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Part 3: A Nice Guy

Herbie Sykes Tekst Herbie Sykes Gepubliceerd 16 July 2017

Herbie Sykes takes us back in time to four remarkable moments in the history of la Grande Boucle.

Neuville-en-Ferrain, 8 July 1998
He was a nice guy, Willy. A nice guy and a good soigneur, and he’d do anything for his riders.

What he’d do for his riders today was to take the stuff out of his fridge, put it in his car, then drive to the Festina HQ in Paris. There he’d swap his car for a Tour de France FIAT, and then drive across to Eric’s place in Ghent. That was good because he couldn’t wait, and now the waiting was over.

Willy’s wife hadn’t appreciated having all that stuff in the house. They’d argued about it quite a lot, but in the end Willy had said, “What do you want me to say? What do you want me to do? It’s my job, the way I get money to support this family!” She’d said, “I know but…” and Willy had said, “You know but what, exactly? You don’t know anything, so the best thing you can do is stop complaining about it!”

He’d driven over to Eric’s and picked up the drips, so that was that; everything was ready. Willy had told Eric what he was going to do, and Eric had said, “Just be careful Willy!” Willy had said that of course he would, and they’d had a bit of a joke about it. Willy had said he’d been in cycling a very long time and that careful was precisely what he was. Eric had asked him if he fancied a bite to eat, but Willy had said no. He’d needed to be getting off, but thanks all the same. Eric had said, “Well then Willy, I guess I’ll see you in Ireland!” and Willy had said, “Yes! See you in Ireland at the Tour de France!”

He was a nice guy, Eric. A nice guy and a good doctor, and he’d do anything for his riders. Almost anything.

He hadn’t known what was in it, and nor had he particularly wanted to.

Willy had grabbed a bit of shut-eye, and he’d been up bright and early the next morning. It was a hell of a drive to Dublin, and he hadn’t wanted to be falling asleep at the wheel. Then he’d done what he always did when he had a big day ahead of him. He hadn’t known what was in it, and nor had he particularly wanted to. Anyway it didn’t matter because Willy didn’t exaggerate. He wasn’t one of those crazy people you saw at the races, and he knew the game inside out. He knew the game, and everyone in cycling knew him. Everyone knew he was 100 per cent trustworthy, and he only ever took just enough to keep him ticking over. He was going to drive from Dover to Dublin, and the Tour was three weeks. He’d need to keep his wits about him.

So Willy had set off towards Calais.

He’d given himself plenty of time, so he’d decided to go via Lille. It would take a bit longer that way, but Eric had said, “Be careful Willy!” Now Willy decided to pull off the motorway at Rekkem, and to cross the border there just in case. He spun off the motorway, turned left onto Dronckaertstraat, and slipped across the border into France.

Only now there was a guy on the side of the road, and he was wearing a uniform. Willy saw that he was a customs officer, and that he was flagging him down. Willy was panicking now, because he knew he had the stuff for Dufaux in his rucksack.

The guy asked him where he was going, and Willy said, “To the Tour de France.”

Then the others appeared.

The Pot Belge Willy Voet was smuggling across the French border for Laurent Dufaux ought to have been the least of his worries. He was carrying (amongst others) 235 vials of EPO, 120 capsules of amphetamine, 82 growth hormone solutions and an industrial quantity of testosterone. He was taken into police custody, and on 10 July he admitted everything, named names and described the scale and extent of the Festina doping programme.

The Festina Affair, the first of a series of doping tsunamis to hit cycling, followed on from a raid on the Giro d’Italia the previous year. It had centred exclusively on the MG-Technogym team, however, and the news had largely been contained within Italy. Festina was another matter altogether. It was one of the biggest teams in cycling, and it included – amongst other luminaries – the French poster boy Richard Virenque. What’s more the Tour was the Tour, and the evidence was both vast and incontrovertible.

By the end of the race, won spectacularly by Marco Pantani, cycling was a sport besieged. In addition to Festina, the Dutch TVM team had left the race following a similar raid. Elsewhere the four Spanish teams abandoned, as did Italy’s Riso Scotti, the team formerly known as MG-Technogym.

Read on: Part 2: Coup de Grâce

Image: Cor Vos