Tour de France 21 Stories: The End of Innocence

Stage 9: Veilha Val d’Aran-Andorre Arcalis

There have only ever been two previous summit finishes at Andorra Arcalis in the Tour de France. The first one became the setting for a showstopping Jan Ullrich performance, the decisive moment in 1997 when he won the Tour.


There was an expectation he might do something, but the situation was complicated by the fact he was supposed to be riding for someone else. The previous year, he’d entered his first Tour as a relatively unknown 22-year old East German domestique. He left it a champion, in second place only 1’41” behind his team-mate, the Dane Bjarne Riis.


The next year he was riding for Riis again, but things had changed. On the first day in the mountains it was clear Riis was struggling, and when Richard Virenque and Marco Pantani attacked on the final ascent, Ullrich finally went with them while Riis lost 30 seconds.


The next day was a bruiser: more than 250k and five major climbs. Ullrich’s job was to set a peloton-shredding pace, after which Riis could make his move. But on the final climb it became clear no final move was forthcoming. 9.5k from the summit, Ullrich dropped back to the team car to ask permission to go, then switched on the blasters, soaring past the specialist climbers with all the smooth arrogance of youth, as if he was on the first gentle hill of a Sunday training ride.


Who could fail to be moved, seeing that incredible performance? Watching You Tube clips of it again, to a soundtrack of schmaltzy pop, your heart still skips a beat, even with all the cynicism of hindsight. Climbing – seated! – hunkered low, pedalling with a relentless, steady cadence, he is the image of compact power. He glows, the sun bouncing off his white national champion’s jersey with its black, red and yellow stripes that span his oxygen-guzzling chest. He is kolossal. Virenque and Pantani scamper after him like whippets, yet fade in the wake of his relentless push.


Behind them, a puce and sweaty Riis, face twisted into a snarl, suffers like a dog in the sun.


Ullrich is alone. The Andorran mountains rise up around like a great, green amphitheatre. The spectators are delirious, running beside him, unable to keep up.


He rides and rides, and rides and rides. His golden earring glints in the sun.


Bring on the violins! Bring on the blasting techno! Bring on the guitar riffs and the stadium rock! Hit rewind! Hit rewind!


It’s hard to watch now without mourning a lost innocence. Ours, not theirs. A time when you could allow yourself to get a thrill from such feats. You’d do your training loop afterwards, tucked in, torso locked, trying to mimic that immense force of Ullrich’s as he puts everything into his legs. No flapping or rocking, no surplus. And suddenly you, too, would be rocketing along, streaming past stragglers, flotsam and jetsam in your wake.


Now, post Festina, post Oil-for-Drugs, post Hamilton, post Puerto, post Landis, post Rasmussen, post Riccò, post the mother-of-them-all, USADA, you don’t know what to think. You watch such rides and you’re part disgusted, part fascinated. What were they taking? Was it EPO, blood transfusions, human growth hormone, testosterone, cortisone, amphetamines? Of the top ten riders who finished that stage, not one has exited that era his reputation unblemished. You can’t say it was a level playing field if everyone was at it: there is no equality in doping. We know now that some riders respond ‘better’ to EPO than others, while others have bigger budgets, better resources. You can’t watch such performances now without raising an eyebrow.


Ah, Jani. But you were formidable, even so.

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