by KELLY EXETER
As an avid follower of cycling, it’s safe to say this last month has not been the best of times – both for the sport and its fans.
Background in case you’re not across it:
First the US Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) released a damning 1000 page report into the sophisticated doping programs that took Lance Armstrong to his seven Tour de France victories.
This report contained sworn affidavits from no less than 11 of Armstrong’s former team mates. Also in the last month, Tyler Hamilton – one of these team mates and a convicted doper himself – released a tell-all book revealing systemised doping not just in Armstrong’s teams, but in cycling at large.
Finally, just two days ago, cycling’s international body the UCI, officially stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles. Ironically it seems the organisers of the Tour de France do not intend to declare an official winner of the Tour in any of those years as most or all of those who shared a podium with Armstrong have been implicated or convicted as having doped themselves.
Fans the world over are reeling from all the revelations. Most realised that doping was prevalent in the peleton but many clung to the belief that Armstrong was clean and revelled in his achievements.
For a long time, I was one of those people.
When Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999 the cycling world saw it as redemption from the scandal that rocked the 1998 edition of the race. Here was a guy who had not only beaten testicular cancer, he had re-shaped his body and his mind to win the biggest event in cycling – one he’d shown no previous aptitude for. Phenomenal and inspiring stuff!
Like many, I found his story remarkable and eagerly gobbled up everything there was to read about him.
As an athlete I was fascinated by his utter single-mindedness when it came to achieving his goals. It was clear (by his own admission) that he wasn’t there to make friends, he was there to win. He trained harder and with greater intensity than anyone else. He knew what every single competitor of his was doing at any given time. He left exactly zero stones unturned in his quest to be the best.
As a person I was captivated by his amazing comeback from cancer, loved his immense confidence and wildly celebrated his ongoing success. His story was a fairytale of epic proportions and as far as fans go, I was one of millions.
2004 and 2005 were marred for Armstrong by the existence of one particularly tenacious sports reporter from Ireland by the name of David Walsh. Walsh had managed to gather enough testimony from people previously close to Armstrong to co-author the book L.A. Confidentiel – The Secrets of Lance Armstrong and named him as a drug cheat.
Armstrong managed to prevent the book ever being published anywhere but France and went on a shock and awe campaign designed to discredit not just Walsh, but every single person interviewed for the book. This became his favoured modus operandi for many years to come – anyone who spoke out about doping in cycling, whether it was in relation to him or not, was threatened, discredited and crushed.
It was around this time that warning bells started to go off in my head, but ultimately, I was still a fan and more than anything else, I wanted to believe in his story. The alternative was too devastating.
So I witnessed his amazing seventh Tour victory and did a little ‘hells yeah’ when he said to the dissenters at the victory ceremony: “I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles …there are no secrets, this is a hard sporting event, and hard work wins it.”
Although Armstrong retired after the 2005 Tour, that was not the end of that. Over the ensuing years old urine samples from the 1999 tour would be re-tested (as part of research into new detection methods) and they would show evidence of EPO use (EPO was a blood booster that gave an incredible advantage to users over a three week tour). More people would come forward and give testimony about Armstrong admitting to drug use or seeing evidence of his drug use.