“He can’t have been doping, that would mean we were living a lie.” That was the message my friend and old cycling partner sent me amid increasingly firm allegations that seven-time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong, was likely to have all along been using performance-enhancing drugs.
As teenagers we had watched, transfixed, as Armstrong tackled the mountains of Europe, leaving us to emulate his feats on the rather more modest roads of Leicestershire. In 2001, on the famous slopes of Alpe d’Huez, we watched Armstrong feign weakness at the back of a lead group containing his long-standing rival, Jan Ullrich. All day he pretended to suffer, let the German’s Telekom team set the pace, and then, approaching the base of that final climb, Armstrong dropped the act and pulled to the front. He looked round at a struggling Ullrich, fixed a stare upon him, a hard stare that came to be known as only ‘the look’, and a moment that has since entered into cycling folklore. Armstrong opened-up, began to spin his famous cadence against the 7.9% average gradient of the mountain, and a little under forty minutes later he had destroyed the threat of Ullrich and set the fourth-fastest recorded ascent of Alpe d’Huez, thirty-eight minutes and one second.
In 2003, descending from the Alps to a stage finish in the town of Gap, Armstrong raced downwards, neck-and-neck with the main contender for his yellow jersey, the Spaniard, Joseba Beloki. With the summer heat melting the bitumen in an old road surface, and the two diving for a hairpin bend, Beloki’s front tyre snatched from under his wheel, leaving Beloki in tears upon the tarmac with a broken pelvis, and Armstrong taking the only available option other than a crash. At breakneck speed he rode through a field, dismounted, jumped over a ditch, and regained the road to finish in a competitive time. There are countless instances of the natural ability and stunning determination that has seen Armstrong spend a decade giving goosebumps to cycling fans and neutrals around the world. He has achieved so much since recovering from cancer in his twenties, when doctors felt that his career, if not his life, was over, that the recovery is now a footnote rather than the main reason for the respect he commands as an athlete. When you know how it feels to train hard for an average speed of 20mph, it becomes incomprehensible to think that professional riders average 25mph through three weeks, two mountain ranges, and 2,500 miles. When we saw what Armstrong was capable of inflicting on his rivals, when we saw the force with which it was done, it was impossible not to be mesmerised.
In a television interview due to air in the US on Sunday night, Armstrong’s former lieutenant, Tyler Hamilton, has confirmed his own history of doping, also saying he saw Armstrong injecting erythropoietin, the hormone known infamously in cycling as EPO. Used to boost the production of red blood cells, the drug improves recovery after major exertion, and has never been far from the doping scandals of cycling’s recent history. Hamilton himself forms part of my complicated relationship with cycling, his own fall from grace beginning with a two-year doping suspension in 2005, after he was found with someone else’s blood in his body. Hamilton spent years pleading innocence, and I was not alone in wanting to believe the claims he made. Three years earlier, at the 2002 Giro d’Italia, Hamilton crashed in the early stages, breaking his shoulder but riding on to finish second overall. Come the end of the race, after three weeks clenching his jaw in pain, Hamilton underwent dental work on the surfaces of eleven teeth that he had ground away. Life can be tough as a fan of professional cycling, where revelations periodically oblige you to accept that moments you believed testament to the human spirit were in fact made possible in a laboratory, and facilitated by the rider’s emotional weakness rather than his human strength.
Accusations against Armstrong are nothing new, and though the Texan commonly points to a record of 500 drug tests all returned negative, his former teammate, Floyd Landis, has dismissed this defence, stating that “500 tests that come back negative are meaningless because the tests don’t work.” Landis himself, disgraced after his 2006 Tour de France victory was annulled for unnaturally high testosterone levels, alleged in 2010 that doping had been rife at Armstrong’s US Postal Service cycling team. In response to Hamilton’s confession, Landis has said, “we just doubled the number of people telling the truth.” With Hamilton having suffered from depression since his downfall, there appears to be a sense of relief on the part of two riders who have over the years been painted as villains rather than sadly typical.
It is the Postal Service connection that has transformed long-standing accusations into a formal case against Armstrong. What was a cycling issue has grown into the prospect that a US public body was sponsoring an outfit involved with illegal drugs, trafficking those drugs, and obscuring the payments through which they were purchased. The federal Foods and Drugs Agency has become involved, and the timing of Hamilton’s confession is the result of his being called before a grand jury to give evidence. His emotions are evident in a letter to family and friends, in which he says of the experience, "I told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I felt a sense of relief I'd never felt before.” A big-money legal and PR campaign, trademarks in Armstrong’s often venomous defence of his name, has already accused Hamilton of courting publicity for a forthcoming book release. Whatever the accuracy of such a charge, it must be said that self-promotion and the truth are not necessarily incompatible, and having long-ago tarnished his reputation, it is hard to imagine Hamilton risking criminal proceedings by lying in a federal investigation.
How all this fits into the history of cycling is a difficult issue, in some ways cheating is a chapter in the legend of the sport. The 1904 Tour winner, Maurice Garin, was disqualified amid accusations that he caught a train through one of the stages. The early history of grand tours is littered with anecdotes of poison slipped into drinks by rival riders, felled trees and tacks being laid across roads by rival supporters. In 1967, English rider Tom Simpson died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux with a performance-enhancing cocktail of amphetamine and alcohol inside him. The spectre of this early-day doping has not stopped Simpson’s dying words of “put me back on the bike” taking their own special place in cycling mythology.
And yet, however intriguing we might find moral collapse in the face of human ambition, systematic doping can never be permitted to become institutionalised in a sport that desires to be taken seriously. I do not fear for the sport of road cycling, sponsors and stars will come and go, but I have faith that pure-spirited people will always be compelled to ride and race bikes together. Our sport has earned a bad reputation that brings with it great shame, but has also generated a determination to be rid of drugs, and a self-reflection, of which to be proud.
What happens next is key to the short-term future of professional cycling. Sadistic though it might be, if Armstrong is finally found guilty, the completeness with which his image, myth and brand is destroyed will be directly proportionate to the good of cycling. The whole affair teaches us the perils associated with the taking of heroes. We must experience greatness ourselves, the highest beauty of the bicycle is that it allows us to do so, with our own legs, and in our own lives.