Some sport news for you.
Rewriting the Cycling Record Books
So, the big news in the World of Cycling at the moment is the downfall of Lance Armstrong. By refusing to mount a defence against charges brought against him by US Anti-doping authorities, he has found himself stripped of his seven Tour de France titles by the US sporting authorities. At the time of writing, the UCI, the international cycling governing body are awaiting a detailed report before they act.
Lance Armstrong was the model of the great American Hero. He arrived on the scene as a talented rider on flat stages. Back in the days before radios robbed much of grand tour racing of excitement that came with brave breakaways on flat roads, he was one of the breed of rider who attacked for stage wins rather than just getting their sponsor on TV for a few hours. One season I can remember him riding in the stars and stripes of the US national champion jersey, and with an evocative name like Lance Armstrong, how could he not be a hero.
Then came the cancer, and the years away. He came back leaner, never a contender for overall glory before, he took the 1999 Tour de France on his way to seven consecutive victories. This was just a few years after Miguel Induráin had achieved five in a row, a feat that few thought was repeatable.
It was a fairytale story, coming ten years after his fellow countryman Greg Lemond has returned from his deathbed (he'd been on the wrong end of a shotgun in a hunting accident) to take his second of three wins.
Armstrong changed cycling. The greatest cyclist ever? No, not by a long way, but the most successful Tour de France winner of all time, yes. Armstrong broke with tradition, he didn't ride a whole season to win every race. He knew that the American media, and therefore his sponsors, were only concerned with the Tour de France. They didn't care about the one-day classics, the other two grand tours or the smaller stage races. Armstrong based his season around the Tour de France, and so was able to arrive in peak form. The Italian and Spanish riders and teams always wanted a strong showing in their home tours so were always had a disadvantaged to the single minded Armstrong.
He retired on top, only to return for two seasons where he failed to reach the heights he had reached before, but it was not the embarrassment that many had assumed it would be.
For me, Eddy Merckx, a rider who dominated all three Grand Tours, who could not only win them, but take the jerseys for best climber and best sprinter as well, is the greatest. He was devastating in stage races and on one days and road every race to win.
Armstrong's rise to glory came at the end of the dark days of professional cycling, where the sport once again didn't miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The Festina scandal, where a whole team were kicked out of the sport for doping happed a few years before. There were scenes when riders, protesting about the crackdown on cheats, actually held protests during the race. Many modern riders look on these scenes with embarrassment.
Armstrong had a force of personality that few could live with. He was a single minded champion, with such self belief that he knew he was always right. When it was decided that radios were banned for two stages of the Tour de France, he was outspoken against the plan on grounds of safety (ignoring that riders had ridden for almost a hundred years reasonably safely without them) and organised the riders to have a go-slow in protest on the first stage, so that the race abandoned plans for the other non-radio stage. Of course, one can argue that once again, the riders had forgotten that this is a spectator sport and ruined the stage for the supporters. One can also point out in the days when riders didn't have a team manager in their ear ordering them about, the racing was more exciting. In the 2012 tour, many riders and experts were pointing out that most of the crashes were actually due to team mangers ordering people about via their radios and that it would be safer without them.
Thanks to his amazing change in ability, there were obviously drugs stories lurking around Armstrong for most of his winning years. He never tested positive for anything, but there were still reasons to be cautious. He was a close friend of the doctor Michele Ferrari, who was long surrounded by allegations. When the Italian Filippo Simeoni testified against the doctor, Armstrong took it personally and did his upmost to ruin Simeoni's 2004 Tour, chasing after him on breaks knowing that Armstrong's presence in a break meant that the whole field had to chase it.
Anyway, the US anti-doping authorities have lined up a lot of witnesses including many former team-mates. Armstrong tried in court to stop proceedings, but when this failed he withdrew from the process, meaning that the ‘evidence' against him will never be heard. The authorities then stripped him of his Tour de France titles. While innocent until proven guilty the foundation of criminal law, this wasn't a criminal case. Also, if by not participating in the process, the accused cannot be found guilty, how can we still abide by the manta.
