Photo: Getty Images/Jamie Squire
Speaking as an ex-bike racer and a cycling fan, I never really liked Lance Armstrong. I was always an Eddy Merckx man.I admired how he would begin his season in the mud and rain of the early Spring classics, win them, and still go on to win the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and even—in 1974—the World Championship.
To me, that’s how you race a bike. You get out in the rain and you suffer and you go the whole way. I always found something kind of prima donna-ish about the way Lance would concentrate on only the most celebrated races, leaving gritty unpleasantries like Paris-Roubaix to cycling’s working class. That said, however, Lance was good. In the years of his activity, in fact, he was the best. And he won the Tour de France seven times.
The above statement, as of yesterday, is no longer technically true. On Monday, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI)—professional cycling’s governing body—declared that Lance Armstrong has never won the Tour. In accordance with the findings of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which has ruled that Armstrong took performance-enhancing drugs throughout his professional career, the UCI has banned Lance Armstrong from cycling for life, and stripped him of his professional titles.
According to all official histories—including Lance Armstrong’s personal Twitter account —the Texan cyclist has never won the Tour de France.
But he has.
I am not a defender of doping. I’m not one of these gladiatorially-inclined sportswriters who believe that the desire of fans to watch “the best of the best” should result in the chemical cyborg-ification of professional athletes. I’ve been too close to it all for that. I have known the 17-year-old guys who were hustled into vans and injected by shady “team doctors”; who stayed up all night shivering and pissing the bed with God-knows-what in their veins.
I know that it is not hugely uncommon for low-level pros to collapse in amphetamine-induced cardiac arrest after competing for 100 euro sprints in fairground races outside places like Delft. This type of thing is grotesque, is pernicious and is hugely more toxic on its crude, outer fringes than it was for pampered pros like Lance Armstrong, and I hope it will one day disappear. But Lance still won the Tour seven times.
European cycling is not the gentrified, North Face-clad sport that it is over here. It’s big money, and it’s a way off of the farm or the construction site for strong young guys named Oskar and Philippe and Ernst. At its highest levels, travelling from these muddy cobblestones to those icy mountain passes, six hours on the bike every day, it’s no fun at all. It’s a hyper-competitive world of wiry, improbable, strung-out greyhounds, and it’s druggy as hell.
Five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil (whose records still stand) once debated a government minister on the subject of doping. On live television, he told his stunned opponent that “only a fool would believe that one could do Paris-Roubaix on just water.” This is how cycling has mostly been, and there was a tacit acceptance of it. When French President Charles de Gaulle was asked about Anquetil’s unrepentant drug-taking, he responded “Doping? What doping? Did he or did he not make them play La Marseillaise abroad?”
This is why I think it’s still acceptable, and it’s more accurate, to say that Lance Armstrong won the Tour seven times. In my opinion, you would have to be a fool to believe that Lance Armstrong—teammate of Floyd Landis, patient of convicted drug-trafficker Michele Ferrari—did his Tours “on just water.”
He doped. So did the guys he beat. Sure, the higher-up guys got EPO and blood doping, and the working-class, the domestiques, probably got cheap crank and testosterone—but there were drugs everywhere. The Tour is big business, and if you want to ride in it, you do what your team says.
I’ve been following this story. I have heard the arguments of the purists, you know, “the winner is the one who placed first in accordance with the rules.” I understand that. I think that all bicycle races should be constantly monitored, and should be immediately followed by thorough testing of every rider. I don’t think, however, that you can go in years after the fact, and change an entire history due to a court ruling.
If Lance Armstrong didn’t win his seven Tours, then Jacques Anquetil didn’t win his five. Perhaps fellow Michele Ferrari patient Miguel Indurain didn’t win his five. Perhaps Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault didn’t win their five, and the Tours of the past half-century mostly didn’t happen. Maybe nothing happened. Do you see how ridiculous this gets?
Unfortunately for cycling and for the world, there is such a thing as an ill-gotten gain. Was J.P. Morgan, whose steel concerns violated all manner of labour laws, not a rich man? Did Idi Amin not retire in luxury? Are the villagers of Halabja, gassed by Saddam Hussein in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention in 1988, still alive? You might find it distasteful to compare the erasure of a cycling record to a humanitarian catastrophe, but it’s the same dangerous process. This is history. This affects our ability to talk about what took place. If we try and correct for crime and deceit, we’re left with very little.
There comes a point at which the past can no longer be edited. Where even sporting officials, whose job is to preserve one little part of human activity where fairness matters, should sit back and say “this happened.” Anything else gets very tangled and political, becomes a subject for experts and not for regular people. As I write this, the Wikipedia graphic for “Tour de France winners” displays three broad blanknesses: One for World War One, one for World War Two, and one for Lance Armstrong.
This is weird and jarring and trivial. It’s not a realistic approach. When we give up our actual history in favour of a better, fairer one that has the one disadvantage of not having occurred, we depart into fantasy. In the end, my solution for this isn’t medical or philosophical, or even cycling-specific. It’s typographical. In my view, as a writer and an editor, all of this would be better solved by the addition of one little symbol—the asterisk. Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France*. (* while on drugs, in a culture that is riddled with drugs, and against competitors who were likely on drugs.)
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