By the time of his third of seven straight wins in the toughest race of all, Lance Armstrong had already become the greatest hero in sport. His defiance of the cancer that came so close to killing him was legend in the making. With ravaged kidneys and one testicle, he dominated cycling and inspired millions to achieve their own feats. But doubts about doping had already begun to circle him to the extent that Greg LeMond, America's first Tour de France winner, said: "If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud."
More than a decade later, after those doubts multiplied along with the yellow jerseys, a legend that became a messy saga appears to have reached some kind of resolution. Armstrong issued a statement yesterday morning announcing he would no longer contest the various drugs charges levelled against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). He continues to deny any wrongdoing, but said he could no longer bear what he calls an "unconstitutional witch-hunt". The USADA responded by banning Armstrong from cycling for life and disqualifying his results since 1998, which may yet result in the formal stripping of the Tour titles he won from 1999 to 2005.
We may never learn the definitive truth about the Armstrong years, but in the absence of a smoking gun (or syringe) the weight of evidence, variety of witnesses, and Armstrong's defiant retreat, present the strongest case yet that LeMond's fears were not unfounded. If the myth were to crumble, what would it mean for his foundation, which has raised more than half a billion dollars for cancer research? What would it mean to the survivors and fans who bought his books, the yellow wristbands, and the legend?
A year ago, after Tyler Hamilton, a former team-mate of Lance's, told the CBS News show 60 Minutes that he and Armstrong had taken the blood-boosting drug EPO together, I asked the same questions. Geoff Thomas is a former England footballer who read Armstrong's first best-selling book, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, three days after being diagnosed with leukaemia in 2003. "It inspired me to look beyond the illness and made me want to pay a little back," he told me.
Thomas, 48, was moved to set up his own foundation, which is now part of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. In 2005, he rode the route of the Tour de France, a feat that earned him the BBC Sports Personality Helen Rollason Award. At the ceremony, Thomas was visibly touched when Armstrong appeared on the studio screens to offer his congratulations. What does he think of that man now?
"His battle against cancer was an inspiration to a lot of sufferers, and that will never change," he says. "But I would have a lot more admiration for him if he came out and said he was guilty. As a sportsman, if I had achieved what he has and done it cleanly, I would want to go into a court and clear my name. If he's not going to do that it's going to raise questions in everybody's mind."
Thomas will not disown Armstrong, who he believes is bigger than the crimes of which he is accused. In 2010, I met Nick Dodds at the Etape du Tour, the amateur stage of the Tour de France, in which riders take on a gruelling mountain stage days before the professionals. Years earlier, Dodds, 41, "devoured" Armstrong's book while he was being treated for testicular cancer, from which he too recovered. "It taught me that I could focus on the negative and not solve the problem or, in the midst of this dark cloud, find something good." A guilty verdict, he added, would be a "slap in the face" but if the millions Armstrong has drawn into cancer research had saved lives, it was "a price worth paying".
Dodds's defence today remains as resolute as Armstrong's contention that he has been victimised. "All the people enjoying this moment should take a long look at themselves and say, well, maybe he doped," he says. "But what about the people who are alive because of what he has done for the cancer community? That legacy is far more important than any sporting legacy."
The Armstrong story has modest origins. He was born to a single mother in Dallas in 1971, later describing his absent father as "a DNA donor". Grit, a body built for cycling, and great natural talent helped him to become a contender and, aged 21, he became the youngest rider to win a stage of the Tour de France.
Three years later, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It spread to his lungs and brain, and in between surgeries and bouts of chemotherapy, doctors gave him a "minority chance" of living until the end of the year. He did, of course, and after his return to cycling, he developed an irresistible will to win, later calling cancer the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Armstrong led a revolution in professional cycling, and, to an extent, fundraising (as well as $500m in fundraising, he is also responsible for the much-copied charity wristbands, of which he has sold more than 80 million). His story and Hollywood life drew unseen riches to the sport. He dated pop star Sheryl Crow and actress Kate Hudson, before settling down to start a family. As the ITV cycling reporter Ned Boulting put it last year: "We all relied on the Armstrong brand… he dragged an enormous economic slipstream that was hard to escape."
Today Boulting believes Armstrong's statement will change little in the minds of people with strong feelings about him. "It only hardens the battle lines," he explains, adding: "I understand the sense of hurt out there, and I get the bitterness his strongest supporters feel about the alleged witch-hunt. Armstrong has manipulated emotions, for better or worse. Half a billion dollars is the "better", but there is a lot of "worse" besides."
Armstrong ended his statement with a vow to continue his work with his Livestrong foundation, which he launched in 1997, before the Tour victories, the millions and the celebrity. For all his defiance even in ending the fight against doping charges, it remains to be seen whether the money will stop rolling in. He says that is one goal he will not abandon. "I have a responsibility to all those who have stepped forward to devote their time and energy to the cancer cause," his statement reads. "I will not stop ﬁghting for that mission."
2004 Armstrong is accused of taking the drug EPO in the book LA Confidential. He denies it.
2005 A French newspaper claims he took EPO in the 1999 Tour. Armstrong denies it.
2009 Rejects claims by French doping officials that he did not co-operate with a tester.
2010 Denies new claims by former teammate Floyd Landis.
2011 Two former teammates claim Armstrong took drugs and encouraged others. He denies it.
2012 Armstrong gives up fight against US doping charges.