“It’s not About the Bike” the title of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong’s prize-winning work of fiction could turn out to be the most apt book title in history. I bought that book, and the follow-up “Every second Counts”, devoured them, loved them and raised my level of admiration and respect for the tough cancer surviving Texan.
I sat and watched in awe in 2001 when on the fabled climb of Alpe D’Huez he turned and gave possibly the strongest rider in the field, Jan Ullrich, “The Look” before riding off and destroying the German to claim a further Tour victory. The man was a machine, he gave hope to cancer survivors everywhere, Hollywood couldn’t have made up his story. He just got better and better, every summer he would turn up and not just win but dominate. I was firmly in his camp, cheering his every move. He was great for cycling.
There were always rumours especially over the later years, and I knew that the people he was dominating, the likes of Ullrich, Basso and Pantani were all drugs cheats. Nearly every one that rode for him at Postal / Discovery went on to ride for other teams and then fail tests. Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton being the most famous two. His treatment of those that spoke out against drugs in cycling was the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a leader if they were clean. Walsh, Kimmage, Simeoni all were ridiculed, bullied and vilified by camp Armstrong. He never once said he was clean, his standard answer was “i’ve never failed a test”. Yet we knew from people who would confess that they too had passed hundreds of tests whilst “juicing”. Have a read of “Steroid Nation” to see how easy the tests for EPO and others were easy to beat.
Now of course it’s all come crashing down, he’s no longer a champion, he’s banned for life, he will always have thousands of follows that will say “but he never failed a test”, “It’s a witch hunt”, “He’s a scapegoat”, “He inspired millions” and “Look what he did for cancer” – I agree with those quotes but the fact is he cheated and you’d have to be a blind fool to not see that. I predict that within 5 years we’ll have a best selling book with a full confession, he won’t ever stay out of the limelight. His ego won’t allow it.
He cheated he deserved his ban, it’s unfortunate that those that testified against him got shorter bans but that’s the way the law usually works in any country. Cycling I have to believe is a cleaner sport these days, the comparison of speeds of the Tour winner this year ( much slower ) to the dark days of Armstrong et al gives me hope. However it will take generations to change the culture, the likes of Vaughters, Riis, Yates are still around influencing young riders. This can’t be a good thing.
The sport of triathlon isn’t immune, news broke this week of an American age grouper who failed a drugs test for high levels of testosterone. He was even more of a prat as his livelihood didn’t depend on his result.
Drugs are prevalent in all sports, athletics through to football, baseball, tennis and even show jumping. Where there is money at stake there will always be drugs. Cycling gets a bad press probably because it tests more, football is laughable by comparison.
Ask yourself though if your livelihood depended on it, and your boss told you that you had to take these substances or you’d essentially lose your job, and you knew that everyone else was doing it, and the likelihood of getting caught was minimal – could you REALLY turn your back on the syringe or the pills in front of you. Could you continue to race clean? I’d like to think I could, but it must be phenomenally hard for a young cyclist to do so with that much pressure. I was put under pressure as an undergraduate when I played a sport for my university. The coach and the senior players openly encouraged us to take pills that would make us lift more, work harder and run faster. I must have been one of the only clean ones on the team but it seriously messed with my head, I could never bench or squat the numbers that those that were taking the M&Ms could do. It was pointed out to me each week in the weights room or on the training field, peer pressure was enormous. Luckily, and how sad is it that I write that word, I blew my knee out in a tackle and ended up on crutches. I was off the team and never played again. If I hadn’t blown my knee out, would I have eventually caved? I’d like to think that the answer would have been “No” but I was under no illusion that I probably would lose my place in the team as a result. Hand on heart, despite my principles, despite my hard-line attitude that bans for life should be the norm, as an impressionable 20 year old I really don’t know if I would have continued to say no.
Also interestingly when I’ve raced Ironman I’ve popped an ibruprofen to help with the pain during the run. It’s on the IOC banned substance list, if I got tested I could have faced a ban. I wouldn’t have had a clue. It’s easily done. (update: apparently it isn’t currently listed as a banned substance…phew)
I welcome the bans of Armstrong and any others, they were part of a system of endemic cheating. He made his choice, he reaped the rewards, he lived his life as he saw fit, by all accounts he wrecked a few other lives and now it’s time to pay the price.
The sport of cycling will survive, there will be new heroes, and of course new villans. Maybe just maybe I’ll be a little less blinded in future as it will be clean, and the riders will be sportsmen and not superheros.