I want to be able to say that I’ve always felt uneasy about Lance and USPS/Discovery, but in truth for the first few tours I watched I was just completely overwhelmed by the fact that someone could ride a bike like that – most probably caused by my own inability to ride a bike until I was 9. But I do remember vividly the moments that made me suddenly change my opinion on the man; the unease began on one day in the 2004 tour with two interlinked incidents, it started with the images of him tearing across the gap to a wholly unimportant breakaway and screaming at Filipo Simeoni, the Italian rider in tears as the ‘great champion’ tore him apart simply for attacking on a stage that he was really entitled to attack on. At the time I didn’t understand why Armstrong was doing this (obviously everyone on earth does now) but I knew that what he was doing to the young Italian was possibly the most disgusting and shameful thing I had ever witnessed a professional sportsman do and was the sign of a truly horrid individual, as Simeoni drifted to the back of the Peloton and the race bathed in sweat, tears and supposedly the spit of one of the most abhorrent pelotons ever to ride the tour. But what really should have sealed the deal for those in the know (but maybe not a slightly naïve 13 year old boy) was Lance’s incredibly unsubtle lips sealed gesture to a man who had recently admitted being on an extensive doping programme masterminded by Dr Ferrari – the same doctor that Armstrong was widely known to work with – however most commentators and media of the time refused to acknowledge they understood what the silence symbol from Lance meant, it was as though the hideous disease of the Omertá had spread from the peloton and into the media. The unease continued to grow late on that very day with the glare shot across a throng of journalists at the itv camera when he was asked about the rumours that he had attempted to talk Simeoni’s DS into not taking him to the tour at all, it seemed as though he was completely incredulous that anyone could ever have the nerve to voice those rather widespread concerns, and rather than simply telling Ned Boulting to f^*k off (a la Wiggo in his infamous rant during this year’s tour) he retorted with the, in retrospect, rather ironic statement ‘How can I ask a team who to take? I can barely control my own team.’ Whether this was simply a PR trained response to this type of questioning or whether it was a cleverly disguised dig at members of his team who had found it hard to want to follow his doping model outlined in the USADA report (someone really should have come up with a snappier name for that) will probably never be known but either way it demonstrates the showman within him and his wish to ‘hide in plain sight’.
That really is my main problem with this Armstrong case, the sheer obviousness of it all. That Lance could quite literally sprint up mountains leaving some of the best (admittedly also doped) climbers in the history of the sport trailing in his wake and no one said a word, that so many of his competitors would be caught with ridiculous haematocrit levels or amounts of banned substances in their system and Armstrong would still be beating them by country miles and again no one said a word. That on Monday Pat McQuaid admitted that while Armstrong had never tested positive there had been occasions when his blood data was highly suspicious, why on earth did they not look into this properly at the time? and why is there still not a policy of just making everyone’s test results public all the time? Ok so many of us wouldn’t have a clue what to make of them but someone out there would and could give us different opinions on what the data showed, it would also show the public clearly that the sport is predominantly clean and help grow confidence in cycling. In this sense I can see the point behind WADAs calls for an all sport amnesty where anyone can come forward and admit to doping, or potentially drop others in it, however the Omertá likely still exists in the professional peloton, whatever the pros say, and I can’t really see many guys – particularly from the EPO era – coming forward to share their experiences. Rather conveniently this leads me on to the next problem I’ve seen with all of this and that is the praise of the guys who spoke to USADA for coming forward and telling their stories, but these riders are not heroes, by all accounts each of them knew that all of the big names at USPS were on this programme and yet it’s taken until the threat of a major ban due to Hamilton and Landis giving evidence for them to actually come forward, these guys don’t seem to be doing it for the greater good (maybe some are) but just appear to be covering their own arses. Where were all of these voices back in 2010 when Landis finally admitted to doping and accepted the charges levelled against him, before he decided to tell everyone what had happened at USPS and Discovery? They were nowhere. I don’t blame them entirely for the doping offences they committed (from reading David Millar’s book Racing Through the Dark, I think I can see how the environment of pro cycling in the late 90s can force someone to dope even when they don’t want to) but I do blame them for not owning up; for not really appearing to be sorry for what they did; for lying for so many years to the fans, the UCI and their fellow cyclists; and this doesn’t just apply to those who have come forward in this case but everyone who has come out after it or has suddenly, at the end of a lucrative career, decided that they want to own up to their doping past but only once it is nigh on impossible for there to be any sanctions against them. Despite this, I do agree entirely with McQuaid’s claim that Landis and Hamilton are ‘scumbags’, particularly Hamilton who appears to be attempting to use all of this as a way to sell his book, I hope that’s just the cynic in me taking over and he really does care about the cleaning up of cycling but the fact that his book is simply the evidence he gave to USADA filled out with things about his, admittedly traumatic, childhood gives me a distinct sense of unease about the man and his motives for saying what he has.
