Even in the crazy world of professional bike racing, some headlines still have the power to shock. Today’s news that Christophe Bassons has received a one-year ban for missing a doping control is one of those, going beyond the merely improbable – ‘Lance Armstrong banned for life,’ or ‘Briton wins the Tour de France’ – and into another realm altogether.
The 38-year-old, whose career in road cycling ended more than a decade ago after he was in effect bullied out of the sport after speaking out against doping, was selected for a random doping control after the French mountain bike marathon championships at the start of September.
The problem was that he’d abandoned the race 20 kilometres from the finish and headed home and didn’t have enough time to get back.
Out of competition, miss three tests and you’re facing a ban, but for an in-competition test, you only have to miss one.
As a result of the missed doping control, Bassons has been handed a one-year ban by the French cycling federation, the FFC.
“When I stopped, someone from the race organisation asked my name, took a note of my race number and immediately informed race control,” Bassons told L’Equipe.
“I realise my error in not having waited until the end of the race to see if my name appeared on the list of riders to be tested.
“I took the road to Bordeaux [where he lives] and it was only two and a half hours after my abandonment that I got a phone call from the race timekeeper saying that I had to undergo a test. It was too late to get back to the site of the race.
“Why didn’t they call me earlier? Why such a heavy sanction? I don’t understand.”
Bassons has been in the news of late for being the man who first publicly pointed the finger at Lance Armstrong, raising questions about the Texan’s performance in the 1999 Tour de France, his first after recovering from cancer, and the first of the seven successive editions he would win.
He had already earned the reputation of being the ‘Mr Clean’ of the peloton after Festina team mates during the 1998 Tour de France identified him as being the only rider not using drugs in the wake of the scandal that engulfed that team, and he has recently said he turned down a significant pay rise that was conditional on him using EPO.
The following year, Bassons was riding the Tour for FDJ and also writing about his experience in a diary published in the newspaper Le Parisien. Tour organisers had hoped that year’s race would mark a fresh start from the doping that had come to blight the sport, culminating in the previous year’s chaos. They were wrong.
So too was Bassons when he assumed that his opinion in one of his articles, in which he spoke of how “shocked” he was at Armstrong’s performance that year, reflected the general view of the peloton.
The following day, on a stage from Sestriere to Alpe d’Huez, Bassons learnt from a mechanic that the peloton was planning to go slow for 100 kilometres in protest at his comments. He went on the attack, but was chased down by a peloton led not only by US Postal but also his own FDJ team.
Armstrong asumed the role of spokesman. “Go home,” he told the young Frenchman forcefully.
Afterwards, recounts The Observer, Armstrong told the press: "His accusations aren't good for cycling, for his team, for me, for anybody. If he thinks cycling works like that, he's wrong and he would be better off going home."
Bassons did just that, abandoning the Tour, and although he would race for the following two seasons with the Jean Delatour team, he was frozen out by fellow professionals as the law of omertà came into play, and his career as a pro racer would end in 2001 at the age of 27.
He would later go on to qualify as a sports teacher and now works in antidoping in Bordeaux, where he lives.
It’s said that in a democracy, it is preferable that the criminal justice system occasionally acquits guilty people, rather than convicting the innocent.
Should it be the same when it comes to doping, or should we accept that the price to pay for ensuring the guilty are caught is that those who did nothing wrong other than being a victim of circumstance should also pay, pour encourager les autres?
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.