Just as everyone in basketball is drooling over the sensational Jeremy Lin, so everyone in pro cycling is talking about the remarkable Jon Tiernan-Locke. The 27-year-old Englishman, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago for my column on redkiteprayer.com
has won five races this month to go to the top of the UCI’s Europe Tour standings—even though he’s on a third-tier Continental team, Endura Racing.
Locke’s latest victory—in the two-day Tour du Haut Var over the hills of Provence—came at a race that was expected to go to either world No. 1 Philippe Gilbert, defending champion Thomas Voeckler, or perhaps Australian national champion Simon Gerrans. Instead, the fearless Locke, who’d already won the previous week’s Mediterranean Tour, rode everyone off his wheel on the 20-percent slopes of the Mur de Fayence to take the final stage and the overall title. His ferocious climbing style is already being compared to that of Alberto Contador, or even Gilbert!
The Englishman’s rags-to-riches story is as romantic as the myth around Lin, an Asian American who also came from “nowhere” before upstaging the stars of his sport. Lin graduated from Harvard, went undrafted and was cut by two NBA teams before finding instant success this month as a starter with the New York Knicks. Locke began road cycling at 18, had early success with a French amateur team, but quit the sport when he came down with the Epstein-Barr virus. He returned to school for three years and graduated from Bristol University before getting back into racing in 2008. He found limited success as a pro with the Rapha-Condor team only two years ago, and his first appearance for Endura Racing was at the Med Tour, just two weeks ago.
Whereas the American public and media have embraced Lin as a true athletic revelation (both Newsweek and Time called it a “Linderella Story”), Locke’s sudden emergence at a relatively late age is being seen in a very different light by the Europeans. The day after his stunning win at Fayence, the leading French sports newspaper, L’Équipe, wrote this about the slim Brit:
“Are we in the presence of a champion or a chimera? Tiernan-Locke can only be one or the other in order to win five races in a row. He’s part of a team from the third division, a category where the riders don’t have to submit to biological monitoring, via the blood passport [program] of the Union Cycliste Internationale….
“What do his peers think? With the microphone open, not much. But with the tape recorder turned off, they express some deep doubts. ‘It’s inevitable when someone wins so much,’ Stephen Roche retorts. ‘But this isn’t a two-faced bastard, not a malicious guy, so I can’t begin to imagine that he has cheated. Even so, I’m crossing my fingers,’ adds the 1987 Tour champion, who hosted Tiernan-Locke for three weeks this winter at his training camp in Mallorca.”
The doubts expressed by the French, hinting that Locke has doped to be so successful at an age, 27, when most riders’ careers are already established, are typical from a nation that has an inferiority complex in regard to cycling. French commentators and fans can’t comprehend why their cyclists have stopped dominating the sport since Bernard Hinault, their last Tour de France winner, retired 25 years ago. So, their insinuating that successful athletes from other countries must be cheating is an easy alibi.
What the French do not grasp is that the new generation of successful non-Europeans are from countries—Australia, Great Britain and the U.S.—that emphasize hard work under the supervision of coaches and mentors who don’t carry the baggage of Europe’s culture of doping. Locke’s mentor and onetime coach is Colin Lewis, a former British pro road champion and Tour de France rider, who has had a strong anti-drugs stance ever since he raced in France as an amateur in the 1960s.
Lewis and I sometimes trained together back then and discussed the drug culture in French cycling. I remember telling him about my experience at a local criterium. As I was changing in the locker room after that race, I spotted an empty clear-plastic tube where one of my teammates had been changing. I pocketed the small container and later read the label: methamphetamine. After another French race, a point-to-point amateur classic, a man in an overcoat came up to me and, after complimenting me on my ride, asked if I wanted to use a fortifiant. That, literally, is a tonic, but it’s also code for a stimulant. “Non, merci,” I replied.
Lewis had similar stories, and he said, very firmly, that he would never resort to doping. That’s why he spent his whole pro career racing for small British pro teams, knowing that continental squads at that time expected their riders to use drugs.
Only a year after our training rides in Brittany, and with no experience of European pro racing, a rookie Lewis rode the 1967 Tour de France for the British national team. He knew that he was there purely to help his team leader, Tom Simpson, the 1965 world champion. I followed that Tour by bike and intersected with Lewis and the British team every few days. Lewis was rooming with Simpson—who was lying seventh overall prior to the 13th stage. That’s the day that Simpson attempted to stay with the best climbers and collapsed a kilometer from the summit of a sun-blasted Mont Ventoux.
Lewis later told the British journalists on the race: “I heard that Tom had fallen…but [team manger] Alec Taylor told me to go on, and that everything was all right. I was tucked up in bed after the stage, feeling pretty rough, when I heard the news. Barry Hoban came into my room and said, ‘Tom’s dead.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Lewis went on to finish his debut Tour in 68th place, but having been Simpson’s teammate for two weeks, he knew that drugs played a role in his friend’s death. In “Put Me Back On My Bike,” the Simpson biography, Lewis described to author Will Fotheringham an incident that took place in their hotel room early in the Tour. Lewis said that Simpson took off his jersey and put six tablets on the table. After showering, Simpson couldn’t find one of the tablets and accused Lewis of taking it. But when they found it had fallen to the floor, Simpson said to his roommate: “I’m glad you don’t need this stuff.”
When Simpson collapsed and died on the Ventoux, three plastic tubes containing amphetamines were found in his racing jersey—just like the one I’d seen in the locker room of that French criterium.
There were no anti-doping tests in cycling back then. There are now. And nobody really believes, except perhaps the French, that Jon Tiernan-Locke is a cheat. He’s here to stay—just like Jeremy Lin.