Twenty years ago, the Grand Départ of the Tour de France took place in Ireland and to mark the anniversary, we’re looking back at those few days in Ireland.

Below is the second of a series of two articles about those three days of racing and also how one of the biggest scandals to ever hit the sport emerged as the race entourage made its way to Dublin. The Tour started in Dublin with a 5.6-kilometre prologue on 11 July followed by two road stages, a 180-kilometre stage starting and finishing in Dublin, and a 205-kilometre stage from Enniscorthy to Cork.

The first article is available here:

When the Tour de France started in Ireland – Part II

By Graham Healy

The Tour rumbled on, and the second stage of the race would see the riders set off from Enniscorthy with just two small climbs to negotiate on the route to Cork. It was the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rising against British rule in Ireland and it was appropriate that Enniscorthy was chosen as a stage start, as Vinegar Hill was just on the outskirts of the town, and it had been the scene of one of the largest bloodbaths of the campaign. It was an uprising which had strong links with France, as French troops had landed in Mayo and Donegal that year, but were ultimately defeated.

The route went through Kilkenny, Waterford and Tipperary, passing through Seán Kelly’s hometown of Carrick-on-Suir before making its way to the finish in Cork City. The riders had some difficulties on that second stage as there were some dangerous crosswinds on the road to Cork, and there were also some close calls with spectators. The American rider Bobby Julich said, “There are always minor problems with a crowd when they aren’t used to cycling. They’ll pull back when the race comes past but they might leave their pram out there.”

Unfortunately for the race leader Boardman, he was one of those involved in a crash just outside of Youghal. He had clipped wheels with another rider and crashed heavily into a stone wall about 50 kilometres from the finish. Boardman was knocked unconscious and rushed to Cork University Hospital, where he was treated overnight for concussion, bruising and cuts. Doctors originally reported he had a broken wrist but later backtracked saying that there were no broken bones.

“I was unconscious for three minutes. I’ve never been knocked out before and it’s a bit worrying when it happens.” Boardman said afterwards. “It’s a shame to go out of the Tour like that, but it’s a matter of getting on with things now. I haven’t got a clue what happened. I remember riding cross winds, and the next thing I remember is waking up and looking at the ceiling of the ambulance. If I was unconscious with a helmet, then I don’t like to think what would have happened if I had not been wearing one. Yesterday was a real lesson for me.”

In retiring from the Tour, he had become the thirteenth rider in history to have to withdraw from the race whilst wearing the yellow jersey..

The stage was won by Czech rider Jan Svorada in a sprint ahead of Robbie McEwen and Mario Cipollini. The German Erik Zabel had taken a time bonus in an intermediate sprint in Youghal, enabling him to move into the yellow jersey.

Stage 2 – 13 July 1998 — Enniscorthy to Cork, 205.5 km
1 Jan Svorada (CZE) Mapei 5h 45′ 10″
2 Robbie McEwen (AUS) Rabobank s.t.
3 Mario Cipollini (ITA) Saeco s.t.
4 Alain Turicchia (ITA) Asics s.t.
5 Tom Steels (BEL) Mapei s.t.
6 Emmanuel Magnien (FRA) FDJ s.t.
7 Jaan Kirsipuu (EST) Casino s.t.
8 Nicola Minali (ITA) Riso Scotti-MG Maglificio s.t.
9 Jeroen Blijlevens (NED) TVM s.t.
10 Silvio Martinello (ITA) Polti s.t.

Years later, Zabel would also admit to EPO usage, and in July 2013 the antidoping committee of the French senate decided to publish the results of all of the positive test results from the ’98 Tour. Zabel’s name was amongst those listed as having a positive from the race.

Unfortunately, there was an even more serious accident on the stage when a spectator was hit by one of the cyclists. An 11-year-old girl, Laura Seward from Waterford, was knocked unconscious and had bad upper body injuries and a fractured skull and ended up in a coma. Her mother was also hit and was thrown into a ditch.

It later emerged that it was the Italian rider Federico de Beni, from the Riso Scotti team who had collided with the young girl. As with Boardman, she was also taken to Cork University Hospital. The accident and emergency consultant at the hospital reported that she was in a very serious condition, and there was widespread concern for her welfare.

Laura received well wishes from favourite band Boyzone and also Chris Boardman, who said, “I’m a father myself and I know the pain and suffering the Seward family must be going through. It is an attraction of the Tour that the spectators can get so close and be right next to the riders. You can hear them breathing. That’s why they’ve avoided putting barriers up along the route. The down side to that is, of course, that people are not trained to watch bike races.”

Laura emerged from the coma after a week, and her first concern was for de Beni. She wanted to know that he was alright. Upon his return to France, the cyclist was quizzed by police about the accident. He subsequently pulled out of the race two days after returning to France, apparently still upset by the accident, and he retired from the sport at the end of the year.

Despite the various crashes, the organisers still deemed the stages in Ireland to have been successful. Bernard Hinault said that “The tour’s visit to Ireland was joyous. What made it especially memorable was the warmth of the public. They were both enthusiastic and well disciplined. It was just exceptional.”

