Stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France between Annemasse and Lons-le-Saunier should have been a routine day. It was sandwiched in between the final mountain stage and the penultimate day’s time trial, the wearer of the yellow jersey Lance Armstrong had a good four minute lead over Ivan Basso and the terrain was hilly. You wouldn’t have got very good odds on there being a breakaway and the GC men staying quiet before rolling in together at the finish. However, the day ended up becoming the definition of the omerta which helped keep the ‘EPO era’ running.
The inevitable breakaway was established early on in the day and contained six riders. As the gap grew the Italian rider Filippo Simeoni decided that he wanted a piece of the action and broke from the peloton and started bridging over to the group. Bizarrely though so did Lance Armstrong. The two eventually made it up to the head of the race but once Armstrong started taking turns the peloton, lead by T-Mobile, started the chase. They couldn’t let Armstrong gain more time so it seemed that the breakaway was doomed. Soon Armstrong and Simeoni started arguing and Vicente Garcia Acosta, who was in the original break, joined in the heated discussion. The upshot of the debate was that Armstrong and Simeoni dropped away from the break to rejoin the peloton and the attackers were allowed to go off and contest the stage win.
What was all that about then? It was explained by many at the time as the consequence of a long term rift between two men. Filippo Simeoni had testified in a court case against Dr Michele Ferrari in 2002 where the ‘infamous doctor’ was defending a charge of sporting fraud ans the abuse of the position of pharmacist. During the trial Simeoni confessed that Ferrari prescribed him with products such as EPO and Human Growth Hormone while he was in his care.
One of Ferrari’s many other clients was Lance Armstrong and the Italians particular brand of sports science had helped Armstrong reach the position of the most famous, and most powerful, cyclist in the world. The Texan therefore felt obliged to defend Ferrari and he did this by calling Simeoni a liar and his court testimony nonsense. Simeoni followed this up by suing Armstrong for defamation to the tune of €100.000. So, this was the reason why Armstrong forced Simeoni out of the break, he wanted to flex his muscles and show who is boss, or should I say one of the reasons.
What happened after after the two riders rejoined the peloton was evidence of the filthy side of cycling. The rampant drug taking and the riders desire to protect its continuation through the code of silence. Simeoni met a barrage of abuse from many riders including Filippo Pozzato, who had recently served a short ban for working with Michele Ferrari, Giuseppe Guerini and Daniele Nardello, who called Simeoni a disgrace. They weren’t doing this because they were taking sides in a personal spat. Filippo Simeoni was one of a handful of riders to have spoken out against the drug problem in the sport and he was getting punished for it. And if anyone was still unsure of his motives for his actions that day Armstrong brazenly made a zip your mouth shut gesture to the TV cameras. Afterwards he simply told reporters “I was just protecting the interests of the peloton.”
The pantomime signal from the American was extraordinary and showed his confidence that cycling’s dark secrets were safe. 2004 was the year when journalist were first starting to openly talk about doping. The book “L.A. Confidential” by Pierre Ballester and David Walsh had been released just before the Tour but Lance didn’t care, if he could hound enough people into silence then he would be alright.
Simeoni tried to get his revenge on the final stage. It was meant to be a day to enjoy for the wearer of the yellow jersey, a glass of champagne and plenty of smiles for the cameras. So the Italian unleashed a series of attacks to disrupt proceedings but was inevitably drawn back by U.S. Postal and then again abused and spat on by his fellow riders.
Simeoni has always been haunted by the episode and he continued to be ostracised by some of his peers throughout his career and some years would find it difficult to get a contract on a team. It all got to much in 2009 when his team failed to get a wild card spot for the Giro d’Italia. He was Italian Champion at the time and that was usually enough for an entry. However 2009 was also the year of Lance Armstrong’s comeback. The Giro organisers were desperate for the Armstrong to appear in their race. The Texan did take part but only after some conditions were met, a $1 million fee was one, were his fellow riders another? Simeoni retired at the end of the 2009 season.
Before his downfall Armstrong was keen to start a career in politics. After recently getting into the TV series ‘House of Cards’ I could imagine he would have been very much a Frank Underwood type. He is a character who selfishly gets his way to the top without a care for the lives and careers he’s wrecked on the journey. And if you try to get in his way, then you’d better watch out. On their way back to the peloton Armstrong said to Simeoni “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.”