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The Physician, The Belgians, and the Fishy Excuses
Stage 15 - Montpellier to Aix-en-Provence, a transitional, flat stage across the south of France
9 min read
Little Louis and the Breakawee Previous None The Wiser, Nothing By Half Next


Dumas Doesn’t Understand
Pills and Bottles
Tears of the Clown


Je Suis Malade, Dalida

Dumas Doesn’t Understand

Pierre Dumas is not a cycling man. Four years ago, when on holiday climbing in the Alps, a call came. The Tour physician is sick. No, he couldn’t heal himself. Come quick.

Damn, thought Dumas. I don’t care for cyclists. Or cycling.

And here he still is, bemused at the world of men riding their bikes and their injuries and their illnesses and – frequently – their drugs. Now, this is not to say that Pierre Dumas accuses the Belgian team of taking some form of drug, probably amphetamines, he would be unlikely to say. No, there’s an honour that comes with being the Tour physician. You don’t say these things out loud.

That’s what everyone else is intimating. And Pierre Dumas doesn’t have an answer to this, at least not an answer that he can say in public. 

As Jan Vlaeyens, once loyal lieutenant to Ockers, Brankart, De Bruyne and then Adriaenssens, pulls out with dysentery (again, this is what Vlaeyens claims, and Pierre Dumas will neither deny nor confirm this), the Belgian day starts to go badly wrong. Or did it go wrong when Ockers and Adriaenssens dropped down the peloton like two stones being thrown from a cliff?

Bad fish, they’re saying. We all had the fish.

Ah, it’s always the fish, murmurs Dumas. Always the fish.

And there’s Brankart, throwing up over a stone wall. This was meant to be a simple stage, how am I meant to cure an entire team?

There was Malléjac of course, last year. He wasn’t alone with his misadventures. You should have seen Ferdy Kübler, at his grand old age, steaming up the Mont Ventoux telling everyone including Gem himself that Ferdy is a grand champion, look at me go, Ferdy Grand Champion, and then they found him singing songs like a drunkard before falling over, grey-faced and sweating. Still pedalling.

Oh Ferdy, how could you.

Pills and Bottles

Dumas, he doesn’t understand why cyclists do these things. He doesn’t see the ageing Kübler fighting for one last hurrah, trying to keep up with the younger boys on Ventoux. He doesn’t see Malléjac’s need to be important. He doesn’t see the constant scrabbling around for attention so that managers will pick riders for criteriums so that the photographers will find them in a breakaway, so that they can just keep up with the damn pace, always the damn pace, faster every year.

Dumas walks into the bedrooms at night after the soigneurs have gone and finds pills he hasn’t prescribed himself. He finds bottles lying around that aren’t for water, they could never just be for water. He finds soigneurs secretly squirrelling packages in bags, he finds managers whispering surreptitiously, but none of this means anything to Pierre. He’s just here to treat the riders, and perhaps help them see the error of their ways. 

He gives Vlaeyen a disapproving look. Dysentery, you say. Is it, my boy. Well, come with me, drink plenty of water. We’ll sort out your “dysentery”.

Dumas is unaware that fish was not even on the menu at the Belgians’ hotel last night. They couldn’t even be bothered to make up a proper excuse. Do some groundwork.

He doesn’t really care, he just wants the riders to stop this nonsense before one of them is killed. Did they not see what drugs did to Hugo Koblet? The handsome Swiss climber, he’d have dominated cycling for ten years, were it not for some quack insisting he take an injection. And for what? To finish his national Tour and please the sponsors.

Cycling, he muses, is populated by juju men, shamans, charlatans. And these riders, young men all of them, they fall for it. For what? A few centimes more and their face on the front of l’Equipe?

So, as we bid goodbye to the Belgians, and specifically the yellow jersey of Adriaenssens, to what do we owe this particularly ill-fated alleged drug-taking? Yesterday’s chaos which saw the yellow jersey lead cut while Wout Wagtmans managed to chisel back an 18-minute deficit? The increasing menace of the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes, a similar deficit behind with the Alps to come? Or the regularity of Roger Walkowiak, constantly in the GC bunch with barely a bead of sweat on his forehead? Whatever the reason, the Belgians saw fit to allegedly take some form of doping ahead of a flat stage that should really never have caused them a problem, and this ahead of a rest day, too.

