Bicycle road racing at the highest levels is the King of Sports, it’s about the cobbles of Flanders; the high peaks of France, Italy and Spain; the coal dust caked roads of post-war Eastern Europe and hills of the Ardennes and Limburg. It was always ‘The Peoples’ Sport’ – where the best athletes in the world passed the bottom of the street or even whizzed past your door.
No admission charges and totally egalitarian; it doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive or what the brand names on your clothes says when you’re hanging over a barrier with your pils or getting frozen and soaked up some barren mountain.
But they do things differently in Texas: ‘the second most populous and the second-largest of the 50 states in the United States of America, and the largest state in the 48 contiguous United States.’ Body guards, blacked-out windowed SUV’s, private jets and entourages complete with movie stars were never part of cycling – but they’re de rigeur for a Texan sports super star.
As is winning – second steps on podiums and silver medals go to ‘best losers.’ Lance Armstrong did not invent EPO, nor was he part of the Gewiss team in the years 1994/95/96. But as a man who was born to win, he realised that to win – and win big, his team had to adopt whatever methods were being employed by the Italians, who were toying with the opposition in some races.
If the Italians could do it, then a man from deep in the heart of Texas could do it even better. Within a decade most of the top riders in the peloton were on the ‘hot sauce’ – that’s a fact.
Let’s chose a Tour de France top ten at random, from the Lance era, 2003: Armstrong, Ulrich, Vinokourov, Hamilton, Zubeldia, Mayo, Basso, Moreau, Sastre and Mancebo. And whilst we’re at it, let’s check the UCI top ten rankings for 2003: Bettini, Zabel, Petacchi, Simoni, Rebellin, Vinokourov, Valverde, Armstrong, Boogerd and Mayo. You definitely did have a choice, but if you didn’t ‘prepare’ then it was extremely difficult to win at the highest level.
That Armstrong’s wins are corrupt isn’t open to debate; but they must be placed in the context of the times when ‘kitting up’ was just like ‘putting air on your tyres,’ as someone said the other day. And what must also be placed in context is that his team mates had a choice too, just like Lance did. They crossed the same line and shared in the same trough as Lance; to see some of them now portrayed as ‘heroes’ is obscene – most confessions were lubricated by ‘sweetheart’ deals which granted shortened, irrelevant winter suspensions and a rumoured $60.000 dollars each to ‘tide them over.’
Lance was not the Devil incarnate, his team mates were all big, strong boys and did have a choice – let’s remember that some rode with this ‘terrible bully’ for every one of his Tour wins. In his interview with Winfrey Armstrong’s confessing to cheating his way to his seven Tour wins was unequivocal and something I thought I would never live to see. However, his assertion that he did not ‘prepare’ for his two come back Tour outings leaves me sceptical.
In 2009 he was third in the Tour and for 2010 it was clear that he was in excellent form – and with another year’s work behind him his expectations must have been high. With a third place in the Tour of Luxembourg and second in the Tour of Switzerland it looked very much as if he would be contending for the win come July. But it was then that Floyd Landis started to talk – loudly, and it was apparent to Lance and his advisers that the most that the fridge could contain was recovery drinks.
In that Tour he was ‘just another rider’ on his way to 23rd spot. The whole thing spoke for itself to anyone who knew the score. The scientific evidence would appear to endorse this and means that the ‘Circus Lance’ will have to keep the tent pitched. This of course means that the those who have a three word vocabulary when it comes to cycling; ‘Lance/Doping/Tour’ will continue to demand answers to 15 year-old questions.
David Walsh never fails to name check his books and Travis Tygart continues to pop up when his job is surely done? I have to make sure my ‘unemotionally involved’ hat is firmly in place when I watch Lance on Oprah’s couch – my sport reduced to this . . .
Trivialised to a soap opera and with bookies taking bets on which words Lance will use during the interview – and as for beer fuelled ‘live screenings,’ I guess the guy who said; ‘everybody likes a public lynching,’ got it right. Perhaps I should count myself fortunate that it’s not Jerry Springer’s chair he’s sitting in?
It’s the biggest story of the moment in the Anglo Media with three pages each devoted to it today in the Times, Independent and Guardian. And on the other side of the world it’s a similar story, as our man from down under, Chris Selden says;
“Robbie McEwen may have won three green jerseys at the Tour and Cadel Evans won yellow in 2011; but nothing in Australia has captured the media’s attention like Lance Armstrong’s ‘confession’.
Print media, radio, television, internet – you simply can’t escape it. In fact, I tried to by going out for a ride only to have the local hoons yelling Lance comments at me instead of; ‘Get off the F’in road’. Well at least that’s an improvement I guess
So what’s the feeling in Australia? The biggest disappointment amongst those in the media and in the street seems to be Lance’s lack of naming names that were behind his doping dynasty quickly followed by his seeming lack of remorse to those he has wronged. Sure he said sorry, but maybe we’re just not easily convinced in Australia or maybe we’ve just got long memories but nobody seems to have believed him.
Armstrong was a hero for many Australians with his fairytale story and before Cadel Evans victory in Le Tour, the only cyclist that most ordinary folk could name. I for one am looking forward to the day that cycling stories leave the front page and goes back to the small print next to the obituaries in the back of the paper where it has happily lived for years. Does cycling belong there? No, it’s the best sport in the world and we deserve better but at least when we were at that part of the paper it was for good reasons – some Australian cyclist had scored a victory somewhere in the world. So long Lance, on your bike, the TDU is on tomorrow and I’m going to be looking for those results in the paper, just next to the obituaries.”
Those Aussies don’t mince their words But on the Continent there’s not the same furore. Long time PEZ Italia correspondent Ale Federico tells us;
‘The Italian media didn’t dedicate a lot to the LA admissions. Just the specialised cycling press commented on the story. I feel that Italians are not much interested in this because we had our scandals few years ago (Basso) and our very sad stories much more time ago (Pantani).
I think today US fans are living the shock we lived in 1999 when Pantani was excluded from Giro. The same shock the French lived in 1998 when Festina was excluded from Tour. I strongly think US cycling will live after this story but it will be very hard for them.
As our editor Richard Pestes said when he was interviewed on TV;
“Pro cycling is bigger than Lance Armstrong.”
From Belgium our friend Dirk Van Hove tells us;
‘The Belgian media says that he doesn’t really say any big new things, no names or anything. He only says what everybody knew; he is a cheater, a liar and a charger. But there’s a bit surprise also that he never mentioned one single name, McQuaid, Verbruggen, Bruyneel etc.
And from Alicante in Southern Spain, Alastair Hamilton tells us;
‘I’ve not had that much time to see the papers; I’ve been busy with interviews at the pro team training camps. Marca yesterday just wrote it up, two pages, but no editorial comment; make your own mind up sort of approach.
It’s on TV here and it’s been reported on normal news and the sport news but like most Europeans; it’s no surprise to us and not really ground breaking news.’
There can be no ‘last word’ on this because it’s going to rumble on for weeks, but we’ll close with the words of Hilaire van der Schueren, sports director at Vacansoleil-DCM;
‘Let us once and for all draw a line under the matter. It is time that we increasingly look to the future of cycling. I slept quietly last night and did not get up for this man’s confession. This morning I have followed the news.’
I must buy Hilaire a beer, next time I see him.