Professional cycling has always exercised an omertà, and it has played a significant role in the endurance of a drug culture. But more than a code of silence is at work here, and it is not coincidental that the Sicilian word has become so associated with the peloton, because when a rider breaks the code, he can expect a mafia-like response.
After his individual time trial at Metz earlier in the day, Christophe Bassons watched television coverage of the leaders in his hotel room. They travelled at a speed he couldn’t believe, for the race against the clock had once been his own speciality. He was especially interested in Armstrong’s performance, because their physiological profiles weren’t that different: same height, same weight, Armstrong’s VO2 Max was 83 to Bassons’ 85. Regarded as a key barometer of athletic potential, the VO2 Max is the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen. Yet when Antoine Vayer did the maths afterwards, he told Bassons that he would have finished six kilometres behind Armstrong if they’d started at the same time.
On the night of Sestriere, Bassons and his teammates watched highlights of the American riding away from his rivals on the mountain and they were stunned by the ease with which he outdistanced them. They didn’t believe it. Bassons continued to tell every journalist who crossed his path that the doping culture had not gone away.
His refusal to observe the code of silence was a challenge to the leaders in the peloton, especially the rider in the yellow jersey. Armstrong was more than happy to deal with the upstart.
On the morning after his win at Sestriere, the yellow jersey decided the following day’s race should be sedate until the approach to the first climb. The patron has the right to do this and normally such decrees are strictly observed. But Bassons thought, “What the hell, I’m the black sheep anyway,” and he launched his breakaway in defiance of the informal truce.
With Bassons gone, Armstrong gave the nod to his U.S. Postal [Service] teammates and they immediately pursued. It didn’t take long for them to recapture the breakaway and as they joined him, Armstrong put his hand on Bassons’ shoulder, indicating he had something important to say, as a mafia boss might when deciding to personally deliver the punishment.
“What are you doing?” asked Armstrong.
“I’m making the race. I attack.”
“You know what you’re saying to the journalists, it’s not good for cycling.”
“I’m simply saying what I think. I have said there is still doping.”
“If that’s what you’re here for, it would be better if you returned home and found some other kind of work.”
“I am not going to leave when I haven’t changed anything. If I’ve things to say, I will say them.”
“Ah, fuck you.”