Anyway. . . so, trying to look over the cycling records, how will things be changed.
Armstrong's greatest competitor was the German Jan Ullrich. He finished second in 2000, 2001 and 2003. Jan Ullrich was banned for doping offences and all his results after 2005 have been annulled. Would the UCI really want to hand him more wins? Joseba Beloki finished third to Ullrich in 2000 and 2001, but in 2003 it was Alexandre Vinkourov, the 2012 Olympic Champion. He has been banned for doping offences as well.
Armstrong's first Tour win was in 1999 over Alex Zulle, the Swiss rider. Zulle was part of the infamous Festina squad and has admitted to taking EPO. The third placed rider that year was Fernando Escartin on the Spanish Kelme Squad. A few years later, one of the Kelme riders came clean about systematic drug taking in the team. In fact, if you look though the top 10 of the 1999 Tour, very few were not members of Festina, customers of Dr Ferrari or implicated in other doping scandals.
Ivan Basso finished second behind Armstrong for his last win in 2005, however Basso has been previously banned after a doping scandal. Third that year was Ullrich, who was disqualified after the fact. Francisco Mancebo was next in the standings, but he has also been implicated in the Operation Puerto doping investigation. Next was Vinkourov. Levi Liepheimer, the American, finished sixth and is currently untainted.
This leaves 2002 and 2004. 2002 Armstrong beat Joseba Beloki. Beloki was cleared of involvement in Operation Puerto, which is lucky since we'd have to go back to ninth to find anybody else who wasn't involved with any scandal.
2004 saw Armstrong beat Andreas Klöden and Ivan Basso. Klöden has been accused of using a clinic for an illegal blood transfusion. At this point I look to fourth place and find that it was Jan Ullrich and get fed up and look elsewhere.
2012 also saw the results of the 2010 Tour de France overturned with Contador replaced by Andy Schleck.
I reported on the 2006 Tour for H2G2, where Floyd Landis, a former teammate of Armstrong was kicked for doping. He protested a lot, threw all sorts of allegations about at various people and then finally admitted he was a cheat. One assumes that the prosecution for the Armstrong case weren't relying on this disgraced liar as their star witness.
1998 saw Marco Pantani, the self styled pirate win the Tour from Ullrich. The following year Pantani was excluded from his home race, the Giro, for having irregular blood levels, possibly from EPO, but he never tested positive for any performance enhancing drugs. The Italian died in 2004 from a cocaine overdose.
1997 was Ullrich's win. He was ahead of Richard Virenque and Pantani. Virenque, the French housewives favourite was a multiple winner of the best climber's jersey. He was another top rider of the era who abused performance enhancing drugs and he split opinions. For some, his defiance was sickening in a sport that fans wanted to see clean, but he still remained a French hero.
1996 saw the Dane Bjarne Riis win from Ullrich. Riis has openly admitted to using drugs and the Tour organisers do not see him as the winner. Virenque was third and Laurent Defaux, another Festina rider was fourth. Again, nobody seems clean in this win.
I don't want to look back any further. I know that the 1988 win of Delgado was ‘suspect' and that in the 1980s and 1990s preparing for a race not only involved the correct diet and training but could involve the correct chemicals. Laurent Fignon, the great French champion retired when he saw that riders who he fought were inferior to him were about to compete again him because they were cheating.
But I still have faith. With the blood passports and the doping tests, I think that the sport of cycling is cleaner than it has ever been. I think that the few doping cases now are just lone cheats rather than tips of the iceberg. The last two tour winners, Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins I think have done it clean. Wiggins along with Cavendish have spearheaded a new movement in cycling, where it is not important to win, it is important to win clean.
One day cyclists will remember that they are not just riding for themselves, but for the fans, and that the riders will abandon radios and think for themselves. But for the moment I accept that it is more important for the fans to be sure that while their efforts may be directed by others their efforts are their own.