders of the Tour – is obliterating the lunch menu carefully chalked by his parents on the slate outside their café. They had been afraid that it would rain on the day but, in the end, hundreds of people came and sat in the shade to eat and drink and wait for the Tour. In his parents’ day, the café owner tells us, there were three schools in the valley through which we have just cycled, but now the population is flowing away into the plain. The Tour de France is a lifeline.

Before and after the Col, every last scrap of litter and publicity trash has vanished, but the roads are still festooned with painted messages. ‘Mayo Jaune’ (a pun on maillot jaune and the name of the Basque favourite, Iban Mayo); ‘53x13’ (an extreme gear ratio, normally used only on descents). Then comes a sequence of red, all in the same hand, cheering riders on different teams and from different countries – ‘Go Lance’, ‘Allez Virenque’ etc (this is someone who understands the Tour) – and then, in red, white and blue, ‘USA’ and ‘God Bless Texas!’ (this is someone who doesn’t).

From there, the road to Valence descends too steeply for the slogans to be legible, and at every bend, the valley of the Rhône as far as the Cévennes mountains swings into view. In three hours’ time, Armstrong will be standing on the podium on the Champs-Elysées, the only man to win six Tours de France. At this rate, we should easily beat the peloton to our finish line – a café in Valence with a television tuned to the Tour. It will be some time before we can analyse the 40 hours of TV coverage taped for us by a friend and find out what really happened on the road.

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