I was thumbing through my Facebook feed the other day and I stumbled upon an article about doping in the 1990’s. In particular, the article referred to 1994 which was at the height of the EPO-fuelled era. The Gewiss-Ballan team, under the auspices of the eponymous Dr Michele Ferrari, destroyed the peloton that year at La Fleche Wallone with a 1-2-3 for the team.
For those that don’t know the event, it’s the first of two Belgian Ardennes classics. It’s normally held mid-week between the Amstel Gold Race and Liège–Bastogne–Liège races every April. Nowadays, the 199.5 km event starts in Charleroi and heads east to Huy, where the riders do three laps of a tough circuit including the steep Mur de Huy (The wall of Huy) climb, with several sections steeper than 15% and up to 26% on one section. The finish is at the top of the Mur after the third ascent.
In 1994, 3 riders from the Gewiss-Ballan team, Moreno Argentin, Evgeni Berzin and Giorgio Furlan rode away from the peloton on the penultimate ascent of the Mur. At the top of the climb they had a 14 second lead. They then continued to ride away and gained 1′ 14″ on the peloton on the last lap. At the time, even the press were suspicious. It was a performance that typified what we have become to accept as the EPO fuelled generation of professional cycling. It was literally unbelievable. Riders becoming machine-like, robots, showing no effort but pumping out unnatural, suspicious performances. Watch the race and look at the faces of the 3 riders. Look at the body language. It looks effortless. No contorted faces, no expression. Look behind them and the ‘lesser’ doped are all over their bikes trying to hold onto their wheel and bridge the gap.
I look back at this era with indifference. I was brought up on this racing. It fuelled my passion and my love for the sport but I look back now and I sigh. It wasn’t real really. Some argue it was a level playing field because they were all on it. I don’t disagree they were all on it but to say it was a level-playing field just isn’t true. Dope skews the natural order. Generally, tactics aside, in any endurance sport the fittest and fastest will win or be close to winning most of the time. Dope, like EPO, skews this. It adds an unnatural element to what should be the real order and to quote a cliche, can make ‘donkeys into racehorses’. I remember a section in Laurent Fignon’s autobiography where he refers to a paradigm shift in peloton speeds from 1990 onwards. He recalled a transitional stage in a race, probably the Tour and speeds were 30mph+. He rode up to the front and saw a domestique churning out an inhuman effort on his own towing the peloton without any expression. He shouted at him ‘What the f**k are you doing?..’ and the riders’ response was ‘..my team told me to just ride tempo on the front..’. That summed it up.