"Digne d'un polar" said yesterday's L'Equipe, the French sports paper: worthy of a thriller. The story of doping in bike racing is certainly that, but there is also an element of Shakespearian tragedy, strong men brought down by an inner weakness. Above all, there is the incomprehensibly mysterious person of Lance Armstrong.
In one sense he is a such tragic hero. And yet what sets Armstrong apart today is less his record of wrongdoing than his character, which is not only immensely strong but awe-inspiring, awesome, or just awful. He dominated the peloton pedalling on his bike, and he dominated the riders by his force of personality. For years he silenced critics in a way that now seems hard to believe – or for a journalist to contemplate without a touch of shame, I may add.
Doping has always been the guilty secret of bike racing; or rather, it was guilty, but almost an open secret. The sport has always been governed by a code of omerta: riders kept their lips sealed. All that was needed to bring about what may be the greatest scandal in modern sport was a conspiracy, enforced by that truly formidable personality.
Even now Armstrong has his defenders. They are a bedraggled and ever-diminishing band, but they can point to his undeniable achievements. He recovered from advanced testicular cancer and not only returned to competitive cycling, which was remarkable enough, but went on the win the Tour de France seven times.
Yes, but how did he do it? When I look back on Armstrong's victories, and the way we watched him bully the field into submission by his stunning strength on the great climbs of Mont Ventoux or Alpe d'Huez, I think now of what we heard whispered then, and how much more we have learnt since, about the other ways he bullied them. Even at the time there were notorious occasions when a rider had spoken out of turn and Armstrong would ride up beside him and tell him to shut up or get out of the race. And silenced they were, until now.
This week's publication of the hair-raisingly detailed, 1,000-page report from the United States Anti-Doping Agency leaves no room for any doubt at all about the systematic use by Armstrong and his team of testosterone, erythropoietin (EPO), and then the macabre practice of blood doping, a transfusion just before racing of blood previously taken from that rider (or occasionally someone else). The report reinforces The Secret Race, the now-it-can-be-told account by Armstrong's erstwhile team-mate Tyler Hamilton, though one might add that "now" is a relative term. Hamilton's true confessions would have been a great deal more valuable 10 years ago when he rode with Armstrong and US Postal, as would those of all the other old "Posties" who kept quiet for years and now, under duress, have sung like canaries.
In his book, Hamilton describes how laughably open and easy-going the doping routine was among the Posties, with one rider borrowing some "Edgar" – for Edgar Allan Poe, the Americans' nickname for EPO – from another as casually as borrowing a carton of milk – and indeed, Armstrong kept his phials of Edgar in the fridge next to the milk. But Hamilton also describes how Armstrong dominated the rest of the team.
No one who ever experienced what Hamilton calls "The Look" lightly forgot it, as Armstrong would frighteningly stare down foe or friend. Not only were other riders silenced by the bullying, the team were bullied into following their leader. "His goal led him to depend on EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions", the report says, "but also, more ruthlessly, to expect and to require that his team-mates would likewise use drugs to support his goals if not their own."
And of course, Armstrong bullied any outside critics, especially in the media. David Walsh of The Sunday Times deserves high praise for his perspicacity in detecting the scourge of doping and for his dogged perseverance. I well remember the Tour press conferences when the temperature seemed to drop below zero as Walsh put his barbed questions to Armstrong, and Armstrong glared back with The Look.
Apart from L'Equipe, which long had its knife into the Texan, with good reason it now seems, Le Monde, the Paris daily, followed up the trail. It has never been known for devoting much space to sport as such, but it ran with the doping story. At one press conference Hamilton recalls, sharp questions were asked, and Armstrong icily glared back with the words: "Mr Le Monde, are you calling me a doper and a liar?" Well, whatever that illustrious journal was calling him, we now know that he was both of those things. But too few said so at the time.
In 2004, Walsh and Pierre Ballester published LA Confidentiel in French, despite Armstrong's threats. When an English edition was proposed, Armstrong's bullying was amplified by our own legal system. He successfully sued Walsh and The Sunday Times, who were forced to offer an apology and a payment. And so the name of Lance Armstrong was added to those other eminences – Jeffrey Archer, the Bank of Commerce and Credit International, and the late Robert Maxwell – who have used the English libel laws to protect their wounded feelings and crush criticism.
What makes the story more compelling is the degree of Armstrong's denial, in the psychiatric as well as the legal sense. He has never admitted anything, he has said 100 or 1,000 times over that he was "the most tested athlete on earth" and that he had never tested positive. He will go on saying it, as far as one can guess, till the very end. It's a dismal story for anyone who loves sport for its own sake, but a riveting one for a psychologist – or perhaps, as L'Equipe suggests, for a novelist?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include 'Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France'