by Daniel Friebe in Leeds


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They say you should never meet your heroes, that you’ll only be disappointed, but they have obviously never idolised or encountered Christophe Bassons.

I, like a lot of people, saw Bassons front up to Lance Armstrong in the 1999 Tour de France and immediately identified a vessel, a life-raft for all of my dashed hopes and dreams for professional cycling. Once Bassons had half walked out of the sport, half been pushed, I then read his memoir, Positif, and my admiration only grew.

I finally met him in person eight years later at a wonderfully conspiratorial-feeling, anti-doping, anti-Armstrong troll convention in Laval, north-west France. Except that was the point with Bassons even back then: it was very obvious from listening to him that night, as it had been reading his book, that he wasn’t really ‘anti’ anyone. Either side of him, on a stage, sat former pros ravaged by doping and regret, their voices wrought and cracking, or journalists consumed with what had become a personal vendetta. The microphone was then passed to Bassons, who in 15 or 20 engrossing minutes spoke far less about drugs and villains than he did about concepts like ‘compassion’, ‘empathy’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘understanding’.

I left the next day with my respect for him, if possible, even greater than it had been when I arrived.

I’ve seen and chatted with Bassons several times over subsequent years, and on every occasion it’s the same: I go away feeling energised and inspired, with my faith in humankind and also the life-enriching power of sport renewed. In his work on anti-doping for the French Ministry of Sports over the past ten years, he has carried forth the same spirit and principles that he displayed so bravely in front of Armstrong in 1999, and that ultimately led to his retirement from racing in 2001: reject and combat doping, punish it, but also and above all try to understand why it happens, never being judgmental, so that perhaps we can help future generations to make better choices. As he said to me the other day, “Bitterness just closes the door on understanding.”

Ask Bassons why he never doped, or simply why he is the way he is, and he’ll tell you that he was just dealt a better set of cards: better relationships with family and friends growing up, a lack of greed and ego that owed partly to the genetic lottery and partly to received values, an education, a body that allowed him to survive – just about survive, for a few years – the rigours of racing clean in a doped peloton. He doesn’t see himself as any better than Lance Armstrong, although he does now acknowledge that he “made better decisions” and “is in a better position in [my] life than Lance”. As always with him, there is no gloating, no vainglory in these conclusions, which solidified after a meeting with Armstrong in Paris last December. The goal of that hatchet burial, says Bassons, was “to help each other understand why we did what we did”. Not to make Armstrong grovel.

Today in Leeds, Bassons will attend and speak at the launch of the English version of his autobiography, A Clean Break, and everyone who is there will see why I’ll never regret meeting one of my heroes. I can appreciate now, 15 years on from that infamous, mid-race exchange that ended with Armstrong telling him that it was his way or the highway, that the greatness of Christophe Bassons lay not in how he stood up to a bully. It was in the way that he stood up for himself.

The launch of A Clean Break (Bloomsbury Sport) by Christophe Bassons will take place at Waterstones, 93-97 Albion St, Leeds, tonight. £3 entry. More details here.