Italy's Marco Pantani, a.k.a The Pirate, overtook defending champion Jan Ullrich in the exhausting mountain stages and held on to win the 85th Tour de France, becoming the first Italian champion since 1965. Pantani finished the course in 92 hours, 49 minutes and 46 seconds, just under four minutes quicker than Ullrich. This year's Tour de France could actually be considered a misnomer because for just the twelfth time in history, the race actually started outside of France. Beginning in Dublin, Ireland, the racers sped through Cork, across the channel (by plane and ferry, not by bike) and continued their grueling journey south through the western part of France, through the Pyrenees and the French Alps, before heading north to Paris for the August 2 finish. Just over 2,400 miles in all.
The larger story however, and the one that could change professional cycling from here on out, was the lingering drug scandals and biker strikes. On July 8, a car containing officials from the Festina team, the world's top-rated team, was stopped by authorities and found to have 400 doses of banned substances including the performance-enhancing drug EPO and various steroids. Team director Bruno Roussel later admitted to engaging his team in an "organized doping system" and the entire team was subsequently kicked out of the race before the seventh stage.
The obligatory media blitz that ensued had the competitors so enraged that they were forced to strike. What other choice did they have really? So as the 12th stage was about to officially begin, the racers unbuckled their helmets, unstrapped their pedals and sat in the road. Apparently this is the cycling equivalent to Dennis Rodman taking his shirt and shoes off and sitting on the floor in front of the Bulls' bench.
"We've been treated like beasts, so we are going to behave like beasts," said spokesman Laurent Jalabert. "We've had enough. We're not leaving." And they didn't leave. Well, at least for two hours, at which point they were coaxed by officials to resume the race. If only the NBA lockout could be settled so quickly.
The scandal unfortunately overshadowed what was actually a pretty entertaining race. On the road through stages fifteen and sixteen, Pantani was overtaking Ullrich and American Bobby Julich (Robert Urich was nowhere to be found) in what could have been a race for the ages, but off the road, troubles continued to brew and tempers continued to flare. In the seventeenth stage, it all came to a head again.
Steeeerike Twoooo!!! This time the riders stayed on their bikes but decided to join hands and coast through the stage like they were out for a casual spin through the French countryside. Stage results were subsequently wiped out. In all, seven teams were either disqualified or became so tired of the harassment that they pulled out of their own volition. Of the 189 racers that started in Dublin, only 96 rode down to Champs Elysees to the finish line. So while the 85th Tour de France should be known for Pantani's aggressive mountain attacks, the class and determination of defending champion Ullrich, or the consistency of Bobby Julich, it will most likely be remembered as the race that was marred by scandal — the Tour de France that almost wasn't.