There was a moment on the 2002 Tour de France, some ten years ago, when Armstrong’s game was almost up. A brief moment where two commentators could have done something unprecedented and simply called it all off, much as some others wanted to do during the Sestrières stage in 1999. But they did not and – one might argue – nor should they have, and the bar for proof of Armstrong’s doping was set that much higher. Extraordinary performances result in extraordinary charges, which then require extraordinary standards of proof. Or something like that.
It was not the doping allegations already circulating around Armstrong that nearly brought him down, not the cortisone positive from 1999 or the Actovegin scandal at the 2000 Tour that almost led him to refuse to race in 2001, but his own performances. On a sweltering hot day, on stage 14, 221 kilomtres and finishing at the summit of Mont Ventoux, Armstrong’s ride was almost beyond belief. Almost.
Some 6.5 kilometres from the top, Joseba Beloki attacked out of a group of riders containing Armstrong and others. Beloki was struggling and the attack was far from convincing. But Armstrong answered emphatically, veering across to the right-hand side of the road, standing up in the pedals and immediately opening a gap. He then settled down into his high-cadence tempo, accelerating up towards the last of the breakaway group, including Richard Virenque (see the feature here). In 3 kilometres he opened up a 3-minute gap on his chasers; Virenque managed to hold on for the stage victory but Armstrong pulled back 2 minutes by the summit.
You can choose any of Armstrong’s rides in the mountains of the Tour, but this one stands out. “We’ve been on the moon today,” Beloki said. “And we’ve seen what the astronaut is capable off.” Armstrong recorded a time of 58 minutes for the ascent, nearly a minute faster than Marco Pantani in 2000. Only in time trials would riders go faster. On a bike with un-badged carbon wheels he tapped out his imperious tempo; with his Oakleys for a time perched on his head like the horns of the devil, molten lava in his veins, dead-eyed with inner rage, he breathed fire across the already scorched mountainside, tearing the road asunder. “Le Mont Ventoux ne tolère pas le surrégime,” wrote Marcel Bidot. The Ventoux takes orders from no one. But Armstrong made the Ventoux submit to his will; the mountain that humbled Merckx, put Thévenet on oxygen, and killed Simpson was at his mercy. He destroyed it.
There is a moment, as Armstrong distances his pursuers and chases Virenque, that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen hesitate. Suddenly, doubt starts to tinge their commentary. Two long-time observers of the sport can see that they’re witnessing something unprecedented, something that not even Armstrong was able to achieve from 1999-2001: true transcendence. “Unbelieveable,” is about the most Sherwen can manage. It was a pivotal moment. Subsequently, no longer would an actual performance on the road elicit scrutiny. Other methods would be required to confirm suspicions of Armstrong. On the Ventoux road, something changed. He was untouchable.
It was not up to Liggett and Sherwen to expose Armstrong. Like all other journalists, they called it how they saw it. They set their own standards of proof, perhaps too high, and now are dealing with the consequences. Would we have acted any different? In an environment where the governing body was more interested in simply the health of the riders, not the wider implications of doping for the future of the sport, and keen to push the onus of responsibility onto individual riders themselves while they reveled in the wider glory, Armstrong exploited any loophole he could. Money talked and it was the currency of his discourse.
As John Wilcockson has argued, he might have won anyway, but that is impossible to know without some sort of baseline to make comparisons. “When everyone can dope, it becomes a contest of who has the best information, who has the best access, who has the best doctor, and who has the most money. That’s what this contest is, it’s a chess game of information, connections and money,” Daniel Coyle told VeloNews. The doping of the era, as we understand it, boosted a rider’s total power and made the efforts at this high level repeatable. The Tour route was insignificant – any course could be bested by being at the top of one’s game all the time. This is what is different today: the type of rider matters; Tours become ‘climbers Tours’ or ‘time triallists Tours’; small differences between riders become magnified. Mont Ventoux cannot be made to submit. These factors would have applied back then.
When the Tour visits Mont Ventoux in 2013, it is unlikely that we will hear much about Armstrong and the 2002 Tour. His name is being removed from the record books, the winner’s name to be left blank. But those years still exist, those victories on the road still stand. No one who has watched the coverage, who still covets those interminable DVDs of the Tours in those years, can doubt it. However he did it, however ruthlessly, however much the doping improved his performance, nothing can erase what unfolded on the roads of France during those years.
We look back, now, with different eyes. We don’t feel the same thrill that we did at the time because we know that victories were achieved falsely. But we can still see them. Awesome, other-worldly, mad, mystical, and terrifying. A pinnacle of performance that will never be reached again. Never. This is what remains. It may be a stretch to far, but let your author offer this quote, modified from an entirely unrelated source, as a kind of coda to l’affaire Armstrong before moving on. “Armstrong will retain an audience because he made himself master not of what the Tour once purported to convey – realistic stories leading to moments of individual revelation – but of what he has given us in retrospect: the least deniable and the least escapable characteristics of modern life – uncertainty, dissociation, absurdity, and horror.”