Many years ago, I started watching what turned out to be an epic contest: an American and a Frenchman, battling for dominance, and finally victory for one in one of the most dramatic finishes to a sporting event. It was 1989, and Greg LeMond eventually beat Laurent Fignon by just eight seconds in the Tour de France – the result in doubt until the last couple of hundred metres of the closing time trial.
Watching Le Tour on Channel 4 became a big part of my summer for a while after that. There was little British interest – Robert Millar was a threat in the mountains and after he turned pro Chris Boardman was in contention for the Prologue – but with the likes of Miguel Indurain, Marco Pantani and their challengers, and then Lance Armstrong’s dominance, you couldn’t help but marvel at their scarcely-human stamina.
Except that the doubts were creeping in. 1998 – when Pantani won – saw the Festina Affair, with drug allegations against the team and yet them seeming to have big support from the rest of the Peloton. Suddenly the world was muttering about EPO, HGH, and the inability to test for them; and while Cycling was far from the only sport affected, the unique demands of the sport meant that no-one could really be clear of suspicion. Some high profile cases later, and it looked like things might be clear; but it turned out that actually the worst was still to come.
Reading Tyler Hamilton’s book “The Secret Race” reveals the shocking truth that whether condoned by the team management or not, there was pretty much an expectation that anyone in a pro race was taking something – whether EPO, Testosterone, or a Blood Transfusion on a rest day – if they were even just keeping up. Hamilton’s own account – of going from a gifted amateur to discovering that everyone else in the peloton could blow him away, and then having to face the decision of either taking drugs or just giving up and finding another job – makes that pretty clear. It wasn’t that everyone doped – but those that didn’t were often not competitive, and sometimes found themselves forced out.
Which brings us to Lance Armstrong, the personification of an era when what mattered was more whether you had the best drugs and doctors, and his attempts to argue that he should not be treated any worse than any other cyclist of that era – to the distaste and disgust of many of those who follow cycling far more closely that I ever have.
In some ways, he does have a bit of a point. The argument, it would seem, is that Lance, despite his drug taking, was still the best of his era – because he wasn’t doing anything that others weren’t also doing. If everyone’s cheating, then why should he be the scapegoat? And as time goes by, it becomes clear that an awful lot of the cyclists in the peloton were doing whatever they could to keep up and maybe overtake the US Postal squad. If a team had a particularly good day and looked strong, the question in most riders minds, according to Hamilton, was not about what training regime they were on – it was what drug, blood substitute or whatever had they got access to. If Armstrong was racing on a level playing field, the argument runs, why should he be penalised?
The physiological factors are often quoted at this point; different responses, different red blood cell levels that gave some riders a bigger possible boost from EPO, and so on. And some riders probably were riding clean – though proving which ones is nigh on impossible. But more of a factor is possibly Armstrong himself.
Lance Armstrong, whether in his own words or through the lens of the words of others such as Hamilton, is without doubt a very strong and forceful character. Not someone to cross. Someone who will do whatever needs to be done to achieve. And the sad thing is that he’s used that forcefulness to ride roughshod over anyone that dared challenge him. In some ways, that’s what made him a sporting winner; but by letting it spill over, into the smears and legal action against anyone that dared to reveal what was actually going on – and by even now not seeming to show the slightest remorse for what he did to Soigneur Emma O’Reilly, and continuing to fight the attempts to get him to repay SCA for bonuses he received for his Tour victories – it feels that he is reaping what he sowed. Armstrong set up the “best” team-wide doping system – and until the story finally gathered too much momentum to be derailed, he was best too at forcefully denying it. He may well have been the best cyclist of his era – sadly though, we will never know.
And the continuing tragedy is that it means that every good day for a less heralded rider, every remarkable comeback by a top star, every dominant ride in a major race, will always be questioned.