Jean-Marie LeBlanc was also happy with how the stages had gone, as he said, “I cannot recall such a magnificent atmosphere at a stage start as that in Enniscorthy and the crowds all along the route were fantastic. I cannot think where all of those French flags came from. Le Tour is very grateful to the Irish people for the welcome they gave us.”

Despite the plaudits, the emerging doping scandal was overshadowing the feelgood factor from the Grand Départ. It was said that on the ferries for the return trip to France, team members dumped vials of EPO and stashes of other drugs overboard, as they were in fear of being searched by the gendarmerie upon arrival in France.

The British rider, David Millar, would mention the return journey in his autobiography. “There were tales of drugs being dumped overboard from the ferries taking the convoy across to France and I’ve since heard of other innovative transportation methods, unmarked cars, motorbikes, even friends in the publicity caravan, being used by teams who dared try to outwit the French police.”

The UCI initially didn’t appear to be taking the case as seriously as they should have. The vice-president of the organisation, Agostino Omini said, “I do not understand why a masseur should have 400 hundred flasks of doping products in his car, the first three riders are tested every day, plus two at random. What’s more, there are blood checks and they are all negative.” Omini seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the drugs found in Voet’s car were undetectable in tests at the time.

The boss of the watch company who sponsored the team, Miguel Rodrigue, also seemed to be downplaying the scandal, “We are against doping in sport, we must not let cycling and the team suffer because of the bad practices of one person. There is no question of pulling the team out. The riders have nothing to reproach themselves for. They pass anti-doping tests every day.”

Upon the return of the race to French soil, the French police were able to ramp up their investigations into the Festina team. Bruno Roussel and team doctor Eric Rijckaert were taken into custody for questioning. Roussel would finally admit on the night of July 17th that “The management, soigneurs and riders were all involved in the distribution and use of illegal products.” That evening, LeBlanc expelled the team from the Tour. Roussel was subsequently suspended by the UCI, as they said, “The UCI’s executive committee has decided that there is enough evidence for a provisional suspension of Bruno Roussel. He is banned from any function in cycling.”

On the same day that Roussel was arrested, a press conference was called by the Festina riders, and Richard Virenque went on the defensive. “We have confidence in French justice and our consciences are clear. Let us do the Tour de France as we have done in other years. Don’t turn this into a detective novel, you will kill cycling. I want to answer questions about cycling and racing. Vive le Tour de France et vive le vélo.”

A week later, all of the Festina team would be taken into custody for questioning and five of them would admit to doping. Upon their expulsion from the race, Richard Virenque made a statement to the press, “We have decided that the Festina team will leave. We have come under pressure from all sides to do so, we are leaving in the interests of the sport, cycling, and the Tour de France. We could continue because we are only witnesses in this case. We can’t cope any more. To be thrown out of the Tour the day before the most important time trial stage is deeply regrettable for us, our families and for the team. We have given so much to the Tour. Long live the 1998 Tour and thanks to the public for supporting us, see you next year.” Virenque would remain in denial of having doped for a long time afterwards, before finally admitting in 2000.

The fallout from the ’98 Tour de France doping scandal would go on for years, and would culminate in 2013 in the antidoping committee of the French Senate releasing the retrospective test results from the samples taken that year. It turned out that of the seven wearers of the yellow jersey that year, including Erik Zabel, Stuart O’Grady, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani, all of them except one were found to have tested positive or else deemed to have provided a suspicious sample. The only yellow jersey wearer from that year to have not been accused of doping was Chris Boardman.

Unfortunately for cycling in Ireland, the scandal would affect funding in the future for other cycling events, as there genuine fears of becoming embroiled in other doping scandals. A proposal was developed to try and bring the World Championships in Killarney in 2004, but the government were reluctant to get behind the event.

In 2001, the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation at the time, Dr. Jim McDaid, was asked why the request for funding was turned down, and responded in the Dáil, “I was very disappointed that, in the first few days of the Tour de France last year, three of the cyclists tested positive for drugs. I will, therefore, keep the matter under review and monitor the situation, particularly with regard to the major cycling events taking place in Europe this year – the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and so on – because the same cyclists would be coming to the world championship in Killarney, and if drugs are involved, it would not benefit this country. I will monitor the situation throughout the summer. I am aware that the UCI has taken steps to try to limit drug use and I hope we will be in a position to back this event. I would love to be able to back it, but there is that bit of cloud which I hope we can overcome.”

The government didn’t regain confidence in the reduction of doping in the sport, and the bid was dropped. It would be another decade before professional racing returned to the country when the Tour of Ireland was restarted. Unfortunately it only ran for three years as it coincided with the downturn in the economy.

In addition to the fall-out from the Festina scandal, it was felt by many that the country didn’t benefit to the extent that had been hoped for. Roche said later, “I thought there might be a knock-on effect, but there was nothing. The Tour de France came here and went and have you seen any difference? Nobody from the Federation was ready to use it as a springboard.”

Roche was correct in his assertions that there was limited benefit to cycling in Ireland at the time. It would take another decade to see the hoped-for increases in numbers taking part in the sport, and a new generation emerging to race at the highest level. It was just very unfortunate that the year chosen for the Grand Départ in Ireland happened to coincide with one of the most controversial episodes in the race’s history.


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