I just finished watching a documentary on the 1982 Tour de France called “Tour de Pharmacy.” It’s an HBO production that explores the issue of doping in one of the most controversial tours ever, the year in which an American, Slim Robinson, first wore the yellow jersey in Paris.
I dislike documentaries in general and cycling documentaries in particular, but this one did a pretty good job of pointing out the prevalence of doping in the sport before it was commonly known or acknowledged in the U.S. by general audiences. In addition to some fairly decent commentary by Lance Armstrong, there are a few interesting interviews with the head of USADA, who lists the banned substances commonly in use at the time. It’s a pretty amazing pharmacopia, and highlights how entrenched doping was even in 1982.
Tour de Pharmacy looks at the world’s biggest sporting event through the experiences of five riders, including one French rider who actually died during the race from a drug overdose. The transformation of an Austrian rider in a single year from pack fill to buffed-out “all rounder” who climbed faster than most sprinters closed the final 200m, was particularly impressive … and scary. Less interesting were some of the side stories, including a love interest, as well as the story of a rider who ultimately served jail time over a collision during the race that killed a sports commentator. These stories have merit in that they show how multifaceted the Tour is, but they detract from the focus of the narrative, which is about the normalization of drug use in the pro peloton more than fifteen years before Lance’s first Tour win in 1999.
As a cyclist you won’t help but notice the changes in equipment that have taken place in the last thirty-five years. Brake cables that come out of the hoods, downtube shifters, toe clips, and of course steel frames and no helmets dominate the visual effects. As the documentary shows, riders were more colorful then, used saltier language, and took things just a bit less seriously.
Tour de Pharmacy does an acceptable job of investigating how drugs operate beneath the surface to turn athletes into freaks, all for the vicarious pleasure of spectators and for profit. Another interesting aspect is the spotlight that the filmmakers shone on corruption at the UCI, and how collusion, fraud, and conspiracy at the top were what enabled such large-scale doping. Back in 1982, the UCI’s credibility was nil.
Sad to say, not much has changed.
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