You may be familiar with this situation, chatting on a group ride or at the café stop when the subject of Lance Armstrong came up. Everyone had a view, an opinion, or perhaps even a story of seeing him – briefly – at a Tour de France in the past. And, if pushed, everyone would come down, sometimes vehemently, on the question of did he or didn’t he dope.
Now, with the USADA report and Armstrong’s own admission we now know the truth: he did. Everyone will still have an opinion on the minute details (we’re all experts on doping science now, after all) and on his character. But on the big question, the one we thought might never be answered, we know. And it’s a relief. We might still be talking about Armstrong for months or years to come, but it is hard not to feel that there has been some kind of closure, some kind of ending. If we want to move on we can.
There will now be a process underway to remove Armstrong from the record books, and no doubt official websites will be downplaying Armstrong’s Tour victories. But all those books and magazines and newspapers are all still there, with the glory years emblazoned on their pages in vivid colours. What a wild ride it has been! Looking back at those reports now takes on a different character, almost nostalgia for simpler times – we can read them with a kind of world-weariness. We know how the story ends, so we can go back to the beginning and look at those events with our new knowledge.
Two book are on your author’s desk for writing this post: firstly, ‘Inside the Tour de France’ by David Walsh, published in 1994 but covering the 1993 Tour; secondly, ‘Lance Armstrong’s Comeback from Cancer’ by Samuel Abt, published in 1999 and including Abt’s reporting on Armstrong from 1992 until the end of the 1999 Tour.
By the time of the first book, David Walsh was already an experienced cycling journalist and had also written an excellent and intimate biography of Sean Kelly. He was yet, though, to have hit his stride as a crusader for anti-doping and started his battles with Armstrong. For how could he: Armstrong was in his first Tour de France, his first full professional season, still a neo-pro and the youngest rider in the race.
‘Inside the Tour de France’ is a series of vignettes, a Chaucerian survey of the players and the personalities – The Patron’s Tale, The Sprinter’s Tale, The Champion’s Tale – and so on. Armstrong’s is The Neophyte’s Tale, and Walsh already had him picked for something. “Of all the neophytes, he is the one with a future,” he wrote. Of the Tour, “He… expects to find out things about himself and discover if, one day, he can win this race.”
Walsh finds Armstrong eager to learn and confident to the point of brash. He was determined to make his mark despite his inexperience. He was already showing how driven he would become. “Physically I’m not anymore gifted than anybody else but it’s just this desire, just this rage,” Armstrong tells Walsh. And he indeed makes his mark, winning the stage into Verdun from a six-rider group that got away on the final climb. “I told myself… I didn’t say I’m going to win this sprint. I said there’s no way I’m gonna lose this sprint,” said Armstrong.
Armstrong dropped out of the Tour in 1993 on its 14th day. He was only at the race for a little taste, not trying to do too much too soon in his career. Besides, he was at the time more focused on the one-day classics, the races that suited his powerful build. Indeed, by the end of the season he would win one such race on a tough day in Oslo, Norway and become World Champion, just three weeks before his 22nd birthday.
Before he left the Tour, however, he rode the 59-kilometre time trial at Lake Madine. He finished 27th, six minutes behind the winner, Miguel Indurain, and it weighed heavily on his mind, according to Walsh. “I know I gotta learn how to do it,” said Armstrong of time trialling. “If I can get a minute a year, a minute a year isn’t that much.” With help, he would learn how to do it. But before we get to his time trial dominance at the Tour there is more story to cover.
Samuel Abt followed Armstrong from the start of his career and Armstrong never seemed to be reluctant to talk about his training, results and general philosophy on cycling. Looking back now, it’s hard not to weigh down everything that Armstrong said with the baggage of what would later unfold. “I want to be happy,” Armstrong told Abt in the early part of the 1994 season. “I want it [cycling] to make my family happy and right now it’s doing that. The day it doesn’t is the day I’m going to stop.”