There really was panic among the Belgian camp last night, and today they’re pedalling squares, vomiting in fields and looking, to those who know these things, like the team that got a duff supply of amphetamines.

Were they aware? Or were they – like Kübler and Malléjac – supposedly taken by surprise that their manager had slipped them a wrong’un in their bidon? It’s not unheard of, but it’s almost unheard of for a member of the peloton these days not to be on something. And given the pace of this Tour, it’s almost unreasonable to expect that they’re riding on spring water.

And what a shame for Jan Adriaanssens, the trainee boulanger who was never meant to wear yellow. He was brought up in Antwerp to rise early, work hard and earn a crust, if you’ll pardon the pun. He chose cycling after discovering that he could get home quicker after a long stint at the bakery, but moreover, he chose cycling because he wanted to sleep normal hours like the rest of us. He wanted to be normal.

And normal he was. A man born to servitude within the peloton, “Solid Jan”, they’d call him – Sterke Jan. Solid Jan would carry water, fetch the sugared beer when he was asked to, he’d shield Ockers and Brankart from the wind, he’d pull De Bruyne to the finish line. Solid Jan, the man whose yellow jersey meant so much to him that he couldn’t finish telling his mother over the phone that he’d taken the lead in the Tour de France. He just broke down in tears, his voice halting. 

Not so solid Jan, then.

And he’s crying as he, together with the rest of the Belgium team, keep turning the wheels, each up-stroke a stab to the back, each down-stroke a stab to the heart, each pothole in the road forcing the stomach to turn, a retching rushing up the throat, but no – carry on. It was the fish. Tell everyone it was the fish.

Tears of the Clown

Whatever it was, it appears to have gone through Ockers’ system as he leaps from one group to the next, leaving the sick Adriaanssens to his fate.

Perhaps it was the salty air of the Camargue wafting over the peloton, or the scent of lavender that put juice into Ockers’ engine? Perhaps it was the Mistral, one of its more tender days, giving a helpful push where it was required most. Perhaps it was the surprise climbs of the Alpilles, the mini-Alps of Provence, pushing Stan Ockers back to his limits, reminding him to ride and ride hard.

This is France at its most overwhelming. Not a day to be sick, thinks Ockers. Get over it.

The stage itself is a series of attacks on the Belgians. Siguenza was allowed to go ahead and soak up a little Languedocquien adoration early on, for he is from those parts. He was then reeled back in with a hasty “had your fun, boy”, and spat out the back where he belongs.

Ockers, once recovered, couldn’t follow the group of Forestier, Thomin, Barbotin and a group of regional riders looking to make their names, and lo and behold, it’s a cinder track. So it’s the Breton Thomin who wins the sprint – as everyone predicted the minute the group got away.

Thomin, adding to the Breton piggy bank on the kind of track he grew up on.

But neither Thomin nor Forestier are the story here. It’s the little Dutchman with the huge smile and the tears of joy, who realises that his rival for the yellow jersey is way back, nine whole minutes back, and he’s no longer just the virtual yellow jersey, he’s the real deal.

Wagtmans whips out the cigars as the lead of the Tour passes from one low country to the next. A huge smile plays on his face as he’s mobbed by teammates in orange.

Adriaenssens, when he makes it into the velodrome, is spent. Sterke Jan hauls his significant frame over his handlebars and watches the sweat drip from his forehead onto his front wheel. A bad day for the Belgians, a bad day for Adriaenssen, but if we’re going to be honest about it, a bad day for cycling.

The problem is, nobody’s going to be honest about it.


Stage results

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General Classification

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  1. Great story, really hotting up now (like the weather outside ) Rebuilt a bike from Air a couple of years back. A mate bought it from the recycling depot in his town for 25€.
    A Paul Neri. M.Neri had a bike shop in Aix when he retired from racing? He rode the tour a few times. He was also French champion once. Even though he was Italian!