A Lance Fan Finds Hope in a Cleaner Sport
It’s been a little depressing (and amusing) to hear what the media is saying on the subject of the USADA and Lance Armstrong, in the wake of the USADA’s censure of Lance.
You have articles being written by journalists in the cycling media who are too close to the subject to be objective, or by general interest media who have little context for what they’re talking about. Then of course, there are the hit pieces written, placed, or orchestrated by Lance’s well-seasoned PR team (See: Exhibit A and Exhibit B).
A little history: I was a Lance Armstrong fan early on, before he rose to fame as an indomitable cyclist. A junior triathlete from Texas, I had aspirations of going pro one day. At some point in the late ’80s I had clipped a picture out of Triathlete Magazine of Lance sitting on the top tube of his TT rig the day he had first become the U.S. Junior Triathlete champion.
We were both 18 and both tri-geeks from Texas. I worshipped him–but my life goal was to beat him in a race some day: the Ironman, the Olympics, whatever…. I taped his photo on my bathroom mirror and tapped it before every workout. I spent the last few agonizing minutes of my runs and bike-rides during those years picturing myself pulling away from him with a wall of screaming fans on both sides of us.
My triathletic dream was brief, and fizzled out about the same time that Lance moved into cycling full time, but I never stopped following his career.
When he won the 1993 UCI world road cycling champs, I was the most excited–and the least surprised–of all my cycling friends. I had been watching him humble older, more experienced athletes for years. I knew he was the next “great” in whatever sport he chose.
I don’t need to tell you the range of emotions that went through me when he announced he had cancer. Or when he came back and won the ’99 Tour de France. I read his book. I was inspired, as ever, by his story — and outraged whenever anyone mentioned doping. The French were screaming about doping, but nobody on this side of the pond was listening. (Yes, that’s me).
We were listening to Lance’s sound bites, which were pitch-perfect–”What am I on? I am on my bike busting my ass six hours a day; What are YOU on?–and watching the Nike commercials. I firmly believed that all these Euros had a bad case of sour grapes; they had just run in to the greatest cyclist of all time.
But then this thing happened: I became a real die-hard cycling fan. Lance only really raced all-out at the Tour, so the rest of the year he wasn’t much fun to follow. I started following everyone else. I was reading European cycling news and getting educated on the subtleties of the sport. I was learning about races other than the Tour, about track racing, mountain-bike racing, cyclocross, and, of course, I was learning about performance enhancing drugs in the sport.
This was the ’90s, and doping was rampant through the peloton. I watched the rise and fall of many, many very talented cyclists: Marco Pantani, Jan Ulrich, Richard Virenque, Joseba Beloki, Francisco Mancebo, Ivan Basso, Roberto Heras, Alexandre Vinokourov, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis–all them were terrifically talented cyclists. All of them were eventually busted for using performance enhancing drugs.
And all of them would get smacked around annually at the biggest race of the year by Lance Armstrong. He didn’t just squeek by these guys at the Tour, he crushed them. Every year. And they were all dopers, to a man.
Actually, it didn’t take me long to figure out that, in the 1990s, pretty much the entire top half of the peloton was doping. It was obvious if you read enough cycling literature.
Here’s an example: for years there was no test for EPO. EPO is the wonder drug that helps anemia and kidney disease sufferers produce enough red-blood cells to survive. It also helps endurance athletes achieve superhuman results by increasing their own red-blood cell count. So what the World Anti-Doping Agency did to combat EPO use was set a hematocrit limit of 50 percent (hematocrit measures the percentage of red blood cells in whole blood). Magically, the entire peloton seemed suddenly to have the identical hematocrit value: 49 percent. It was amazing!
Aside from that, every other month or so, some cyclist would rat out his team or doctor, or the French police would bust a soigneur at the border with a trunk full of EPO-laced blood bags, and it would be obvious that the entire team was involved (Google “festina affair“).
So while no official governing body had a foolproof test, it was obvious to anyone who was paying attention that doping was prevalent. And these new drugs weren’t just making guys a little better, they were making them in to superhuman freaks. Since there was no way to catch the superhuman freaks (in either sense), most everyone doped eventually.
And still, a theoretically clean Lance was crushing all of them, no matter what they did. My confidence in him began to wane, and mini-scandals started to surface:
- a massage therapist told the press that Lance had given her syringes to throw away, and that she had overheard the team management scheming to cover up a failed steroid drug test.
