This week’s doping verdict against Lance Armstrong, former world champion and seven times winner of the Tour de France, might well turn out to be a death sentence to the bicycling sport as well.
A bit of background: Lance Armstrong became a professional bicycle rider in 1992 and won the world championship in Norway in 1993. In 1996 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer but managed to overcome the disease and return to professional bike racing. He had become slimmer and, if anything, more fit and from 1999 to 2005 he won the Tour de France seven times in a row before announcing his retirement from the sport. He returned briefly to the sport in 2009-11.
Which brings me to my first point: Lance Armstrong’s active career spanned some fifteen years. During those years he must have been tested for doping hundreds, if not thousands, of times. He has never tested positive. If he has used doping – which by now seems almost certain – he must have been very lucky, very clever in disguising his use of prohibited substances, or the doping authorities must have “mislaid” any positive tests Mr. Armstrong has given. Either way, the anti-doping campaign is a complete failure. He has systematically doped himself for almost a decade and gotten away with it, winning the world’s most prestigious race seven times in a row during those years.
Now for something a little different: I remember the Tour de France in 1993 for one particular moment: When Bjarne Riis of Denmark took the fifth place on one of the hardest mountain stages. Riis, who until then had only been known as a solid “water carrier”, also ended fifth in the overall classification, until then the best result any Danish rider had ever achieved. But it was his climb to Isola 2000 along with some of the greatest stars of his time that signaled his breakthrough.
(Ironically, some of the stage winners in 1993 are: Lance Armstrong(!), Armstrong’s later team manager Johan Bruynell, Bjarne Riis, and Danish rider Jesper Skibby – today all known for their doping use.)
Riis would go on to end third in 1995 before winning the Tour in 1996; generally regarded as one of the greatest achievements in Danish sports history, before moving on to found his own team, the Team CSC (now Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank).
But by 2007 the pressure was mounting on Riis. Several of his own teammates had admitted to using doping, also fingering Riis in their accusations. It was generally recognized that doping had been rampant in bicycling in the 1990’s, and nobody really believed that Riis had been the only “clean” rider during the bad old days. Shortly before the start of that year’s Tour de France, Riis went on direct TV and admitted that, “I have used doping. I have used EPO.”
I think nobody was very surprised. Riis sensed that he would be extremely “Persona Non Grata” in that year’s Tour de
Farce France and left to his second-in-command, Kim Andersen, to manage his team in the Tour.
That year’s tour also almost ended up becoming a new Danish success, with Michael Rasmussen leading the race after the first 16 stages. But by then pressure was mounting on Rasmussen as well. Like Riis he had never tested positive but he had also on two occasions not been present where he had told the doping authorities he would be, training for the Tour in his home in Mexico. It turned out that he had been training in Italy, some 6,000 miles from Mexico. 😉
Rasmussen was immediately pulled from the race and suspended by his team Rabobank, and the later winner, Alberto Contador of Spain, lamented the “rotten culture” amongst the old riders from the 1990s, indicating that younger riders were better behaved.
It is understandable that the Tour authorities didn’t want a cheater to win the Tour that year. The year before, in 2006, Floyd Landis had won the Tour, only to test positive for Testosterone and be stripped of his title. And the ASO, the organization that arranges the Tour, certainly didn’t want a cheating Dane to win one month after Bjarne Riis had admitted to using EPO the year he won!
Alberto Contador went on to win the Tour in 2007 and again in 2009 (with his Astana teammate, the returned Lance Armstrong, finishing fourth). In 2009, the Tour arrangers managed to play the Danish instead of the Spanish national anthem at the victory ceremony in Paris, to the great confusion of Contador. 😉
Well, he does look a bit surprised. But on to my second major point: Alberto Contador had complained about the “rotten culture” of the 1990s. But in 2010 he himself gave a positive sample containing the prohibited substance Clenbuterol. He won that year’s Tour but was later stripped of his title and given a two-year suspension. And other riders complained that the older riders were cheating…
Which reminds me of my post on the old Soviet Union and its apologists in the West: Things were always bad some five or ten years ago but NOW the authorities are in control, and just wait and see…
Five or ten years ago, bicycling was a mess and everybody was doped! But NOW we have things under control, young riders know better than to dope themselves, and those few who do are certain to be caught. See, we just caught another one! This proves the system works! Five more years, and doping will be a thing of the past.
Sorry guys, but I think in five or ten years you will be saying the exact same thing. If the sport manages to survive that long. 😦