In Lance We Trust?

 Much of what follows is based on my opinion formed from what I’ve seen directly, what I heard (most of it hearsay, admittedly) and, wherever possible, supported with other sources.  I’ve struggled to write something conclusive but this subject is so challenging precisely because the truth is vague, often unsubstantiated rumor, and those that know the indisputable facts have not come forward to put matters to rest.  I was a contemporary of Lance Armstrong.  I raced alongside him on a number of occassions, though never at his level.  I had a professional relationship with him and his handlers during his comeback from cancer.  For me this is as much personal as it is about Lance Armstrong and whether or not he doped his way to victory.

USADA’s proposed lifetime ban of Lance Armstrong, his steadfast denial, and the arguments over who is responsible for policing the sport is reminscent of the late 90’s and early 00’s.  The use of performance enhancing drugs and its surrounding code of silence among riders, teams, and the majority of the press and fans is the main reason why I lost interest in cycling as a competitive sport.  Cycling became a farce of tainted super-human performances, suspicion around every rider and every effort, and politics that have prevented the truth from being told.  If the USADA’s allegations are true — I’m willing to grant the possibility that Armstrong wasn’t part of a huge doping conspiracy on Postal Service, despite everything I’ve seen and heard on the matter — it’s taken far, far too long to get to this point.  Judgment will rest on the truth — the evidence — coming to public light.  Some will argue it will be too damaging to the sport revisist offenses a dozen years old, or that Armstrong was the most tested athlete and “never” failed a drug test (he did in 1999), or that he is being singled out for some sort of personal or political vendetta.  This isn’t just about Armstrong, it is about all the people around him and the sport in general.  For me, ignoring it means the dopers and their supporters continue to win.

Truth and Contexts

Doping is nothing new to cycling.  Before Armstrong, it already had the reputation as a dirty sport.  The history of cycling is rife with drug use by many of the great champions:  Anquetil, Ocaña, Merckx, Coppi.  Some have suggested that past efforts to control doping have only escalated the lengths to which riders and their teams would go.  Cycling was, above all, a professional sport.  There was big money at stake, bigger and bigger since the late 80’s.  Sponsors demanded results.  Television broadcasters wanted exciting competitions to attract viewers and advertising revenue.

The era in which Armstrong raced, both pre- and post-cancer, doping was perceived to be so widespread that it was presumed to be the only way to stay competitive, to have a “level playing field”.  Drugs had always been around.  In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s it was amphetimines, steroids and corticoids.  The pot belge, a combination of cocaine, heroin, caffeine, amphetamines and pain killers, goes all the way to the beginning of the sport.  But something changed in the 90’s with the widespread usage of EPO and, in particular, the medical expertise that allowed it to be effectively applied.  EPO was something altogether different:  a naturally occurring chemical that couldn’t be directly detected, one that could be administered outside of competition, highly effective in small doses.  It took years for the drug testers to develop an effective test for it, and even then the tests were fussy and error prone.  If you had the means, you could stay a few steps ahead of the drug testers by using experimental field-trial drugs or having doping agents chemically modified to be undetectable.

The Rationale To Dope

Doping won’t make a good cyclist; it will make a good cyclist better.  While there was no substitute for hard work, proper nutrition, good recovery, the best equipment, etc. doping made the difference in an arms race where every rider and team was looking for the extra edge.  Drugs became just one more thing on the checklist.  The application of performance enhancers seems to have been tackled with the same precision and focus as perfecting a time-trial position or optimizing strength-to-weight.  Some have claimed that the improvement provided by drugs was minimal (1-2%, but that’s still the winning versus losing margin).  Others suggest it was much higher.  There was little for dopers to lose.  The penalties were minimal; the risk of getting caught versus the rewards of succeeding made it an obvious decision.   There was a great article on the subject in Scientific American a few years back.  The losers were, literally, the ones who didn’t dope.

I remember racing with guys who would eventually test positive for drugs; they were on a different level.  There was no comparison.  I remember racing with Armstrong in 1996 at Superweek, just after he abandoned the Tour, a few months before he would be diagnosed with cancer.  His body had changed dramatically since the previous year, his neck thick and unrealistically muscular, his jaw enlarged.  The rumor at the time was human growth hormone (HGH).  Armstrong toyed with us in those races, then road easily away.

“Lancestrong”

Is Armstrong-the-brand bigger than all of cycling?  He’s now a well-connected celebrity.  He dates rock singers and movie stars and lives in Aspen.  His sponsors and fans have steadfastly stood by him, with many reports suggesting that his image could withstand a lifetime ban and the loss of 7 Tour titles.  There was a 25-fold increase in donations to Livestrong following Armstong’s announcement that he wouldn’t go to arbitration.

Armstrong appears to be making good use of his connections, too.  You don’t just get a Congressman to intervene on your behalf in the USADA investigation.  It appears that such defferential treatment was applied during his racing career, too, including advanced notice of surprise drug tests.

We love to see the fallen hero, to root for the underdog.  It may secretly make us feel better about ourselves to see a person who had reached such a pinnacle of accomplishment reduced to the same flawed humanity that we all share.  Lance, in the end, is just a normal guy; another victim of big government, invasive press, poor decisions.

What Next?

Is it fair to “single-out” Armstrong when all the other champions (Anquetil, Merckx, Coppi) were doping?  He was the face of cycling, le grand patron, in the years when cycling was attempting to evolve from the Festina affair, to address the doping problem.  His stubborn refusal to admit any wrong doing, to take a disingenuous “higher road” by not contesting the charges, his history of personal and legal attacks on riders and journalists who alleged he doped, demands a response — especially if facts turn out to prove that he did dope.

The problem with doping in cycling is not with the guys who got caught but with those who didn’t, those who can somehow claim innocence while being part of the machine, those who will corrupt the next generation.  Armstrong has the opportunity to set an example for the world.  What will he do next?

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