From its very first edition in 1903, the Tour de France was fraught with drama.
To say Le Grand Boucle is a race that flirts with controversy would be a disservice. The Tour and scandal have shared a tempestuous, lifelong extra-marital affair that shows no signs of flaming out any time soon.
And between the political scandals, prison sentences, and diplomatic crises, controversy is inseparable from the Tour’s ability to captivate the public imagination. Scandal is at the heart of the mythology of Le Tour that feeds the cycling fanatics and whips the sporting world into a frenzy for one month every summer a century later.
With this year’s edition fast approaching, we’re looking back at the 5 most controversial moments in Tour de France history.
We found narrowing this list down to just five an impossible task.
There are an infinite number of Tour de France scandals we argued over, from Bernard Hinault’s attempts tussles with Tour organizers in 1980, to Eddy Merckx’s brutal assault by a fan on the Puy de Dôme in 1975, to that infamous mass pile-up in 2021 triggered by one fan and her “Allez Opi-Omi!” sign.
Do you think we got our list wrong? Let us know in the comments below!
#5. The Intimidation of Filippo Simeoni (2004)
Though we could easily fill a Top 10 solely with Lance Armstrong’s controversies, his intimidation of Filippo Simeoni at the 2004 Tour stands out as one of the ugliest episodes of the Armstrong years.
The animosity between Armstrong and Simeoni stemmed from the Italian rider’s willingness to testify against the infamous Dr. Michele Ferrari, the architect of Armstrong’s all-conquering doping program.
Hostilities intensified in July 2003, when Armstrong labeled Simeoni a “liar” in an interview with Le Monde, prompting a defamation claim from the Italian.
The flashpoint came on Stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France. Simeoni, who had never posed any threat to Armstrong’s now-insurmountable overall lead, bridged the gap to the six-man breakaway up ahead.
To spite the Italian, Armstrong broke from the peloton and hunted him down, knowing full well this would prompt rival teams, previously uninterested in the breakaway, to give chase and end the hopes of all six riders for the stage victory.
The other riders pleaded with Armstrong to drop back, but he refused – unless Simeoni dropped back with him.
The other riders then turned on Simeoni, berating him until he relented and was escorted back to the peloton by Armstrong. With the cameras fixated on the two of them, Armstrong put his arm on Simeoni’s back and told him in Italian:
“You made a mistake when you testified against Ferrari, and you made a mistake when you sued me. I have a lot of time and a lot of money, and I can destroy you.”
Simeoni relented and was led back to the peloton where he was verbally abused and spat at by other riders, while Armstrong grinned and mimed a “zip the lips” gesture at the Italian.
Simeoni’s career suffered greatly after the incident. Teams were reluctant to hire him, and his squad was mysteriously omitted from the 2009 Giro d’Italia – Armstrong’s comeback race following his short-lived retirement – despite Simeoni’s position as reigning Italian national champion.
Simeoni returned the national champion’s jersey in protest, an act which saw him banned for four months, and announced his retirement the same year.
“I acknowledge Armstrong’s confession on television, but he put me through such a humiliating experience and damaged me so much, in terms of sport, morale, and finances that I don’t know if I could ever forgive him.”Filippo Simeoni, speaking after Armstrong’s doping confession in 2013.
Perhaps at the time the incident might have seemed unlikely to rank among the most controversial moments in Tour de France history.
In hindsight, however, the persecution of Simeoni was the most visible facet of Armstrong’s relentless campaign to suppress the truth, and anyone who dared to whisper it. That he was prepared to be so brazen in publicly crushing a dissident voice speaks volumes.
Knowing what we do now, the image of Armstrong gesturing to Simeoni to remain silent is chilling.
#4. Poison, Sabotage, and a Disqualified Champion (1904)
The 2nd Edition of the Tour de France remains among the most contentious of all time.
Maurice Garin, the champion of the inaugural Tour, appeared to have successfully defended his crown, only to be disqualified for cheating alongside the other top four riders in the overall standings and every individual stage winner.
The race was a farce, with fifth-placed Henri Cornet ultimately named the victor over four months later, despite himself having been cautioned for taking a ride in a car.
The scandals in the race were too numerous to detail, but the lowlights included:
- Early leaders Garin and Lucien Pothier were severely beaten by a group of masked men who emerged from a car in the road ahead of them on Stage 1.
- Pre-race favorite Hippolyte Aucoutourier’s bike was sabotaged, causing him to crash repeatedly.
