Today the UCI made it official. Lance Armstrong will be stripped of his seven Tour de France victories, and apparently his entire race results from 1999 onward. He finished third in the 2009 Tour, and I don’t recall any discussion of his doping that year, nor of his Astana teammate Alberto Contador’s doing so, though the same “reasoned judgment” that resulted in Lance’s punishment surely would have extended to Alberto if the same logic had been applied.
But clearly this decision is about logic and uniformly applied justice only in the broadest sense. The Tour de France will now have vacated titles for the overall victory from 1999 through 2005. This was a very sensible decision of how to handle the situation. To move up Alex Zülle, the second place finisher in 1999, and award him the victory would be almost as silly and futile as vacating Lance’s results from years that lie beyond the statute of limitations, namely 1999 through 2003. That is what the USADA did, citing the ongoing nature of the doping that was said to have gone on within the US Postal team. But Zülle, Escartin, Beloki, Ullrich, Rumsas, Vinokourov, and all the other second- and third-place finishers in the Armstrong era were known dopers even back in the day, when suspension were lighter and forgiveness freer. Replacing a recently discovered likely cheater with another cheater known to have cheated regularly for a long time makes no sense.
You have to give him credit: Lance cheated well. Just as he trained harder, studied the routes more intensively (before the last ITT in the tight 2003 Tour, Lance rode the rainy route in the morning while Ullrich studied it on a video cam; Ullrich crashed; Lance won the Tour), made sure he was always in shape, and got the best support riders around him, Lance apparently cheated more systematically, professionally, and successfully than any other rider ever. Time after time a “trusted lieutenant” would leave the team to become the top rider on another club, and after a year or two would fail a drug test. Hamilton, Heras, Landis, Leipheimer. The other teams couldn’t dope without detection; that too takes precise training, unrelenting focus, absolute discipline.
So the UCI, which for a long time defended Lance, probably for some of the same reasons we fans did, has turned its back on him. Armstrong and his era “should be forgotten,” says Pat McQuaid. Not gonna happen, any more than the Chicago White Sox of 1919 and Shoeless Joe Jackson will be forgotten. Armstrong won seven straight Tours. He was the best rider out there. He might not have won seven straight in drug-free environment, but he would have dominated his era. Those years will always be known as the Armstrong Era, not the “Um, what was the name of that American guy who doped?” Era. Erasing his name from the top of the GC lists only makes him equally conspicuous and memorable by his absence.
The most famous winner now becomes the most infamous doper. Inevitable but fair by some karmic standard. But it should not be forgotten that Lance Armstrong, the talented guy driven by a passion to win, did it best.
As a fan, though, I look at professional cycling and feel confused. In half a century the sport moved from the open acceptance of performance enhancing drugs (Jacques Anquetil’s famous “Of course we take pills. How else could we perform?”), to casual toleration of drugs as a minor problem (the still-revered Eddie Merckx was busted several times in his career, but the punishment was a small slap on the wrist), to the ongoing adulation of Tom Simpson, who killed himself mid-Tour in 1967 with speed and cognac. Then in the ‘80s and ‘90s better drugs were found. Drug use may not have become more rampant, but it changed the nature of racing more. It is widely acknowledged that the average speeds and levels of endurance rose markedly in the early 1990s, just as Greg Lemond was succumbing to the latent effects of his hunting accident. But nobody got a handle on it for a while. Now several past winners, including Bjarne Riis, have admitted to doping. Miguel Indurain, the 1991-95 winner has not, and nobody has pressed the point. The world was not sufficiently open to suspicion. But after the 1998 Festina team scandal the pervasiveness of doping was clear. Armstrong came along the next year. It appears now that his testicular cancer, which ironically may have been caused by PEDs, was a perfect smokescreen for his new post-remission performance ability. Many questioned Armstrong’s results, but he passed the drug tests and pleaded his inspiring recovery.
I’m not going to be writing any more about Lance. He is probably best forgotten. I may take one more spin through my DVDs as I ride indoors this winter on snowy days. His feats can still make your spine tingle, especially if you’re a cyclist and can fully appreciate the things he did. Those tapes more than anything else can keep my legs moving. But there are other riders, other things to watch. And other sports to follow. This is the end of an era for me, as a pro cycling fan. I’ll keep an oar in the water, but the cycling I anticipate being by far the most interested in henceforth is my own, where my tire rubber hits the road.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.