One cycling fan’s struggle to accept the awful truth
Did we have to know? That’s the question I’ve toiled with over the past few months.
Now before you start punching punchers and furiously slamming down your fingers on the keyboard as you belt out your most brutal comments in reply – do me a favour and read right to the end, as I mentioned I’ve toiled with this question for some time.
A massive cycling fan, I’ve battled insomnia every July to stay up until the early hours of the morning watching this race.
I’ve followed the team movements throughout the year and gazed with awe, interest and excitement the different stages of the grand tours and classics throughout the European cycling season. Hell I spent my honeymoon following the Tour de France throughout the final 10 stages.
I too climbed up the Pyrenees, waited by the side of the road in extreme conditions and next to some very crazy French and Norwegian fans just to come within an inch of my heroes as they push past the pain barrier, so clearly caught in a hurt locker which has no key, their muscles fatiguing, skin sweating but mind so determined to power up the most torturous climbs the race has seen. I love this sport, there’s no denying it.
But this issue at hand – is not about the bike.
At first this week as the US Anti-Doping Agency’s evidence started haemorrhaging into the public domain, I questioned why we had to know this. I wasn’t sticking my head in the sand, wasn’t putting my fingers in my ears singing loudly as commentators, fans and the confessing riders were explaining their actions. I simply felt there was too much at stake.
Lance Armstrong had become bigger than just the rider. He had become a figure of hope, a hero of great courage and strength, a symbol that the impossible is never out of reach. Not just in cycling, sport nor in the Tour de France, but when handed a death notice, told you have months to live, told you have Cancer.
The hope that man gave to millions across the world is undeniable. Lance himself was told he had months to live, he was diagnosed in 1996 with testicular cancer which had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. He was given less than a 40% survival chance.
Yet he not only lived but he competed and then went on to do what no one had ever done before – he won the world’s most gruelling race, not once but 7 times. He defied doctors’ beliefs and rewrote medical textbooks.
Sounds good to be true doesn’t it? We thought it, everyone thought it, but we loved the idea of it, we were engulfed in the fairytale. We too wanted to prove people wrong and defy expectations in our own lives. That story became folklore, history, it was a privilege to be living and witnessing it in our lifetime.
A friend of mine was given a similar diagnosis – cancer and less than a year to grace this earth. It was Lance’s books and story that gave him something he believed to be stronger than the advice of doctors, of medicine and science – hope.
It was dangerous to take that away from the public. It was enough to make even the most upbeat optimist question every other miracle story ever heard. Yes it’s not in the nature of sport, yes it goes against everything sport represents, but why demolish the only thing some people battling a cruel, painful war have, that hope and belief that if Lance can survive and go on to win that race 7 times, remission can one day be mine too.
I went from denial (often stating that a 2 year federal US Investigation into doping against Armstrong had been dropped in February this year, before a new investigation was taken up by USADA) to be “in denial”. If all the testimonies and affidavits were to be believed then the use of doping in cycling was so widespread, if you weren’t doing it, then you were the only one.
George Hincapie’s admission came as a massive shock to me. He was Lance’s right hand man and good friend throughout all his Tour de France wins. He was Cadel’s too with Team BMC in 2011.
In his affidavit to USADA he says “In 1995 there appeared to me to be a major change in the peloton. It was becoming very hard to keep up, and I learned the reason was the widespread use of erythropoietin (“EPO”)…around this time we got crushed in the Milan San Remo race and coming home from the race Lance Armstrong was very upset. As we drove home Lance said, in substance, that, “this is bullshit, people are using stuff” and “we are getting killed”. He said, in substance, that he didn’t want to be crushed anymore and something needed to be done. I understood that he meant the team needed to get on EPO.”
Doping was systemic in the sport. The level playing field wasn’t what was fair but unfair. That line that shouldn’t be crossed had been redirected to a whole new level. What are the rules when the majority are breaking them? I kept telling myself that it was a different time back then, the sport was at a different place. It’s changed now and we should leave the past as the past. A dark cloud would forever hang over it, yes, but there would be an unwritten recognition that that was what happened back then. Even this year’s Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins told the media he was relieved he wasn’t caught up in that culture
“I was very fortunate that I was in a system in British Cycling that, regardless of what team I was in, they supported me with the right way to deal with it. They probably saved me otherwise it might have been me, who knows. The peer pressure was huge. But the culture has changed.”
But the more evidence I read, the more confessions I hear, the more the truth unravels - the more I am letting go of the fairytale. It’s not in the spirit of the game, it’s not what sport’s all about and nor cycling either.
The rumours and reputation of drugs in cycling have always haunted the sport, but this tragedy will now be the catalyst for change. It’s the sport’s big bang and global condemnation will force Cycling and its races to publicly change their way.
People always said Lance Armstrong was the best thing to happen to cycling. It is, but not because he won those 7 titles, but now because he lost them. UCI don’t stick your head in the sand any longer, do what you have to and don’t head to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. There’s a new generation of riders to embrace and a new era in the sport now heralded.
You know the sad thing? Lance did do an amazing thing. No amount of EPO and blood doping can make the average man on the street into a Tour de France champion. Not even a supreme athlete on drugs can be promised of that, able to survive such a punishing, relentless, grueling race for 21 stages.
He was special, he was “something else”, but he’ll forever be remembered as the biggest cheat world sport has ever seen. His legacy is now bloodied and muddied. Lance it’s time now for you to come clean.
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