- Ferdinand Payan was disqualified for using a motor hidden on his bike – possibly the first case of mechanical doping at the Tour de France.
- A mob of 200 fans attacked rivals of local hope Antoine Fauré, knocking Giovanni Gerbi unconscious. The assault stopped only with warning shots fired from race officials’ pistols.
- Numerous riders were disqualified for skipping sections of the route by train.
- Several riders accused their rivals of tampering with their water bottles, poisoning them with toxic substances.
The Tour de France only narrowly survived the 1904 edition. Founder Henri Desgrange initially vowed that he would “never run the Tour de France again” due to the scope of the cheating and the attacks on riders by spectators.
#3. The Festina Affair (1998)
Though whisperings of widespread doping had been rumbling around the peloton for years, the Festina Affair was the spark that blew the scandal open.
The domino effect set in motion by Team Festina soigneur Willy Voet’s arrest with a trunk full of EPO on the Belgian border would see multiple teams withdrawn from the Tour, mass protests and strike threats by riders, and prison sentences handed down to officials and medical staff as the extent of doping in the peloton finally became clear.
Following Voet’s arrest, Team Festina’s headquarters and the riders’ hotels were raided by police, with evidence of widespread, systematic doping uncovered. The team was soon disqualified from the Tour, but by then the scandal was spreading like wildfire.
Police raids soon followed on six other teams, with mounting numbers of arrests and withdrawals. By the end of Stage 19, the number of riders remaining from the start list of 189 was in double digits.
With the Tour in the midst of a crisis, one stage was canceled when the riders stopped en masse and threatened to withdraw from the race altogether. At the stage start in Albertville, riders threatened to strike again, only relenting with the guarantee of no further police raids.
Had the Tour been abandoned during the chaos of the Festina Affair, it’s entirely possible it would never have returned.
#2. Tom Simpson’s Death
The death of British cyclist Tom Simpson on Stage 13 of the 1967 Tour de France was one of the greatest tragedies and controversies in the history of cycling.
Doping controls were almost non-existent in the era. Whatever regulations existed were rarely enforced, and while doping was something of a taboo, many riders spoke candidly about using stimulants and tranquilizers to aid them.
As the riders pushed up the grueling climb of Mont Ventoux on July 13, 1967, tragedy struck.
During the ascent, Simpson suffered from extreme physical exhaustion and dehydration, exacerbated by a deadly combination of amphetamines and brandy in his system. A kilometer from the summit, he started to zig-zag across the road before falling from his bike.
He was urged to stop by his team manager but refused, demanding to be helped back onto the bike and pushing on toward the top. He managed another 400 meters before faltering again.
Spectators held him upright and tried to push him on but Simpson was already unconscious, his hands still clamped around the handlebars. He was flown to hospital in a police helicopter, but was pronounced dead soon after arrival. Three empty glass vials of amphetamines were found in the back pocket of his jersey.
His final words, heard by his team manager as he pressed on his final fatal push, were “On, on, on.”
Simpson’s death was a moment of reckoning for the cycling world, sparking anger about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport.
It eventually led to the establishment of stricter anti-doping measures and the implementation of more rigorous drug testing protocols in professional cycling – though later events would ultimately prove these inadequate.
Tom Simpson was just 29 years old when he died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. The memorial at the spot he fell has become a poignant pilgrimage site for cycling fans, leaving cycling bottles as a symbol of respect in the young rider’s memory.
#1. The Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal
Lance Armstrong’s astonishing comeback from cancer to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles was hailed as the greatest story in sporting history.
Armstrong was worshipped by fans the world over. He raised millions of dollars for charity and brought cycling to a new global audience, transforming the sport and becoming arguably the most famous man on the planet.
Until it all came crashing down.
A trickle of whispers that a dark lie lurked at the heart of Armstrong’s story gradually transformed into an avalanche of allegations over the course of a decade.
With the evidence becoming insurmountable, Armstrong was charged with a vast range of doping offenses by USADA. He chose not to appeal the findings and was stripped of his titles and banned from cycling for life in late 2012.
He finally confessed his use of performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013.
The legacy of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal is still being unpicked by the sport today.
For the magnitude of the deception, the industrialized scale of the cheating, and the stratospheric fall from grace of the world’s foremost sports icon, it is remembered as cycling’s darkest hour, and arguably the greatest controversy in sporting history.
- Want to know more? Check out Cycling’s Darkest Hour: The Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal Explained here.