Abt chronicles Armstrong struggling in the 1994 season while wearing the rainbow jersey. There were results, including 2nd in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Armstrong was one of the top-ranked pro riders, but the wins were not coming as he would have liked. “It seems to be much more difficult this year for some reason,” said Armstrong. “There’s a lot of guys that go much faster this year… my strength within the peloton has sort of gone down.”
Even Abt knew the reason for this at the time, noting that EPO use was becoming widespread and that the Italian teams were believed to have started using it wholesale that year. From isolated use among only some of the riders, those with the access to the best doctors and suppliers, it would soon be sweeping the peloton. As teammate George Hincapie said in his affidavit to the USADA, after Milan-San Remo in 1995 he spoke with Armstrong about how they “got crushed” in the race. “He said, in substance, that he did not wish to get crushed any more and something needed to be done. I understood that he meant the team needed to get on EPO.”
Improvements came for Armstrong in 1995: overall winner at the Tour DuPont; a Tour de France stage win in Limoges after the shocking death of teammate Fabio Casartelli on the road; and a win at the Clasica San Sebastian – his first classics win in Europe and victory in a race that in 1992 he had competed in as the first of his pro career in Europe and finished last. Even ahead of the Tour de France he was confident. “I’m definitely fit, much more fit than I’ve ever been in my life, ever,” said Armstrong. He was not looking to contend the overall but to continue to develop as a rider. His goal, though, was clear. “Certainly if my development curve continues to go in the way that it’s been going, there’s no reason that in five years I can’t contend for this race.”
But everything was derailed at the end of 1996 with Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis, a story already well known to all readers. Near the end of the year, surgery completed but treatment still ongoing, he spoke to Abt about his future. “I would love to race but nothing is going to make me happier than to live,” said Armstrong. “Life is the number one priority. Professional cycling is number two. No, to create awareness for testicular cancer is number two. Professional cycling is number three.”
The following year, 1997, was all about recovery, but Armstrong was never far away from cycling, including a visit to the Tour de France as a spectator. According to what he told Abt, Armstrong was never entirely certain that he would return to cycling. “I have a lot of options, though, and that’s a nice position to be in.” Racing again was one option, but so was working elsewhere in the cycling industry or even studying business at the University of Texas. But by September he was planning his comeback, and part of his motivation was to send a signal to the cancer community. “I’m very curious about whether I can compete at the highest level again,” Armstrong told Abt. “That’s part of the reason I want to come back, to see if I can do it. It would also be great for the cancer community. The perception is that once you get cancer, you’re never the same afterward. I’d like to prove that wrong.”
Whatever pharmacological assistance he received, Armstrong’s return to the highest level of professional sports was indeed remarkable. His first race in 1998 was the Ruta del Sol, riding for the U.S. Postal Team. But whether he would carry on with a racing career was apparently never a given and he was reluctant to sign a contract for 1999. He was happy with the results of his ‘first’ career and that he had proved to the cancer community that a full recovery was possible. “I set out to do what I wanted to do, and I was a lot closer to packing it in after Ruta del Sol than many people think,” said Armstrong. “Just because I proved it.”
But after winning the four-day Tour of Luxembourg and a fourth overall at the Vuelta Espana later in 1998, everything changed. The new season, 1999, would see Johan Bruyneel taking over as director at U.S. Postal, bringing with him former ONCE doctor Luis Garcia del Moral. The Tour de France became an explicit objective, a year ahead of Armstrong’s stated goal in 1995, if he was indeed still sticking to that schedule. Nothing was left to chance – stages were reconnoitred, and Armstrong built a strong team around him for the mountains with Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingston dubbed the ‘A’ team. “During the 1999 Tour de France,” Hamilton said in his USADA affidavit, “Lance, Kevin and I used EPO every third or fourth day, until the third week of the Tour” when Armstrong had sufficient time over the rest of the field. “Lance, Kevin and I also used a substance known as Actovegin.”
