Stripping of Lance Armstrong’s titles leaves cycling at a crossroads

Lance Armstrong has been outed, but the sport of cycling has other demons that need to be confronted, writes Matt Cansick

By Matt Cansick
lance armstrong
Lance Armstrong has been banned from cycling for life Photo: US Air Force/Wikimedia

lance armstrong

“Well, let me see – being called potentially the biggest fraud in the history of sport? That was a little bit upsetting.” – Lance Armstrong, 2005

Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour De France titles on Monday leaving a gaping hole in cycling’s history.

The records now show that between 1999 and 2005, the greatest stage race in the world, the Tour de France, had no winner. It is a suitable epitaph to one of the darkest periods in sporting history.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) has officially stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour titles, and banned him from the sport for life. UCI President Pat McQuaid said that the Texan “deserves to be forgotten”, but that is one thing we can be sure won’t happen – indeed, it is important he is not.

In the past few months, rumours have turned to testimony, doubt to conviction and admiration to disappointment and anger in equal measure. This presents an opportunity for something to be done, for change to be enacted.

He may have been the ringleader, the instigator, the chief puppeteer, but Armstrong was not the sole participant in this elaborate con. Many others have doped, many have aided and abetted, but even worse, many have turned a blind eye.

In response to a question relating to the UCI’s position in the scandal, McQuaid reiterated that the scandal exposed in the last few weeks “took place between 1998-99 and 2005”, at a time when testing was far less comprehensive.

Perhaps he did not manage to read Usada’s report in its entirety; the document cites thirty-eight blood samples collected between February 2009 and April 2012, covering Armstrong’s comeback. Among these were samples from the 2009 Tour de France.

The plasma volume of a cyclist’s blood would be expected to increase steadily throughout a three-week race as the number of red blood cells diminishes, however the 2009 Tour samples showed that Armstrong’s volume “decreased to pre-race levels” during the second week. A transfusion of blood, highly concentrated in red blood cells, is the only logical explanation for this.

It appears to be yet another example of McQuaid burying his head in the sand, refusing to acknowledge that the UCI was undoubtedly part of the problem.

Perhaps this is what Rabobank meant when announcing they were “no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport”.

One person who was outspoken about the withdrawal of Rabobank’s sponsorship was British rider David Millar. Now a member of Wada’s Athlete’s Committee, he is crucial to the successful navigation of what is surely the most challenging period in the history of professional cycling.

His autobiography paints a very different picture to the institutionalised system of doping that took place at the US Postal Service team, and it is important to remember that not all doping was cold and calculated. Many riders turned to performance-enhancing drugs out of desperation, falling into the clutches of the culture that was rife within the peloton.

Eloquent, reflective and confident, Millar is the perfect ambassador for his tainted generation. A scorched earth policy of kicking out everyone linked with doping is absolutely the wrong way to move forward – those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but those who have experienced it and come through the other side are in many ways the best placed to enforce change.

The key here is coming through the other side, and there are still question marks that linger over certain figures in the sport.

For example, Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour de France winner, confessed to doping as a rider, but in his autobiography ‘Stages of Light and Dark’ he appears ignorant to any doping taking place on the team he still runs, Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank.

He mentions Tyler Hamilton, saying he was “apparently” doping when part of Team CSC (as it was then known). Hamilton, however, paints a very different picture. While the name has been redacted, he testified that in 2001, it was the CSC Team Director – Riis at the time – who “referred [him] to the Spanish doping doctor Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, for blood transfusions.”

If we take Hamilton at his word, selective confessions such as this are only detrimental to the sport, as they cast further doubt on whether the doping culture has truly been eradicated.

Clearly, the culture itself is what needs to be changed, working alongside the constant battle to make sure testing keeps up with those trying to remain ahead of the curve. The likes of Bradley Wiggins, Taylor Phinney and Mark Cavendish are already inspiring a new generation, a generation that will help to determine how doping is viewed within the sport in the future.

If young riders arrive in the sport with the same anti-doping stance that the likes of Wiggins and Phinney have, and see that clean riders can win and dopers will be always caught sooner or later, then their voices will speak louder than those of temptation.

That temptation to cheat will always be an unfortunate by-product of competition, whether in sport or everyday life. It cannot be completely eradicated, but if a good enough example is set by those with influence, and suitable deterrents are in place, the allure can be minimised. This is the challenge now facing those within the sport, and arguably sport in general.

In a 2005 deposition, Armstrong was asked when he became aware that the bonus he felt he was owed by SCA Promotions would not be forthcoming:

“30 days after the end of the performance.”

It was a convincing one, too. Now, the lights have been turned on, and the truth has been exposed.

How this truth is handled may well define the future of cycling.

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