They say “never meet your heroes”. In professional road cycling, it might be safer not to have heroes at all. Over the past few weeks, the deconstruction of Lance Armstrong as a cycling ‘legend’ has been absolute, as it emerged that anything we had known or suspected thus far was but the tip of an EPO iceberg. Damned by the USADA report as “a serial cheat who led the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen” leaves very little wriggle-room for Armstrong’s aficionada, but is it as simple as all that?
Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Laurent Fignon, Sean Yates, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Marco Pantani, Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, David Millar, Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov , Alberto Contador, and Fränk Schleck. All high-profile and, to varying extents, iconic cyclists. And Fränk Schleck. All, to varying extents, associated with doping.
So, cycling fans, how do you like your heroes? Untouchable? The excellent “Who really won the Tours de Lance?” article, part of the Blazin’ Saddles blog on the Eurosport website, illustrates the difficulty in holding such a view, and finds the author scrabbling around amongst the also-rans for a potential deserving winner of Armstrong’s lost Tour de France titles. How many people have Daniele Nardello as their idol? Perhaps a few more should, as the article makes a case for Nardello being a clean four-time Tour de France champion. The writer demonstrates the extent to which the use of performance-enhancing substances and techniques was rampant throughout the peloton during the Armstrong dynasty and, amongst the hilarious (though not necessarily untrue) excuses provided by some riders, many admitted they doped because everybody else did.
Of course, the depth and scope of the allegations against Lance Armstrong perhaps set him apart, but then most aspects of Armstrong’s life and career set him apart. Armstrong fought and beat cancer and returned to the top level of professional road cycling. Armstrong founded and worked tirelessly to support his own high-profile charity that has raised incredible amounts of money to support those affected by cancer. Armstrong dated Sheryl Crow and we all liked ‘Every Day Is A Winding Road’ back in the day.
Could it be that, in a peloton that was up to the eyeballs before Armstrong and continues to remind us that it is far from angelic today, Armstrong was simply the best cheat? Was he stronger, more determined, more organised than anybody else? Did he see a peloton that was riddled with cheating, cheating that would probably mean he would not get the titles he believed he deserved, and resolve to take them on at their own game, do it better than them and win? And, in that respect, should Armstrong really be seen any differently than any of the names listed above, many of whom are still celebrated and admired?
The answer is probably yes.
In cultivating his image in the way he has done, becoming more than the cyclist, Lance Armstrong has acquired a legion of fans and followers beyond the cycling fraternity, many inspired by his seemingly superhuman efforts on the bike and his incredible efforts off it. That the achievements were greater inevitably means the let-down that follows when the myth crumbles is so much more severe.
Former footballer Geoff Thomas illustrates the Armstrong conundrum nicely. Inspired by the Texan’s book when he was diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, Thomas set up his own foundation when he went into remission and raised £200,000 cycling the Tour de France route. At the 2005 BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, Armstrong sent a recorded message to Thomas when he received the Helen Rollason Award, telling him "I've been told I'm an inspiration to you, but in truth you are an inspiration to millions.” Dismissing the rumours that emerged over the years that followed as “hearsay or people trying to put him [Armstrong] off his challenge”, Thomas now finds himself burdened by feelings of hurt at the “big lie”. Yet, that he found Armstrong as a source of strength during his battle and then the inspiration for his own remarkable charitable endeavours shows that swingeing judgements are not easy to make.
The era of Armstrong and his contemporaries is now regarded largely as belonging to another sphere, and that the peloton now is largely clean. Certainly, we as fans are desperate to believe that, but hasn’t that always been so? When Armstrong was on top of the sport, we wanted to believe that the epic tussles were genuine, and many did. Some still do, not least Miguel Indurain. “Even now I believe in his innocence. He has always respected all the rules,” Indurain said recently, doggedly turning a blind-eye to all of the evidence in front of him. The ex-professional, much as the fan, still needs to believe in what he saw. And, until Armstrong himself says otherwise, there is still scope to do so.
But what of what we see now? Is there any logic in believing that the systematic doping of the past is behind us? A motley crew of deviants are still snared at every major tour. If the sort of structured doping system employed by Festina and US Postal is in operation, surely the point of such labours is to ensure that we would be oblivious to it. If Lance Armstrong was seemingly content to be an inspiration to millions whilst defrauding his public and his sport, why should I have any faith that my belief in any of today’s cycling heroes will be rewarded?
Because I want to, of course. And I will continue to do so until someone says I can’t. And even then, like Miguel Indurain, I may still, because sometimes it’s much easier than accepting you’ve been hoodwinked.