In 2006 the young English cyclist Bradley Wiggins was celebrating after completing a particularly gruelling Tour de France.
The event was so harrowing it had almost broken him, yet he finished the race and felt proud that, though he was not among the leaders, he had managed to put in a courageous and — above all — clean performance.
Wiggins, then 26, had finished his first Tour in 124th place — three hours and 24 minutes behind the winner, Floyd Landis. He was elated to have survived.
But three days later, any sense of pride he had was snatched from him when it was announced Landis had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. In his autobiography, In Pursuit of Glory, Wiggins lets rip:
“I felt physically sick when I heard the news.... ‘You bastard Landis,’ I thought. You have completely ruined my own small achievement of getting around the Tour de France and being a small part of cycling history. You and guys like you are pissing on my sport and my dreams.
“Why do guys like you keep cheating? How many of you are out there, taking the piss and getting away with it? Sod you all. You are a bunch of cheating bastards and I hope one day they catch the lot of you and ban you all for life. You can keep doing it your way and I will keep doing it mine. You won’t ever change me, you sods. At least I can look myself in the mirror”.’
A year later on his second Tour, he put in a brilliant performance but, again, his achievement was marred when a team-mate tested positive and the decision was made for the team to withdraw. Just before his flight home, he dumped all his cycling gear in a waste bin in the departure lounge. He had had enough.
At a press conference the following day he confronted the governing body of cycling and the organisers of the Tour de France. “I think they have to take a strong look at who they invite to the race in the next few years,” he said.
“If there is one per cent suspicion or doubt that a team is involved in doping, or (are) working with certain doctors who are under suspicion of doping, then they shouldn’t be invited to the Tour de France, it’s as simple as that.”
The pity of it is that nobody — least of all the organisers — were listening. The real tragedy of competitive cycling is not that Lance Armstrong has finally thrown in the towel. The real problem is that there have been opportunities in the past 20 years for the sport to clean up its act but it has never done so.
That is something that engages — and enrages — journalist Paul Kimmage, whose press conference spat with Armstrong three years ago has become the stuff of cycling legend. It was the year Armstrong had returned to cycling and Kimmage had all but described him as a “cancer returning”. It was a crude phrase, as the Tour de France multi-winner had become a hero to many, battling — and beating — testicular cancer. Armstrong’s riposte was even cruder: “you are not worth the chair your are sitting on,” he thundered.
In terms of doping, 1998 was a particularly scandalous year for the Tour de France. On July 8 of that year, French Customs arrested Willy Voet, a trainer with the Festina team, for the possession of illegal drugs, including growth hormones, testosterone and amphetamines. Investigations that followed made it clear that the management and health officials of Festina had organised drug-taking within the team. Voet later described many common doping practices in his book, Massacre à la Chaîne.
The one hope was that the scandal was so gross that it might prove to be a watershed and that the sport would finally be cleansed. “This was supposed to have been the rock bottom of cycling,” Kimmage recalled yesterday.
But the champion of the supposed new era was none other than Lance Armstrong, who tested positive for a glucocorticosteroid hormone after winning the 1999 Tour. Armstrong explained he had used an external cortisone ointment to treat a saddle sore and produced a prescription for it. Although the amount detected was below the threshold, the rules required prescriptions be shown to sports authorities in advance of use. Lance had not done so, but he got away with it.
As Kimmage recalls, Lance was not just another cyclist. “He had this fabulous story and he had a huge audience who wanted to believe in his miracle after cancer,” he said on RTÉ radio. “He got off and the myth was allowed to grow. Armstrong won. Everyone knew he should not have won the race but the governing body facilitated him.”
That meant that other cyclists who might have been inclined to stay clean after the 1998 scandal felt compelled to return to their cheating ways. The shame of it is that if the governing body of the sport, Union Cycliste Internationale, had implemented its own rules, a new generation of cycling cheats might not have emerged.
As rugby star Mike Tindall put it yesterday: “The biggest loser in the Lance Armstrong affair is the sport of cycling.” But the biggest winner could also be cycling. Thursday’s decision to strip Armstrong of his titles will prove a godsend to cyclists who strive to win but who are not prepared to lose their souls as they cross the finishing line.
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