Matt Rendell: Cycling and the age of post-truth

The Age of Enlightenment is over: the post-industrial, post-modern world is now, apparently, post-truth. The post-truth age goes back rather a long way. For roughly a thousand years – from the first of the Capetians to Charles X of France in the 1820s – the French and English kings claimed to be able to cure scrofula and epilepsy with a miraculous touch of the royal hand, and sufferers travelled enormous distances to be healed.

The great historian of The Royal Touch was the Frenchman Marc Bloch, who wrote: “De faux recits ont soulevé les foules” – “False stories heartened the crowds”. The same could have been written of Trump, Brexit, or of Lance Armstrong.

Mind you, it could reasonably be argued that what we call facts and what medieval scrofula victims call facts aren’t the same thing.

Bloch talks about the symbolic impact of rituals and the power of myths, and talks in terms of “idées collectives”, “representations collectives” and “erreur collective”. He did not make light of these things: he considered them to be engines driving mass behaviour.

To the great despair of historians, men fail to change their vocabulary every time they change their customs.

As well as going back a long way, post-truth has colonised different sectors at different rates. Cycling, for instance, has little to learn in Trump’s locker room. The post-truth age has been familiar territory since 1924 and Albert Londres’ famous article, Les Forçats de la Route.

“We ride on dynamite,” Francis Pélissier told him, pulling out a phial of cocaine. The rider later claimed that he was pulling the wool over the writer’s eyes because he knew nothing about cycling. But Londres had written a great deal about the drug trade, and he was certainly no charlatan. 

Ninety years on, in 2014, Antonio De Rensis, the lawyer representing the family of Marco Pantani (he also represents Chelsea manager Antonio Conte) attempted to convince the world of something quite false: that Pantani was murdered. 

To do so, he hired a forensic pathologist named Professor Francesco Avato to take on the author of the original autopsy report, Professor Giuseppe Fortuni. It was a strategic piece of legal theatre. Avato had sparred with Fortuni in a number of high-profile murder cases. Given that De Rensis could offer no motive for Pantani’s murder, no suspect, and no plausible scenario, the Avato imprimatur conferred much-needed credibility.


Sometimes, this kind of theatrical muddying of the water is enough to swing an electorate or a fan base. It is obvious to anyone familiar with tainted steaks, vanishing twins, racing pigeons in a pie (that was Adri van der Poel in 1983), or Armstrong’s post-cancer comeback of the century.

Speaking of which, a court in Bolzano on December 1 heard how Dr Michele Ferrari offered his top clients a complete package of services ranging from advice in contract negotiation and detailed training and pharmacological schedules, all the way through to legal assistance in case of positive doping controls or processes, with what police call “artfully constructed arguments so as to weaken the findings from the biological passport test”.

“Artfully constructed arguments” means the submissions of expert witnesses. It sounds like something of a contradiction: if facts stand super partes, how can an expert witness appear for one side or the other? 

This is how far cycling had descended into post-truth obfuscation.

Looking back, it would be nice to be able to start a sentence saying, “From our long experience…” and offer the wisdom of cycling’s years. But the list of Tour de France winners still includes known dopers like Riis, Ullrich and Pantani, and, somehow, Virenque has been allowed to retain his six King of the Mountains titles. 


Today, suspicion about current riders is still widespread in the social media and the comment sections, where they still exist. The historian Marc Bloch might have been thinking of them when he said, “To the great despair of historians, men fail to change their vocabulary every time they change their customs.” The language of doping denials is worn out and deformed by long usage. 

Two thoughts occur: one is that, since the depths of the 1990s, when doping doctors ruled the peloton and massive EPO use was routine, real progress has been made. In the age of the biological passport, there are issues with microdoses and TUEs, but the skulduggery is mostly restricted to tiny margins, and there has been a massive culture change inside the sport. 

Comment: cycling must move beyond its post-truth narrative

Sports journalism has been transformed too: once little more than cheerleading, the field is now replete with accomplished investigative writers.

On the other hand, just as you can’t be slightly pregnant, sport is either honest or dishonest. However tiny the margins, if only the practicalities have changed, not the underlying will to cheat, no progress has been made at all. 

The road back to the golden age of enlightenment is long, and probably always will be.

Originally published in Rouleur 17.1


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