Rewind twenty four years.
July, 1996. St.Quentin, Northern France.
I was taken to lunch in some non-descript Bistro by the legendary Directeur Sportif, Cyrille Guimard, and listened to him map out my career. I’d arrived in France earlier that year, a 19yr old kid fresh from Hong Kong, naïve AF, driven as hell. By the summer professional teams were after my signature, Cyrille Guimard was the only DS to visit me, that said a lot – I knew everything about him from the videos I’d watched and books and magazines I’d read (studied) – he was the maestro.
It was his new team that I chose, he was building it from scratch with the backing of a French sponsor, a credit company called Cofidis. It was the dream team of the era, the world number one was on board - a young American called Lance Armstrong - and he was bringing his crew of riders. Guimard talked me through what my trajectory would be the next five years, one thing stood out, in fact it was the only thing I was listening for, my first Tour de France would be in the year 2000, “Nous attendrons que vous ayez 23 ans, pas avant.”
Fast forward four years.
July, 2000. Futuroscope, West France.
I don’t think I’d ever been more relaxed before a race, I was so excited, yet so calm. Stuart O’Grady was starting behind me, he told me years later that in the minutes before his gold medal winning ride at the Athens Olympics, when he was trying to stay calm, that he projected himself back to that day and remembered watching me chatting to fans and signing autographs right up until the moment I rolled on to the start ramp. He used it to calm himself down, to remind himself the work was done, the race would take care of itself.
I wasn’t an out and out favourite, it was my first Tour de France, I was 23, I was there to learn. The thing is, the first day was a 16km TT, a 10 miler. Evening club 10’s had been my first regular races, it’s where I’d learnt what my body could do and where I’d taught my mind to manage it, if there was one thing I didn’t need learning it was how to measure that effort. Maybe that’s why I was so relaxed, it felt right that my first day at the Tour de France was a glorified 10.
I remember vividly being on the start ramp, I switched into race mode and in the final ten seconds I said to myself, “Today, I’m going to do the ride of my life, I’m going to go faster than I’ve ever gone before.” The Directeur of the Tour, Jean-Marie Leblanc, had chosen to follow me. Somehow my Mum was in there with him, I didn’t know this till after. There was a documentary film crew following me. The TV camera motorbikes and helicopter had been assigned to my ride. So I suppose, although I was an outsider, people had a feeling something might happen. I had to wait until the last rider crossed the line to have my time confirmed as the fastest, that rider was Lance Armstrong, my time was nineteen minutes and three seconds, 19:03. The first Tour was held in 1903, it felt like the stars were aligning.
Fast forward twenty years.
August, 2020. Kent, South East England.
Looking back that was the beginning of the end of the first chapter of my life, it culminated in me being banned from the sport in 2004. The comeback (we can call it a comeback) and my mission to clean up the sport and prevent what happened to me happening to others was the journey I took between 2006 and 2014, the second chapter.
And so here we are, the third chapter, the final one. I believe we all have a next chapter, we all have the power to believe anything is possible, that we can change ourselves. In fact the sooner we grasp the inevitability of change the more chance we have to control it, to own it. In this turbulent time we’re living through I suppose there’s some comfort in that. Because you know what? Sometimes the stars don’t align, and maybe that’s for a reason. So here’s to the first day of the Tour de France, be it 1903, 19:03, or even 2020, we don't know what's going to happen, and that's the point.