- allegations surfaced that he worked with a famous pro-doping trainer Michele Ferrari. Lance verified that he had worked with Ferrari, but severed ties with him in 2004 after Ferrari was banned by the Italian Cycling Federation. (Although for some reason he still felt obligated to pay him $460,000 in 2006….)
- Betsy and Frankie Andreu went to the press describing Lance’s initial doctor’s visit when he discovered he had cancer, where he allegedly admitted using almost every known performance enhancing drug available at the time.
There were other scandals, I won’t list them all. And this funny thing happened to all of the people who tried to blow the whistle on Lance. They were crushed. By the his lawyers, by the media, by the powers-that-be in cycling. Lance was the king. The UCI and the cycling media adored him, and to some extent, they also protected him whenever he was challenged.
The big scandal, which nobody seems to be talking about, was the 1999 Tour de France urine tests reported in L’Équipe in 2005. The French reporter who conned his way in to the lab under the guise of doing a “research project” knew beforehand that none of what he found could ever be used against Lance in a court of law. He was only concerned in knowing the truth, which was whether or not Lance doped in the 1999 Tour.
Though all six of Lance’s samples came up positive, the great machine that is Lance’s legal and PR team went to work and made sure that everyone outside of France thought this story was a travesty of justice, a witch hunt, and a set-up. He had newscasters reciting his talking points: “Maybe these samples were tampered with–you know, nobody in France is a big fan of the Texan….” It was very well done. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that he takes everything he does very seriously. He and his team have always defended his reputation perfectly. (Here’s a decent summary of most of these scandals by an American source, so maybe not entirely objective.)
Eventually, as I did the research, there was no other conclusion I could come away with (unless you were a fan of vast conspiracy theories): Lance was a doper.
Now, when my friends were asking me (since I’m their “cycling guy”) if I thought Lance was a doper, for the first time–instead of saying, “He’s the most tested athlete in the history of the sport!” or “Lance has never failed any of the more than 500 drug tests he’s taken!”–I was starting to say, “Yeah, probably.”
“Wow!” they would say, “I thought you were a big fan.”
“Oh, I am. I’m not happy he’s a doper, but it’s the reality of the sport,” I’d reply. “The entire peloton is most likely doping, and he’s kicking their asses all over France. If the whole of professional cycling were clean, including Lance, he’d still be kicking their asses all over France.”
I still believe that this is true. I wholeheartedly believe that Lance Armstrong is the most talented cyclist of the last 20 years. Whether he keeps them or not, I think he deserves every one of his seven Tour titles. He at least deserves to believe he won them, because he did it against a field of dopers.*
So what is my problem with Lance?
Let me change the subject a little here….
Let’s go back to the time when I was an aspiring (possibly delusional) wannabe pro triathlete. Setting up my bike in the transition area at the SeaFair triathlon–this was probably 1991–I watched an older tri-geek friend of mine whip out a steroid inhaler.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A little help,” he said.
“Does that really help?”
“It could all be in my head, but I think it does.”
“Is that legal?”
“If you have a prescription. And all the pros do, so why shouldn’t I?”
And then he beat me. I was third out of the water, I got passed by a few speed demons in my weakest event (the bike), and then I blew up halfway through the run…and this bozo passed me.
Let me give you a little clue about what was going on in my head at this point. I was riding my bike between 100 and 200 miles a week; I swam 3,000 to 5,000 meters each morning in the pool, five to seven days a week; I ran between 50 and 70 miles per week. That’s plus core and strength workouts, on top of school and, just, life. Try that some time. It takes a little dedication to hit those numbers.
But at 19 years old, I’m wicked fast. I can run a sub-16-minute 5K. I can swim a sub-20-minute mile. And I just got my ass handed to me by some 40-something who, minutes before the race, took a steroid inhaler. How do you think that felt?
Now that I’m a little older, I know that endurance muscles take years to develop. That guy legitimately beat me, which probably wasn’t too hard since I was just 19 and terrible at pacing myself (and frankly, I likely didn’t have nearly the fitness that I imagined I did). The steroid inhaler didn’t lock it up for him–he just beat me.
But I want to impress upon you what young athletes go through the first time they get beat by someone they know is cheating–whether it’s an effective tactic or not. It’s almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t put in those training hours what that feeling is like. And that’s what all young aspiring pro-cyclists went through in the ’90s. They spent years turning themselves inside-out in training and in races. Starving themselves to stay at five-to-eight-percent body fat.
