Last night, for the first time in his life, Lance Armstrong gave up.
The collective wills of federal investigators, former team-mates and even some of his closest allies saw the world’s greatest sporting fraud finally brought down after the worst kept secret in cycling’s turbulent history finally came out.
But what a shame it has taken this long.
Twelve days into the 1999 Tour de France, Frenchman Christophe Bassons decided he had enough. He was one of the most outspoken riders on doping in the peloton and regularly told anyone who would listen that something was seriously wrong. The speeds had ramped up to unsustainable levels and guys who were usually dropped on mountain passes now breezed up them. Armstrong’s trusted lieutenant, Frankie Andreu, was one of these.
“Frankie is as much a climber as the Pope is an atheist,” barked Bassoons at the stage end.
He himself was physically annihilated and mentally shattered by the finish. Not least because of his exchange with Armstrong midway through the stage.
Armstrong: “You know, what you’re saying to journalists, it’s not good for cycling.”
Bassons: “I am simply saying what I think. I have said there is still doping.”
Armstrong: “If that’s what you’re here for, it would be better if you returned home and found some other kind of work.”
Bassons: “I have things to say and I will say them.”
Armstrong: “Ah, fuck you!”
Bassons was ridiculed, spat at, marooned from his team, disliked by reporters and, that same night, he called it quits. He belched one last tirade to an Irish journalist, packed his bags and never returned. He is now a teacher in Bordeaux.
Armstrong, artificially engineered or not, was perceived as the sport’s saviour after the near fatal Festina doping affair in 1998. He crushed his rivals with frightening ease and requency while building up his Livestrong foundation as a beacon of hope for cancer sufferers. As one commentator put it: “He is Michael Jackson, Michael Johnson and Jesus rolled into one. His life is huge.”
He is, in short, the reason I, and many others, are cycling today.
But has the bottom of this cesspit been reached? Sadly, no. For Bassons is just one who was nailed to the cross and burnt by his passion. That was 13 years ago.
We hear the line from Armstrong so much that he was tested more often than any other athlete, that he has never failed a drugs test. But now we learn he has taken banned substances throughout his career?
Armstrong is the ringleader but his auxiliaries must be sourced, taken out and also punished. Who are the people who have facilitated and harnessed his fake ascension, are they still in cycling? That is now where the energy must be focused.
How will it affect the sport? Personally, I don’t think it will have any negative effect on participation here or around the world. I’m guilty simply because I cycle. Every year without fail during the Tour I’m confronted by the same dialogue: “Are you watching the Tour?”
“Of course I am.”
“I’d say they’re all on drugs.”
Guilty until proven innocent. Cycling has lived with that assumption long
From racing in Ireland, I’m wise to people’s opinions on Armstrong and, generally, it appears faith in him has been non-existent for some time and the end of this chapter cannot come soon enough.
For now, the sport must be all about the good guys for a change. Riders like Tyler Hamilton, Emma O’Reilly, George Hincapie, David Walsh, Bassons, Betsy Andreu, Stephen Swart, Mike Anderson have all been sacrificed in pursuit of the truth and the sooner the sport has more like them, the better...
The Armstrong fallout will not hinder cycling’s popularity at grassroots level. Of that I’m convinced. It's too good a sport for that. So you’ll still see hundreds out on their bikes every week.
Lance did get one thing right, however: “It’s not about the bike.” Nor is it all about one cyclist.
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