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No pedalling away from controversy this time for Lance Armstrong
Has there ever been a more dramatic fall from grace than the toppling of Lance Armstrong?
The dust may slowly be settling but the shock remains after cycling’s biggest superstar since Eddy Merckx was shown up as just another of the depressingly long list of cheats whose success owed as much to the syringe as the pedal.
It’s not about the bike was the title of his first autobiography. You’re not wrong there Lance, you were also peddling a big lie – a whopper that suggested a recovering cancer patient could power his way to the head of the peloton day after day, year after year with adrenaline their only stimulant.
We all swallowed it and the Livestrong message on those yellow bracelets. A bitter taste remains.
Questions remain unanswered, none pricklier than why the International Cycling Union (UCI) sat on their hands for so long – and continue to do so.
The American anti-drug dossier into Armstrong is damning in its suggestions that the authorities must have been aware of what was going on. Even worse was that they accepted $100,000 in donations from him – one of them used to buy a machine to check blood samples ...
The UCI’s ongoing silence on the affair does them no favours at all.
It was the ultimate irony that the avalanche of evidence against Armstrong should have been started by Floyd Landis.
The 2006 Tour de France winner was the most discredited rider in cycling – I think it’s safe to say that title’s gone elsewhere now.
From the moment he got nicked, Landis was firing off accusations against his former US Postal team-mate. Most of it was sneered at as the desperation of a drowning man trying to drag others down with him.
Maybe, now, we should acknowledge that he was telling the truth – at least when it came to Armstrong.
One national newspaper carried a two-page graphic outlining the last 20 years of podium places in cycling’s top three races – the tours of France, Italy and Spain.
Out of the 190 top-three places, 89 have been filled by riders who either tested positive or have been caught up in drug allegations. In 2003, only Yaroslav Popovych, third in that year’s Giro d’Italia, came out clean – the other eight have all been exposed/done time as cheats.
Christian Prudhomme, the Tour de France head honcho, is quite right to call for the Armstrong “victory” years to be declared null and void. How can you pass the yellow jersey down to the second or third best finisher from that race if they’ve been banned as well?
As a cycling fan, I feel cheated. The Armstrong story always seemed too good, too far-fetched to be true – and, of course, it was.
Yet, there’s an equal feeling of hypocrisy. While condemning these riders who took to the needle to gain that winning edge, I can’t deny that watching the Texan in full flow was riveting to watch.
One of my favourite pro cyclists, the Italian “Pirate” Marco Pantani, was the last to do the double in Italy and France. The following year he was kicked out for illegal blood doping – and soon after found dead in a cheap hotel from a heroin overdose.
It is easy to condemn but not so simple to wipe away the memories. Ben Johnson will always be a drug cheat who ruined the Olympic 100 metres but, in my eyes, Pantani was the most graceful mountain climber Le Tour has seen in recent years.
I know it does not add up but that’s the conundrum of watching such a tainted sport.
Bringing down Armstrong should finally slam the door shut on a long-running episode that has brought such shame and scorn. Cycling’s rebirth has started with the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
Team Sky’s obsessive preparations, brilliantly chronicled in a recent documentary series, have hopefully replaced the dependence on chemicals.
We shall see. Unfortunately any triumph now will be eyed with suspicion; great individual rides accompanied by a knowing wink.
That is the price that cycling will continue to pay. It is unfair on the upcoming, clean generation and they will suffer for the huge mistakes of the past.
But at least by destroying the Armstrong myth, the sport has slain the head from the drug cartel that has ruled for so long.