Then they get to the bottom of that first big hill in the first big race with the big boys, and they get their doors blown off. It’s humiliating, and they have no idea why… until a coach takes them aside and tells them that if they really, really want to be a professional cyclist they have to take these performance enhancing drugs.
Some will say no. Danny Pate comes to mind. He spent five minutes in Europe before turning around and coming back to the U.S. peloton. When asked why he is reported to have said, “I don’t want to have to do drugs to do my job.” He caught a lot of flack for that comment, but he was just telling the truth.
Most didn’t say no. What would you do before you gave up your career-making promotion?
So here’s my point: I don’t want kids to be faced with this choice.
And maybe soon–now?–they won’t. The sport of cycling has made huge strides cleaning itself up over the last decade, arguably more than any other sport. Part of that house-cleaning has to do with new policies and programs that made it much more difficult to dope.
One of the side effects of a cleaner sport is the establishment of new teams whose sole goal is to provide a place for clean riders, places where management won’t pressure the riders for wins so much that they feel obligated to dope. Maybe now they can compete. When a young talented rider gets to the pro peloton, and they can keep up without doping, maybe they don’t win right away, but they can see a day when they might.
But there’s a list of things that the sport has to do. It’s already establishing new testing procedures that have already netted a whole list of dopers (e.g., the DNA passport, phthalate plasticizer tests to ensure riders are needle-free, and all the usual random out-of-competition testing), there are sponsorship opportunities for “clean” teams (thank you, Garmin) and–here’s a big one that’s been pissing off a lot of people the last two weeks–past winners should face scrutiny if we have evidence against them.
That evidence may be testimony from other people and riders, it may be retroactive testing on samples preserved from prior competitions. We don’t have a test for everything now, but we might later, and athletes are going to think twice about taking something if it’s going to catch up with them in the future.
That’s why Lance’s legacy matters. Because if we don’t take action against dopers, we leave the door cracked: “I could still keep my wins. It would be worth it.”
Lance has, I believe, been the template for all the dopers that came after him. Look at the next two Tour-winners since: Landis and Contador. They followed what you might call the Armstrong playbook to the letter: a) hire the best doctor to beat the tests, b) if you fail a test or someone squeals grab the best legal and PR teams money can buy and institute a scorched-earth policy.
The governing bodies are starting to learn how to beat this formula; they’ve taken down Landis and Contador; now it looks like it’s their unhappy responsibility to take down Lance Armstrong.
For a true-blue fan of cycling, this is a watershed moment. I watched a generation of young cyclists turn to the dark side, and it was devastating (not least, for many of them physically). I remember Jan Ulrich when he was a junior. He was amazing. Ivan Basso, a beautiful, shy Italian kid, such a natural on the bike. Óscar Sevilla, Francisco Mancebo–they just ate up the juniors.
A few years later, there they were at the front of the peloton. It was exhilarating to watch. And then they were gone. Busted for doping. After a time, you start getting jaded. You wonder if it’s talent or drugs. You see a new kid come up and you’re a little less excited. Levi? He’s good, but is he clean? Tom Danielson? George Hincapie? David Zabriskie? The Schleck brothers? Who even knows?
But–BUT–I’m seeing a crop of new kids: Tyler Farrar, Peter Stetina, Andrew Talansky (even local hero Jacob Rathe), all super-talented kids, and where are they going? The clean team. They’ve been presented with a choice and they’re showing they’re not afraid of riding the road formerly less pedaled.
And that is why I think Lance getting busted and losing his titles is a good thing.
Is it sad? Yes, it is. I’m sad for Lance. I’m sad that his foundation could potentially take a hit for his past actions. And people have the right to be angry at that. I think most of those people, though, are ignorant of the negative influence this man has had on a generation of cyclists. I think they haven’t heard the stories from the peloton–some of which I touched on here. I have, and I think the punishment is fair.
*This point is debatable actually. There were a few riders who, it could be argued, were riding clean in those Tours and, by virtue of the fact that they managed to reach the top 10 might conceivably have beaten Lance had he been clean. E.g., Christophe Moreau in 2000 (4th), 2003 (8th), 2004 (12th) & 2005 (10th). Christophe himself was a reformed doper, which is why it’s arguable whether he actually did earn those placings–but the evidence is heavily favor of his having been clean.