Filippo Simeoni almost wrote a Tour de France fairy tale in Guéret on Tuesday. It would have been we
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Filippo Simeoni makes for an unlikely Tour de France hero. Convicted dope cheat, a modest cyclist even by his own admission, an “absolute liar” according to Lance Armstrong, Simeoni probably wouldn’t expect mass adulation even in his local corner shop. Or, perhaps, in the bar and tobacco store he and wife Annalisa co-own with Simeoni’s brother-in-law, Roberto, in Sezze, near Rome. Today, though, something peculiar happened on the route du Tour. No, Simeoni didn’t win a stage – what would have been the most prestigious of seven victories in his 11-year career – but he did come mighty close. On the attack in tandem with Euskatel rider I¤igo Landaluze for the final 130km of the 160.5km on today’s route between St-Lonard-de-Noblat and Guret, Simeoni’s 32-year-old legs gave out around 100 metres, or five seconds, too early. Robbie McEwen cashed in with his second success of the Tour. For anyone the dnouement would have been cruel. For Simeoni it was nothing less than soul-destroying, so much had he coveted victory, with such bravery had he pursued it, and so tantalisingly was it denied to him. Simeoni’s past as a human being and a cyclist have left him unaccustomed to the sweet sound of acclaim. Today, though, he said he received it on the Limousin roads where another popular underdog, Raymond Poulidor, used to train. “I could sense that the people on the roadside were supporting me, I could hear them shouting my name,” he said on the line, his words stifled by emotion. Simeoni received that acclaim because the cycling public identified with a man who, in 1999, told an Italian judge that he had taken the banned performance-enhancing drug, EPO, and that he regretted it. He regretted it so much that he felt ashamed, his parents even felt ashamed, and Simeoni nearly plunged into depression because of it. Far from applauding his courage and honesty, the Italian Cycling Federation slapped Simeoni with a six-month ban. Only later was it reduced to four months by the UCI. Claudio Chiappucci and Gianluca Bortolami, both of whom were due to face the same judge and the same charges as Simeoni, failed to respond to their court summons and avoided a ban. Then Lance Armstrong landed in Italy for the 2002 Milan-San Remo and questioned Simeoni’s honesty; a year later, in an interview Armstrong gave to Le Monde, Simeoni had become an “absolute liar”. The common thread between Simeoni and Armstrong? A certain Michele Ferrari, once the man whose brains Simeoni used to pick about training, and the man who Armstrong still calls his performance consultant and personal friend. People identified with Simeoni today because he didn’t come to the Tour seeking to embarrass, unjustly accuse or even avenge Armstrong. “Today’s attack wasn’t a message to Lance Armstrong, it was a gesture of pride, for myself and my team,” Simeoni explained. He will pursue recrimination against Armstrong in a court of law, “as a question of principle,” Simeoni said the other day, “because he can’t abuse his power and go unpunished. I just want him to publicly recognise his error. I’m not even making it into a question of money. If I win damages, I’ll give the money to charity.” No one, we can say finally, identified with Simeoni today because they thought that drug-taking is ever OK. They identified with him because, as the judge to whom he admitted his crime in 1999 said, “sporting justice sanctioned the only rider who collaborated with the legal system.” And because for Simeoni to admit his mistakes it took courage, maybe even more than it takes to win the Tour de France.