[note from translator: this is not more of "Sport and Eroticism"; remember: the French nickname the TdF "la grande boucle"]
"The world in yellow." At the restaurant L'Opportune (on boulevard Edgar Quinet in the 14th arrondissement) in Paris, where the days'stages get even longer, John Lelangue is sitting facing a poster-- with that luminous slogan--for the next Tour de France. The Tour, a dream and its torments all attached to a colorless, senseless jersey. Notebook. Filled with doubts. The state of the world.
Last July 23: Like his father, Robert, with Eddy Merckx (Molteni) in 1972 and 1974, the Belgian DS is parading on the Champs-Élysées with the American, Floyd Landis, all in yellow. A fleeting pleasure. After an inforgettable celebration, those colors are going to lose their brilliance, the sun will be covered. An eclipse.
The winners share a carefree Parisian jaunt the next day, before setting off for Holland to compete in a criterium, Tuesday at 9 p.m. After gobbling the race down, the group returns to its hotel in Eindhoven at midnight.
Exhausted, the manager grants his troupe a generous free morning. Reveille sounds. It's brutal when news of the Yellow Jersey's positive result (for testosterone) comes down. "A telephone call warned me of the imminent arrival of a fax. My wife, looking right at me, saw me fall apart. I immediately went to see Floyd. We talked about what steps to take. We did not leave on the sly, like criminals, as I had to read. We simply wanted to announce the news elsewhere."
Paris bound. Everything is hanging by a thread because the rumor is growing. Quick. The Swiss team issues a press release July 27. Fire storm. John Lelangue sighs: "A betrayal. A huge disappointment for the Tour, which didn't deserve it; for Jean-Marie (Leblanc, race director), who didn't deserve to go out like that; and for the public, which was treated with contempt. I hope the fans regain their taste for the race."
"You can fly near the sun without burning your wings"
He who had always brandished prohibitions, now was threatened, and struck. Suspended on Friday morning (later fired after the B sample), Floyd Landis flew to Madrid. To establish his defense, before cutting communications with his former guide. The American, who underwent an operation on his hip in August and is busy stalking the corridors of justice, called his former DS two weeks ago, after a gap of four months. Four months of silence.
"A long conversation, pleasant, no animosity. But he knows my position." Inflexible.
"You can fly near the sun without burning your wings. Those who want to get near it artificially are wrong. I'm a legalist; there's a rule; I accept it; I apply it. I have confidence in the AMA investigations, in the UCI, the Ministry of Sports, the lab at Châtenay-Malabry. The infraction is clear; it's proven. It's up to Landis to prove that he's innocent. And I hope this doesn't turn out the way it did for Landaluze (a Spanish rider who tested positive in June 2005, only to see the case dismissed by the sports arbitration tribunal last Dec. 20 because of a procedural flaw). . . ."
John Lelangue, man in a hurry at age 36, the incarnation of the movers and shakers of modern cycling--went from the Belgian Olympic Committee (recruited by Jacques Rogge, current president of the International Olympic Committee) to Amaury Sport Organization (ten years spent as right-hand man to Jean-Marie Leblanc) before throwing himself into rescuing the Phonak team (a team running a heavy deficit, threatened with relegation, and ultimately returned to international competition in 2005). He saw his descent into Hell as an experience: "From the moment of the announcement, I knew I was going to live two years of Purgatory." And of seeing the film unwind, without seeing the tricks. "This business would have been a disaster if I had been implicated. If I had things to reproach myself for. But there. . . . Yes, you can be right there and see nothing. It's like a married couple. Sometimes you don't know everything about the man or woman you share your life with. In cycling, you can try to put up safeguards, but zero-risk just doesn't exist. Those who claim it does are being unrealistic. Or, you'll have to take all the riders, put them naked into a room with only a bed and a TV, and take them out again in the morning. Barriers, sometimes, are not enough."
Pain. Between words and prohibitions. "With us, it wasn't the sponsor who was putting the pressure on. They were content with the team's performance. Leaving the Pyrenees, we already had a successful Tour. We'd had the Yellow Jersey one day; we'd turned in a good time trial. That was good stuff. . . ."
"I'm far from being disgusted"
Before the murderous finale. Afterwards, he swallowed the remaining races of the season with dignity. Respect for the calendar and his obligations. And accompanied by the understanding and sympathy of the fans: "they understood the drama the team and I were living. People were never belligerent, never pointed fingers at us, because the team's position was clear from the very beginning."
Over his head, questions were swirling; the future haunted him--that is, when it would be necessary to sketch out the future for the rest of the team. Despite his best efforts, he couldn't save Team Phonak. The curtain fell August 15, darkening the horizon for fifty employees. Another race began: to save whom he could. Before thinking of his own future.
During the autumn, when he'd calmed down, John Lelangue picked up his federal certificate and his national trainer’s diploma. With the desire and the pleasure of passing along the good word: "Bicycling brings together those simple values, such as team spirit, solidarity, humanity. It's all a question of education." No doubt.
That was the reed he hold on to. Flanked by his father and Eddy Merckx. And he wants to fight. Still. "If I'd had to admit to being beaten, then doping and the cheaters would have had our hide. I want to fight, to give back to bicycling as much as it has given me, ever since I was born. I'll try to do this until I die." He rode out the Festina tempest in 1998, and recalls: "In 1998 they told us, 'We're going to have a few years hard labor.' Now we've fallen into something else. But cycling has to get back up. You have to believe in it. You can't fold your arms."
And to make his own plans. "I'm far from being disgusted. I had contacts with Unibet and other teams, but I'd prefer to let a little time pass." The RTBF has offered him a return to his roots. As a consultant, he'll put in twenty-four days of racing and will participate in a weekend broadcast in Belgium. He'll let the road unwind, in its own rhythm: the start of the season in Qatar, the classics, the Tour . . . right up to the Tour of Lombardy.
Since the decision taken the evening of the announcement of the Tour's route, at the end of October, this indefatiguable polyglot has been working his way through the international press, filling up notebooks, collecting information, multiplying contacts and exchanges. On the lookout for one thing: returning to racing. "This is going to be a new experience this year. After, I'll see whether I want to orient myself toward DS, management, or sports marketing." But surely never far from cycling.
"All races, the biggest and the smallest, like the Grand Prix of the Chapel, raced around a church, evoke enthusiasm and happiness. Cycling has a future. It's up to it to find the right people to write it." John Lelague has kept a Yellow Jersey. Not a relic. A signpost. To remember a fleeting pleasure.
Into the black leather bag that dates back to the 1975 Dauphiné libéré and which accompanied his father's successes and trials, he methodically arranges his files. Ready to hit the road again. Convinced. Like yesterday. Like tomorrow. With the Tour always in the back of his mind. A buckle that is never buckled.
[edited to correct a translation error]