I’ve always been a huge Lance Armstrong fan… but this week has been one of dismay and disillusionment.
I met Lance by accident after his final Tour win in the mid 2000s. By all accounts the combative Texan seemed like a decent guy and he impressed me with his handling of cycling fans.
When Lance Armstrong sprinted down the Champs Elysees in Paris to win his 7th Tour de France in 2005, he was feted as the ultimate cyclist of the era.
He became a sporting legend.
Armstrong’s God-like status had already been cemented by his world championship win, his miraculous recovery from cancer and his sterling work for charity.
With his ‘Live Strong’ banner and yellow wristbands he raised millions for cancer through the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
This week this hero to millions has been exposed as a cheat, a bully and a doper by fellow team mates and professional cyclists.
His fall to earth has been spectacular.
It’s akin to Icarus reaching the heights and falling dramatically to the earth like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
With the damning US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) report, Armstrong stands accused of drug-taking on a huge scale and being the ringleader of the most sophisticated doping ring in the history of cycling:
“Lance Armstrong and his handlers engaged in a massive and long-running scheme to use drugs, cover their tracks, intimidate witnesses, tarnish reputations, lie to hearing panels and the press and do whatever was necessary to conceal the truth,” said the report.
Armstrong refused to co-operate with the investigation but when he lost a legal suit challenging USADA’s jurisdiction, he decided not to contest their case.
For the record, Armstrong has always denied the doping accusations, pointing to his untarnished record of being tested clean 500-600 times, more than any other athlete in the history of cycling.
For so long, we’ve all wanted to believe that Lance was a God, a super-hero and a clean athlete.
The full impact of the investigation is now beginning to unravel with daily reports of the doping scandal and more cyclists ‘coming out’.
Stories of blood bags in hotels, transfusions, EPO use and cyclists hiding under the bed to avoid detection read like a John le Carre espionage thriller.
You couldn’t make it up – or could you?
It seems that cycling in the 1990s and early 2000s was a sport which had lost its moral compass – and had little truck with sporting ethics and ‘fair play’.
Cycling’s ‘code of silence’ ensured that punters like you and I watched a sport which we thought was clean in good faith. But in reality it was nothing less than a charade and a cheaters’ paradise.
Lance continues to proclaim his innocence but today’s revelations about his team manager adds to the uncomfortable doubts in the most fervent Arrmstrong fans’ minds about his role in the doping scandal.
Is Armstrong sport’s biggest ever cheat as some journalists are saying? Or is he carrying the can for a sport entrenched in doping from top to bottom?
After all, cycling has long been associated with drugs throughout its history. Even in the early 1900s riders were popping amphetamines, sometimes topped up with brandy and who knows what other substances.
So should we believe his defence? Has he been vilified because he is the obvious high profile scapegoat for a sport that lost the plot?
Counting the cost
The ruination of one of cycling’s greatest sporting events, the Tour de France, over the last decade has been the biggest casualty.
It’s almost impossible to reallocate any of Armstrong’s wins to other cyclists because so many teams were involved in doping.
I’ve also been thinking about the personal cost of all of this, emotional and monetary .
There were the days spent watching the road races and cheering Armstrong on from the sidelines and the thrill of watching Armstrong and his cohorts win in the Tour in 2004 – seemingly against the odds.
As well as my commitment of time, there were the little costs that any fan associates with loving their sport and its heroes – something that can never be measured in monetary terms.
If it does come down to money though, it’s interesting to calculate the cost of supporting Armstrong over his classic decade… the little costs that add up over time. So here’s my quick calculation of how they stacked up…
Trip to Tour de France 2005 – Paris
Hotel x 2 nights = £180
Travel by Eurostar = £250
Food and drinks on race day = £25
Race programme = £5
Other = £100
Trip to Tour de France 2004 – Paris
Hotel x 3 nights = £280
Travel = £270
Food and drinks on race day = £25
Race programme = £5
Petrol = £100
Trip to Tour de France 2002 – Provence
Self catering villa x 2 nights = £180
Travel in car = £250 (petrol)
Ferry = £100
Food and drinks on race day = £20
Assorted Armstrong memorabilia
Lance Armstrong books = £60
Armstrong Tour souvenir programmes = £20
Live Strong wristbands = £5
Magazines = £50
Total = £1,880
Of course, the real cost is much more serious than the mere £2,000 that I spent on supporting Armstrong down the years, travelling to his events and buying his admittedly-excellent merchandise.
It’s a drop in the ocean to any sporting millionaire but not to members of the public.
I can’t ask for a refund.
Part of me is still in denial though.
I cannot deny that Armstrong was a titan of an athlete. I was inspired by his recovery from cancer, his battles on the road, his tenacity and desire to win.
But at what price did his victories come?
His books charting his remarkable battles with cancer are still moving and inspirational… by any standards.
What lessons can we learn as fans? Can we believe what we see any more?
This year’s Olympic cycling and the Tour de France appeared to be as drug free as possible – and for once there was a relatively level playing field (or track).
Perhaps our faith has been restored by Bradley Wiggins with his sheer talent and enthusiasm for keeping cycling clean?
Out of the abyss
The British cyclist and former doper, now turned anti-doping campaigner, David Millar said yesterday that cycling had “climbed out of the abyss”.
But he worries that the new generation of riders will be damaged by the past.
“That’s what is so sad. A whole generation are now going to have clean careers and results that should never be doubted,” he told the Telegraph.
“Cycling went into an abyss but we have climbed out and changed the sport, yet there is still all this baggage we are carrying around.”
Bradley Wiggins echoed his sentiments today saying: “It’s not about Armstrong, it’s about the culture of the sport for so many years.”
But Wiggo believes that the culture has changed. I’m also hopeful for the future – and will be booking my trip to the Tour de France in anticipation of a new attitude towards cheating and doping.
At least we have some great British riders who can help put the sport’s past demons to bed… and race a clean race.