How Lance Armstrong's drug abuse scandal has battered the reputation of international cycling

Our resident bike nut, who followed the multiple Tour de France winner's career with awe, on the conflicting emotions provoked by the sport's latest drug scandal

Share

So do you think I can get my £7.99 back? That’s how much I paid for my copy of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike. A lot of other people did too. It’s not about the bike, Lance? You don’t say!

But as the reputation of the seven-times Tour de France winner lies in tatters, did those of us who bought into the legend ever truly believe in our hearts that Armstrong’s tale of heroism was just that? Pure, unsullied, the product of a physical phenomenon and a strength of character unique in all sport?

Fear

Armstrong always seemed too good to be true. He didn’t help himself by being so chippy. There was something intimidating about him. He looked like he ruled with fear. We partly followed him to see if our suspicions would ever be confirmed, maybe rather hoping that they would be even as we admired his deeds. 

Now – spectacularly – they have been, with the US Anti-Doping Agency producing a 1,000-page document that lays out in jaw-dropping detail the systematic programme of doping that it says Armstrong operated, on behalf of both himself and team-mates. Armstrong and his people continue to deny it all, and the politics of cycling are so murky that even now one doesn’t quite know who to believe.

The form of words that Armstrong always chose when confronted with these allegations – to the effect that he had been tested countless times and had never been caught – was never satisfactory, but if being tipped off about upcoming tests was so key to the success of the programme, then that must lead us to ask who was providing that information.

From cycling’s world governing body – the UCI – to the Tour de France organisers via a whole host of coaches, fellow-riders, doctors, and hangers-on – the average cycling observer could be forgiven for believing that the sport’s entire edifice is rotten to the core, with everybody covering for everybody else in a vast conspiracy that could keep the show on the road so long as everyone stuck to their side of the bargain.

Damning

Now a phalanx of one-time Armstrong team-mates have broken cover, and their testimony forms the backbone of Usada’s findings. It’s utterly damning, and Armstrong’s refusal to engage with it – claiming it’s a witch-hunt and that he’d never get a fair hearing – will be mostly read only one way, as an admission of guilt. And yet and yet, why is there still more than a little residual sympathy for him?

In part it’s because this drugs controversy is just the latest of many. On a vast scale, yes – but far from unique. What did 1950s cycling legend Fausto Coppi say when he was asked if he ever took drugs? “Only when it was necessary”.

Moral elasticity towards drug-taking is a permanent feature of cycling. The 1998 Festina scandal brought the Tour to a standstill and was supposed to mark a line in the sand. It didn’t. Tour cyclists have continued to be caught doping. Tour winners before Armstrong and since have been banned, caught up in drugs inquiries, or confessed to their sins.

My non-cycling friends are contemptuous of the sport. Why should they bother watching it, they ask. Those of us who love cycling and thrill to the deeds of Tour cyclists tend to be more forgiving. I asked one of my regular cycling companions about Armstrong. “People who have never watched cycling seem to think that all the drug-taking was disgraceful and gave riders a massive advantage that otherwise any amateur cyclist could have achieved,” she said. “But what they did, even with drugs, was phenomenal.”

Scandal(s)

So many drugs scandals have hit cycling that the temptation to say that we are on the brink of a new, clean era has to be resisted. The glimmer of hope lies with the Sky team for whom Bradley Wiggins triumphed in this year’s Tour and which under the inspired leadership of Dave Brailsford – the man who has done more than anyone to turn Britain into a cycling powerhouse – rides on an avowedly anti-drugs ticket. Average speeds in this year’s Tour were down on a few years ago, which is another hopeful sign.

Have we seen the last of cycling’s drug scandals? Surely not. The sport’s not getting any smaller. Quite the opposite, in fact. The pressures to succeed – and the rewards of success – are only growing. That’s not conducive to a wholly honourable approach in a sport where acute physical suffering is inevitable and even the tiniest advantage can be crucial.

We await responses from both the UCI and the Tour organisers to Usada’s findings. The sport has a leadership crisis, and how those bodies handle the Armstrong affair will tell us a lot about whether cycling has a bright, clean future or if a drugs culture in cycling is just something we have to try and put to the back of our minds. An uncompromising approach – backed by much harsher penalties for transgressors than we generally see – is the only answer. But is the will really there?

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (HTML5, Ext JS, CSS3, jQuery, AJAX)

£40000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Deputy Editor's Letter:

Independent Voices, Indy Voices Rhodri Jones
A couple stand in front of a beautiful cloudy scene  

In sickness and in health: It’s been stormy but there are blessings in the clouds

Rebecca Armstrong
Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor