By: Tom Woodhall
Lance, Lance, Lance. Whatever should we think of you?
As has been well covered by every major news outlet during the past week, Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner, and one of the greatest cyclists of all time, has given up his fight against the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). In the USADA’s eyes, this surrender is effectively admitting guilt to past doping infractions.
Despite having a great amount of respect for Lance as a cyclist, I’ve never been a big fan of his. He was cocky, obnoxious, and American; I was respectful, polite, and Canadian. He was a time-trialist and climber; I was a lowly sprinter. I do owe him a great debt however. As a young teenager, lanky and awkward, I struggled to excel in sports, despite my love of them. I have loved, and continue to love, every sport (except water polo, because it’s silly). It was at the age of 15 that I learned that riding a bike really fast was something I was good at. It didn’t require much in the way of hand-eye coordination, mostly relying on endurance and technique. However, the problem with this was, no one I was friends with, no one I went to school with, no one I interacted without (outside my family) really understood that bicycles could be used for something other than transportation or weekend recreation. Cue Lance.
Lance single-handedly reintroduced cycling to North America. Not since Greg Lemond’s Tour victories in the late-80’s had news of competitive cycling entered into common sports discussions. Before Lance I was limited to watching Giro d’Italia coverage, with Italian commentators, on TLN. I was stuck getting my Tour news out of a small box-score sized summary after each stage on the back page of the sports section. Lance changed all that. Now cycling got time on Sportscentre. Now I could read front page articles and full race analysis. He made it cool to wear spandex again (well, cool is maybe not the right word. Maybe he made it “not super-weird”).
That’s the effect that Lance had on me. And he impacted many, many more people through his efforts to find a cure for cancer. He used his fame to bring a combination of awareness and fundraising to contribute millions to a deadly condition. But now, Lance is done fighting. He’s accepted defeat because he feels his treatment has been unjust. There exist two important questions in regards to this; did Lance dope? And if so, does this change his legacy?
His legacy has always been dogged with accusations of cheating. His constant dominance in a time of consistent cheating by most of the sport’s heroes means there was always controversy swirling. So to me this most recent accusation doesn’t change much. He was still dominant and still a great philanthropist.
I don’t believe Lance doped for a great number of reasons, some of which he has used as his defence for years.
The USADA has, in Lance’s words, engaged in a “witch-hunt” against him. He’s right. Despite a criminal investigation, no charges of doping had ever been brought against him in a federal court. This is because there was not compelling evidence that he had engaged in the activity. The USADA was able to bring charges against him because they have a lower burden of proof then the criminal investigation did. I may be naive, but I have a tendency to believe that a quasi-judicial body, whose evidence is mostly testimonials and not physical artifacts, might be less truthful than a properly conducted federal investigation.
To taint their evidence further, most of the testimonial evidence brought against Lance is by other convicted dopers, who are having penalties against them reduced in light of their willingness to turn on a teammate. While I normally have no issue with this sort of plea-bargaining for testimony tete-a-tete, it begins to turn sour when one understands the need of the USADA to catch a ‘big fish’. They were a little late to the anti-doping game, compared to cycling’s main body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI. The UCI long ago recognized that doping was an issue, and has worked hard to push it out of the sport, even if it meant running the name of the sport into the mud (unlike some people, ahem, Major League Baseball). They wanted to quash the reputation that cycling had as the leader in the doping game. The USADA wants now to justify its own existence, and to do that they need to catch someone of importance. The fact that doping has become much less prevalent in the sport due to the actions of the UCI and others is making that much more difficult. The best way for them to make a case for continued relevance and funding was to go after the biggest name in the sport in America. Even if he was long since retired. And to do that, they contracted Floyd Landis and other admitted frauds to make their point.
The USADA’s vindictiveness can be detected by reading into some subtle wording from the organization’s head. Travis Tygart, upon declaring victory against Lance a win for pure sport, noted to the press that his seven Tour titles (in fact all wins dating back to 1998) would be stripped from him immediately. This isn’t the USADA’s purview at all. Only the UCI can remove titles. Whether or not they follow the USADA’s recommendations to do this remains to be seen, but given that the UCI had dropped its own dogged pursuit of Lance’s winning years ago, it is not clear cut. Why would Tygart make such a strenuous case for his ability to strip titles? The USADA is not in the business of administering winners or losers. Their job is to find and stop doping. Once they expose this activity, their job is done, leaving it up to the sports federation to dole out punishment. Only a personal or professional vendetta would justify his overreaching public comments.
There are two strong defences to any accusations of alleged doping having led to Lance’s Tour victories, both of which have merit with the lack of compelling physical evidence. First, he has been one of the most heavily tested athlete of all time. The man has given his blood, urine, and anything else that was asked of him, despite the time or place, hundreds and hundreds of times. And he passed every, single, one of them. If he was a doper, then by golly he was the greatest doper of all time. Different labs in different countries looking for everything from steroids to abnormally high red blood cell counts never turned up anything. That sounds like a pretty resounding ‘innocent’ when placed against the testimony of jilted teammates who didn’t like the guy.
The second defence requires a strong understanding of how cycling and its races work, with the conclusion being, maybe he won seven Tours because he was really, really good.
1. Lance was a natural cyclist. He was one of the youngest riders ever to win a UCI world championship before he was sidelined with testicular cancer. He had the natural ability and an established history of success.
2. He came back from cancer with a style of cycling that lent itself very well to the Tour de France. He used high-cadence techniques (“spinning” as its known, keeps the lactic acid build up in the legs low, while utilizing cardiovascular strength over brute force) to do well at climbing and time-trialing. He couldn’t sprint and he couldn’t do long breakaways, but he was really, really good at the two disciplines that are best suited to winning the Tour de France.
3. He only raced the Tour, because to him, that’s all that mattered. While most North Americans only follow cycling during the Tour, it is a year round activity, with the race season starting in January in Australia, and stretching through till mid-October. Every week and every weekend, the riders are racing somewhere throughout the world, primarily in western and northern Europe. Not Lance however. Lance would race the Tour de France, skipping the other two Grand Tours (Vuelta a Espana & Giro d’Italia). He would join some small tune-up races like the Tour of Swiss prior to the Tour, to remind himself of how riding in a pack behaved, but he spent most of the year just training for the Tour. No other team captain would do this. Some might take a race or two off, but generally, they weren’t riding from their base in the south of France on the actual course, over and over again, learning every turn and rise. Lance did well because he knew the course better than anyone, and didn’t waste any excess energy on things that didn’t matter outside of America.
4. Cycling is a team sport. And oh boy did he have a team. Team Postal Service, Lance’s original ‘big’ team (later Team Discovery Channel amongst other sponsors) was designed around him winning the Tour.
A typical cycling team is composed of 9 riders with a cadre of call-ups on development squads should they be needed. Those 9 riders each have a job to do, starting with a Captain and one or two Lieutenants. Their job is to win races, and the Lieutenants are supposed to be there to make sure the Captain is safe and in a position to win should the opportunity arise. The team will have a Sprint specialist and a Climb specialist, to win certain types of stages and races. The other four riders, referred to as domestiques (as they are typically average riders from the sponsor’s home country, as compared to the high end free agents with the specific jobs) are there to lead out sprints, help on climbs, chase down breakaways, and support the rest of the team.
Lance did away with this model. His team consisted of some of the best all-around cyclists that money could buy. Naturally, as he kept winning, his team had more and more money to spend. George Hincapie, a key teammate of Lance’s who just retired from racing in the Tour after 17 trips, has been on 9-tour winning teams. His team had no featured sprinter, with everyone being positioned in the role of ‘support’. His team was entirely set up to win the Tour, with Lance stepping away from the other races during the season, letting his teammates pick up victories at the lesser known one-day classics and smaller stage races when they could. Not trying actively to win anything but the Tour allowed this model to work.
I strongly believe that Lance’s combination of skill, talent, team management, and race schedule allowed him to win, when all of his competitors had to dope to even stay close to him. He positioned himself to win, and he did it. And I don’t think the words of former teammates will convince me otherwise. Thanks for all you’ve done Lance. You’ll still be the greatest Tour rider of all time.
I’ll still take Eddy Merckx over you in the Paris-Roubaix though.