In his book, Abt recounts the action of the 1999 Tour, covering Armstrong’s win in the prologue, the two time trials, and the infamous mountain stage win on stage 10 to Sestrieres where he crushed the climbers and the rest of the field. He did not know what was apparently going on behind the scenes. The high-cadence, pedal-spinning Armstrong was leaner and meaner and it was a dominating performance. The only other rider to wear the yellow jersey was sprinter Jan Kirsipuu, for just six stages out of the twenty.
Greg LeMond was duly impressed, his own story of a comeback after his hunting accident reminiscent of Armstrong’s own story. But his observations in 1999 are of course prescient, even before his later comments on ‘the greatest comeback’ versus ‘the greatest fraud’. “I figure I had three months that went right for me after the hunting accident,” LeMond tells Abt, the months where he won two Tours and the World Championship. “The rest were just pure suffering, struggling, fatigue, always tired. But Lance, it’s pretty incredible. He’s stronger than he was before his cancer. It’s impressive.”
But there was no shortage of controversy at the Tour in 1999. After the debacle of the Tour in 1998, doping was on the minds of everyone. Extra reporters were covering the race looking for scandal, and they soon found one with Armstrong’s positive test for cortisone. The UCI cleared him, of course, despite the now confirmed backdated prescription. Abt recounts Armstrong’s run-in with a reporter from Le Monde, the French paper that had devoted in-depth coverage to doping at the Tour. Already barred from interviews with the team, Armstrong responded to one question with, “Are you calling me a liar or a doper?”
Armstrong was also defiant about the doping innuendos. “It’s bad for the sport, so I can get worked up,” he said. “It’s disturbing for the sport. I think it’s unfair.” And, “There’s no answer other than hard work. This team [U.S. Postal] has done more work than anybody else.” It is hard to guess, even now, what must have been going through his mind when he made those statements.
And so the stage was set. The beginning of crushing Tour wins, but the lingering questions, rightly so in what was a remarkable return from cancer to Tour winner. In response to the questions, Armstrong was already establishing in 1999 the template for the strident details of doping that would follow. “You have to believe in yourself,” Abt reported him as saying. “You have to fight, you have to hold the line.”
Armstrong held the line until his confession to Oprah Winfrey where he admitted to doping for all of his Tour wins. There are many minor details still to fill in. We have the affidavits from his teammates to the USADA, the inside story from Tyler Hamilton, and the investigative journalism of David Walsh that first revealed Armstrong’s links to Dr Michele Ferrari. Others have filled in the gaps. We may never get all the details from Armstrong himself, but that doesn’t matter. We have the broad outlines of how it went down, a good deal of the specifics, and we know how it began and how it ended.
All of this might not have changed how you feel about Armstrong, or whether you can re-read about his Tour wins or watch those old DVDs or YouTube clips. But it does add a frisson to the experience, even if it is just to make it a touch surreal. As recounted here, every event and quote now seems to foreshadow something else, or prompt many ‘what if’ questions, or even leave the detached fan even more confused about the machinations going on behind the scenes or between the protagonists. In some ways it has been reduced to an intimate human drama, one that we on the outside should not have been privy to. Is what repels us the same thing that draws us in?
Still, some statements become particularly revealing. Talking to Samuel Abt during the 1999 Tour, Armstrong responded to rumours of his own doping: “You… [build] a career and a reputation, and they can tear it down in 15 seconds. It’s scary.” But for Armstrong’s case it ultimately took much longer than 15 seconds. He ducked and dived for nearly 15 more years before the USADA landed the punch that put him on the ropes beyond any reasonable doubt. And it was not his detractors, the UCI or the ASO who did it – but a government legal case built on the testimony of his own former teammates, not something that anyone could have foreseen in 1999.
The magnificent victories and the inspiring cancer charity work, juxtaposed against the fraud, lies, deceit, threats, and bullying. We might see it as overwhelming in its enormity, difficult to describe in a way to capture it all. But David Walsh was certainly right in 1993. Armstrong did indeed have quite the future ahead of him in cycling. It took twenty years to finish the story.
(Originally posted 31 March 2013.)