“Just thankful I never bought into the whole Lance Armstrong story”

liestrongThis bit of levity from tweeter @Marcus___ is very welcome, and, like all good satire, holds a cracked mirror up to a truth.

The Liestrong saga hasn’t been much fun for people like me who were (and still can be) inspired by watching bicycle racing.  The first Tour I watched was Stephen Roche’s win in 1987.  It was as dramatic a sporting event as you could wish for.

As I became more interested in road racing, I read everything I could about bicycle racing, and became well aware of doping, and its place.  In 1988, the winner of the second Tour that I watched, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for Probenacid, a diuretic apparently used to mask the presence of proscribed drugs.  At the time of the test, Probenacid was on the banned list of the International Olympic Committee, but not on the list of the Union Cycliste Internationale, so ‘Perico’ was not sanctioned.

As I read more about the sport, devouring almost every English language book about professional bicycle racing then available, I read of Michel Pollentier’s shameful attempt to cheat the doping control at l’Alpe d’Huez in 1978 (he had concealed a container of clean urine on his person), Tommy Simpson’s death, the famous interview with the Pelissier brothers in 1924, the frank admissions of Fausto Coppi & Jacques Anquetil, and on and on through the books of Paul Kimmage & Freddy Maertens (which I strongly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it).

I gradually came to realise that, as I wrote elsewhereprofessional bicycle racing is a manifestation of almost unrestrained venality.  But, luckily, or unluckily, I started following cycling during one of its most interesting eras: the post Hinault, pre Indurain dust-up, when almost anything could happen, where the Tour could be turned upside down in a matter of minutes, an era of drama, attacking riding, sudden collapses & ceaseless struggle between the favourites, LeMond, Delgado, Fignon, Mottet, Parra, Roche, Herrara…  I found it entrancing.

The Indurain era, which opened in 1991, and can now be described as the artisanal EPO period, before teams employed medical assistance in a systematic way, was less interesting, which is probably down to EPO.  I suspect that the racing was so crushingly boring partly because EPO levelled the playing field, to use the cliche.  Everyone was at the same level, and it wasn’t a question of counting how many matches you had to burn before the race, and eking them out in attempt to find the right moment to light the fuse and dynamite the race, as before, because you had an electronic lighter that would fire up anytime you wanted it.

It was pretty obvious, if you bothered to think about it, that something was seriously askew when Laurent Jalabert suddenly catapulted from the ranks of the Green jersey hunters into the pack of serious G.C. contenders in a matter of months, eventually winning the polka-dot jersey of ‘King of the Mountains’ twice.  The absurd spectacle of Bjarne Riis, 188cm tall & weighing 72 kilos, dancing away from the leading group in 1996 on Hautacam like he was Frederico Bahamontes probably should have made me switch off right then (Riis had elevated his haemocrit level to 60%, thus giving himself a step up from the levelled playing field).  By the way, every single one of the top 10 finishers on that stage have since been implicated or sanctioned for serious doping offences, bar one.  Guess which one?

The first EPO era came to an end with the Festina scandal of 1998, during which the French police did what the UCI could or would not, and exposed the scale of doping by leading professional cycling teams.  I was stupid enough during this Tour to be completely taken in by Marco Pantani’s performance to win the Tour.  I believed he was clean because he said he was.  More fool me.

1999 was trailed as the Tour of Redemption [or Renewal] by the French.  Oh, how ironic that looks now.  As Robbie McEwen said elsewhere, we all wanted to believe in the story of Lance’s come-back from the dead.  The fact that he had been an impetuous, aggressive rider, constantly trying to shake things up before he was struck down by cancer, made his victory all the more exciting, as it promised a return to the era of attacking racing, rather than the slow strangulation of the opposition as practised by Indurain.

Instead, Lance destroyed the field again and again and again, leaving us all with the same question as in the Indurain era:  who is going to finish on the other two steps of the podium, which was a little dull.  As Lance’s dominance of the Tour continued through the early 2000s, the overwhelming majority of us probably got a little tired of Lance’s posturing, and wary of the way that he ostracised & reviled former team-mates, but I think most people, like me, believed that Lance was clean because as Greg LeMond said in 2001, “if Lance’s story is true, it’s the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If it’s not, it’s the greatest fraud“, i.e. we believed because the alternative was too unpleasant to contemplate.

However, as the decade of systematic medical preparation dragged on, and the anti-doping effort began to catch up with the dopers, the lies of the leading riders grew ever more outrageous, blatant and impossible to believe (and occasionally unintentionally hilarious: ‘the human growth hormone was for my dog’).  I’m not sure exactly when lost all of my illusions, but I think it was probably after Landis’ positive in 2006.  I was completely taken in by his performance that day – I stupidly thought it was a display of attacking riding the like of which hadn’t been seen in the Tour since the 1980s.  After the positive was announced, I was angry, but mostly with myself for having been taken in yet again by a cheating pro bike racer.

I don’t want to comment on Lance’s belated, incomplete, and fundamentally flawed ‘confession’ (is there anyone with even a passing interest in the sport that believes he was 100% clean during his 3rd comeback?) but I will say that we are all (apart from the few on the outside of Lance’s circle who brought his shameless lying & cheating to our attention) like the fellow shown in the picture above. We  did all buy into it.  Let’s not get fooled again.

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4 comments
  1. TSK said:

    I don’t really like Cadel Evans as a person. I suspect that he and I wouldn’t be the types to get through more than a pint together in a pub. Fair enough, I don’t expect to get on with or be liked by everyone, I would be worried if I did. But I have a lot of love and respect for the man winning the Tour. Even more so because I don’t see reason (yet) to suspect he did it dirty. It was an odd year for the race with certain “contenders” out of the picture, perhaps it was necessary.
    And now we have Wiggins who I also have confidence in as a clean rider. I could wax lyrical, even though I find his outward personality a little grating at times. But the point is this, we have two in a row that we can have confidence in. Two good clean riders to win the Tour. It feels like a new challenge has been set for the racing world. No longer is it to win at all costs but to win clean.

    I’ll pay more attention to the evidence if it ever comes to light so as to not get drawn in again. But for now there is hope.

    Like

    • I believe that the 2011 Tour was as clean a Tour as there has been since 1990. Especially in view of the to-ing & fro-ing on key mountain stages. The leaders looked like they were under pressure physically, and looked on the point of collapse, and some did collapse, which is what you would expect, and what makes bicycle racing dramatic.

      I also believe that Wiggins is clean, although I think he needs to man up a bit, and accept that, given a 20 year history of lies & deceit, people are going to ask him, the best cyclist in the world, about doping, and that he has to be more than totally transparent (if that isn’t an oxymoron!)

      Like

  2. TSK said:

    It’s always been a big issue with sports people and athletes. They’re forced into a very public arena but their reason for such attention isn’t that they’re show people or capable of the image management that is practically demanded of them. In a way I’m amazed the fallout isn’t worse.
    Let’s face it, no one is waiting until Mark Rothko or Hilary Mantel are at their most vulnerable and then practically accusing them of forgery or plagiarism. I’m not going to hand-wringingly hold him up as a victim, but I think while he should be answering questions about doping, the public and media need to allow him the space to answer them in his own time and own way.
    If we hound the clean riders for the minutia of their lives then we really do risk pushing the sport back to the bad old days.

    Like

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