When Richard Virenque retired in 2004, the world of professional cycling lost a man who epitomized the champion highs and cheating lows of modern sport. The "housewives' favourite" in his native France will go down in the history books for having won the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey in the gruelling three-week long Tour de France bike race a record seven times. But he will also be remembered for his part in a sordid doping scandal: he maintained his innocence for two years before finally admitting that he, too, had taken drugs to enhance his performance.
Virenque was born in 1969 in Casablanca, Morocco, but his family moved to the south of France when he was three. He enjoyed cycling from an early age and joined the local bike club; he enjoyed winning races, perhaps as an antidote to the teasing he got from his schoolmates because of his African origins.
He turned pro in 1991 and wore the yellow jersey for a stage in the 1992 Tour de France; he won his first King of the Mountains title at the 1994 Tour, and came second overall behind Jan Ullrich in 1997. From that dizzying high things quickly soured.
His high-profile French team Festina had been under suspicion of doping for some time, and in 1998, faced with police action, his teammates Alex Zülle and Laurent Dufaux admitted that they had taken erythropoieten (EPO) and other banned performance enhancing drugs. In spite of mounting evidence against him, team leader and star Virenque steadfastly maintained his innocence, crying on national television and loudly and repeatedly proclaiming himself the victim of a conspiracy to bring him down. He even wrote a book, Ma verité ("My Truth"), denying all allegations against him, but the suspicions refused to go away.
In 1999 Tour organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc wanted to show the world that cycling could survive without doping and announced that Virenque would not be welcome at the next Tour. Virenque fought back, and eventually the Union Cycliste International ruled that although Leblanc was free to invite or decline to invite anyone he wanted to take part in the Tour, Virenque hadn't been given enough notice. So he was allowed to participate on a technicality, and even won the polka-dot jersey once again.
But faced with his day in court, Virenque quickly caved in and admitted he had taken EPO. Two years of lying were over. He was given a nine-month suspension, three months of it in the off-season; many were outraged at this leniency, believing that a two-year ban would have been more appropriate. Virenque later referred to 2001 as his blackest year, but he was soon back racing, and went on to get the King of the Mountains title in the 2003 and 2004 Tours, bringing his total to seven victories in that competition.
The popularity of Virenque in France has not waned in spite of his tainted reputation. The supermarket Champion, sponsor of the Tour de France King of the Mountains competition, features huge likenesses of him in their stores and on their publicity caravan in the Tour. On the mountain stages fans in polka-dot jerseys line the roads, eager to see their hero fly by on one of his trademark marathon solo breakaways; using this tactic he has regularly won a stage of each Tour he rides in, and in 2004 he managed this feat on the longest stage of the Tour, raced on Bastille Day. Alongside Laurent Jalabert (who retired three years ago and who took the King of the Mountains title in 2001 and 2002), Virenque has been one of the few French cyclists to excel in the national bike race in the last decade, and that must explain some of his appeal. I suspect also that the French prefer a flawed but emotional hero to a steely-faced and seemingly invincible one like Lance Armstrong, who has dominated the Tour for the last six years - and of course Virenque is French, Armstrong American. In any case, Virenque is hugely popular in France, his retirement sadly mourned.