In fact what the USADA report does best is really make it clear why so many of these riders went on to join Millar and Vaughters’ experiment at Slipstream, their guilty conscience driving them to a team that wouldn’t ask questions about their doping past (admittedly exactly like pretty much every other team) but would also position themselves so squarely in the fight against doping that they would not be given that choice ever again. Don’t get me wrong I admire everything about Slipstream, and the way they are going about attempting to clean up the sport makes a hell of a lot more sense than that of team Sky or Green Edge, Sky’s recent decision to make riders sign a meaningless piece of paper saying they have never experienced doping in any way smacks of desperation to distance themselves from Michael Barry and reminds many people far too much of the riders charter that the UCI got all riders to sign about 10 years ago. David Millar himself has once again been the most outspoken man in the world about all of this, himself being contracted to the same team as Armstrong for a short while before Armstrong’s cancer forced him out of his Cofidis contract. As always Millar is calling for a sea change in the way the sport is run, and by whom, so that the sport can move on as well as getting very angry with anyone walking away from the sport when in a position to make a real difference and I think that this time people might just be starting to listen, maybe not at the UCI itself but from elsewhere around the sport and not just those of us on the sidelines who are so profoundly fed up with the way the sport has been governed and hidden behind its pathetic Rules of Silence. There is a point in Millar’s book itself that I found particularly troubling before the USADA report was released and now know why I found it so worrying, it is a picture at a party after Lance’s final TdF that shows Millar apparently lecturing Lance about why he should use his position to educate about doping and speak out against it, Lance looks positively bored by the whole thing and in the background Christian Vande Velde looks petrified about where his Garmin teammate could be heading. At the time I read it, it confused me why Vande Velde looked so scared of Armstrong in a situation such as this but now the picture suddenly takes on a whole new meaning and one that makes Vande Velde especially look quite guilty but also fearful of the character of Lance the bully that is constructed within the USADA report.
But back to Armstrong, this ‘great champion’ of sport and, in a sense, of life who is now forever to be labelled a cheat has still done more for testicular cancer awareness than pretty much anyone ever. And yet now that also is horrendously tainted by his actions in the sporting world, the most disturbing moral complex around condemning Armstrong is the simple truth that if he hadn’t cheated and hadn’t run a ‘systematic, sustained and highly professionalized … doping conspiracy’ then it would be highly unlikely that Livestrong would ever have taken off and that even if it had there is no way that it would ever have been as successful a charity as it has become. The fact that Lance has been forced to distance himself from his own great charity and the work it does is shameful in my opinion, while I recognise that his is now a tarnished image he does still have the simple fact that he survived cancer when, by all accounts, it was highly unlikely that he should have done, and then returned to cycling once again at the highest level, albeit with the use of performance enhancing drugs. However, not attempting to come off too defensive of Armstrong but, most of those he was competing against at the time have now been heavily implicated and banned for drug use as well, leaving us with the rather sour feeling that in a sport that was riddled with cheating Lance was the best, both at cheating and at riding. In all honesty I would be surprised that if all of Armstrong’s tour wins had involved entirely clean fields (including him) he would not have won some of those titles anyway, which leads us to the other major issue … everyone was doing it. And that really isn’t hyperbole, the only riders that most people are entirely sure never doped in that period are Moncoutié and Bassons; Bassons forced out of the sport by dopers and Moncoutié destined never to achieve his great potential, picking up scraps before the sport began to turn a corner (rather conveniently not long after Armstrong’s first retirement) and he managed a couple of KoM titles at the Vuelta. And here Christian Prudhomme’s declaration that as far as he and ASO (the Tour organisers) are concerned those seven years under Armstrong’s reign ought to be null results begins to make perfect sense, if we really have no idea which athlete was or wasn’t doping how on earth can Armstrong be stripped of them and then maybe see them given to a rider who was also a doper but hasn’t been caught yet. Of course the issue still stands of what to do with all of his other wins outside of the TdF winning years as well as his Olympic bronze from 2000, this is a particularly moot point as one of the riders involved in the USADA report is Stephen Swart. Swart’s career had ended 3 years before Armstrong began his domination of the TdF, and rode with Armstrong at the old Motorola team and in his evidence suggested that Armstrong was advocating ‘EPO use on the Motorola team…in 1995’ and that he believed Armstrong to have started doing EPO in that season, if this really is the case then the UCI ought to be considering pulling his titles from 1995 onward including one Clásica de San Sebastian title and one La Flèche Wallone title. Of course all of this is repeatedly being undermined by the former pros that are coming out in defence of Armstrong at much detriment to their own public image, this even includes one of the greatest champions of all time (and since LA’s titles have been stripped, once again the equal most decorated TdF rider ever) Miguel Indurain saying on Tuesday that as far as he was concerned Armstrong is completely innocent.
The simple truth is that USADA’s report has picked on Armstrong no end, and while them doing this was most definitely needed – to steal a classic vampire story ideal of killing the top vampire to kill all the rest – Armstrong needed to be torn apart and shown to be just another cheat so that every other cheater knows there really isn’t anywhere left to hide; but now the challenge for WADA, USADA and most particularly the UCI is to act on that image and to go much deeper into this dark, dark period for the sport, lifting the lid on cycling’s Pandoras Box. Jonathan Vaughters’ recent call for an Independent commission to look into the doping culture could well be what everyone needs. The UCI need to show the most willingness to do this as historically they have been very poor at seizing the opportunity to clean up their own sport and in this case clean up in house as well, I dread to think that they never will and that we will forever be left with the knowledge that for every Moncoutié or Bassons and to a lesser extent every Millar or Simeoni there are a dozen former pros just like Armstrong sitting at home with their mantelpieces full of silverware and their drawers full of ill-gotten jerseys repeating the dopers mantra; “Everyone was doing it” … well, whatever helps you sleep at night I suppose.