Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Thoughts On Lance Armstrong and the Reasoned Decision

I started writing this post back when USADA asked for copies of the FDA’s evidence against Lance Armstrong, but scrapped it when the writing became confused. I started it again when Armstrong announced that he wouldn’t contest the USADA decision and was stripped of his Tour results and, again, I abandoned it when I felt that the logic running through the writing had been tortured into an unrecognisable shape. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that a post about twisted logic and ambivalence is probably going to look a little twisted and ambivalent, so here we go, attempt number three. This time, I’m just going to type, non-stop, until I feel like I’ve ticked all the boxes I want to tick. If it comes out a little rambling and confused then that’s as fair a reflection of my feelings on the subject as anything else.

I’m not particularly interested in discussing what Armstrong did or didn’t do, as that’s been exhaustively covered just about everywhere else. What always interests me is my own reaction to him. I know, I know, that sounds terribly self-obsessed, but this is a blog, it exists to be a bit self-obsessed.  The thing is, I can’t pretend that my feelings about Armstrong and doping are clear-headed and rational, because they so obviously aren’t. There’s plenty of obfuscatory thinking and hypocrisy in my feelings about the case, but I actually think that’s true of most cycling fans. Not to mention cyclists. Not to mention cycling’s governing body, the race organisers, the sports media and even fans of other sports who don’t give a hoot about cycling other than to point and laugh every time the sport stumbles through another scandal.

To start with, I dislike Lance Armstrong. That’s just so you know where I’m coming from. And I don’t have any faith that his Tour victories were achieved cleanly. My distrust of his wins is slightly older than my dislike of him, but not by much. I think the fact that I decided he was a cheat a good year or so before I decided I disliked him says a lot about my attitude towards doping in cycling.

I’ve wanted him to be taken down a peg or seven for years, but why? It can’t just be because he doped, because there are doped riders I’ve liked and supported. Maybe it’s because he doped to such an extent that his performances were laughable, but then, I’ve defended some pretty ridiculous doped performances in the past: I loved Bjarne Riis’ 1996 victory, my previous benchmark for OTT performances. There have been riders who have doped and I’ve defended their victories on the grounds that, at the time, everyone was doing it, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to use the same defence for Armstrong. Perhaps because he doped at a time when at least some riders were trying to clean up their act? Perhaps because his doping seems to have involved private jets, private dope couriers and resources unavailable to other cheats? Oh, the shame: could it be that I dislike the man because he had an unfair advantage in his pursuit of an unfair advantage over other riders who had an unfair advantage?

Perhaps it’s down to his personality? It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that he was a truculent bully. Still, that’s hardly the only side to his personality: the support he gave his rival, Ivan Basso, when Basso’s mother was suffering from cancer was genuinely moving. He clearly wasn’t all bad. Very few people are. So where does the dislike come from?

I didn’t dislike him when he won his first Tour de France in 1999, and at the time I didn’t have that gut certainty that he’d cheated his way to victory either, although I did have plenty of misgivings about the win. For a lot of people, the suspicion stemmed from the fact that he’d been at death’s door a few years before and was now winning the world’s most physically demanding sporting event. For me, that was barely a distraction. What bothered me was that he was a one-day rider winning a three week tour. That has always smelt rotten to me.

The skills and physical gifts needed to be a classics man, a good one-day rider, aren’t the same as those required to win three week Tours. Occasionally the sheer physical gifts of a GT rider allow them to triumph in a one day race, but it’s not common, and it’s vanishingly rare that one-day specialists triumph in Grand Tours. Yet here was Armstrong, a rider who’d never been thought of as anything but a one-day eventer, winning the Tour.  There was the claim that chemotherapy had caused him to drop a shit-ton of weight, but that’s been contested by riders close to Lance who insist that his racing weight was much the same as ever, or had dropped by little more than a kilo or two, not the game-changing seven or eight kilo figure (almost a bike’s worth of weight) that had sometimes been bandied around. It’s not even as if he matured into a GC contender the way some riders do; he was in his late twenties when the transformation occurred.

Watching Armstrong - who’d won stages and classics and a World Championship but had never shown any skill against the clock or gravity - suddenly annihilating his rivals both in the time trials and again on the mountains rang more alarm bells than the positive test for Corticosteroids that was eventually explained away as a saddle-sore treatment. 

I know it’s daft, but in an age of EPO and HGH it was hard to be overly concerned about a drug I’ve been given for a sore knee. But watching Armstrong out-time-trial time-trial specialists was a bother, and then he went on to out-climb climbers, despite the fact that the skills for those two disciplines are usually as distant from each other as the skills of a one-day rider and the skills of a GC man. Armstrong wasn’t even climbing like a time triallist, using the dogged, measured power-plod that often sees time triallists hold their own on the slopes. He was launching explosive attacks like a pure climber, assisted by low-gear, high-cadence style that made you breathless just watching it. In 1999, it seemed that Armstrong had transcended all the boundaries between the sport’s different disciplines in a way that beggared belief. A few years later, he’d win a sprint at the Tour de Georgia as if trying to reinforce the point.

Despite all of that, I was giving him the benefit of the doubt in 1999. Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani weren’t racing that year, and Alex Zulle & Abraham Olano had both suffered massive losses in the crash on the tide-soaked Passage Du Gois. Sure, he was winning, but he’d been gifted a race in which several riders far superior to him were absent, and several other strong rivals had been scuppered by seaweed rather than Texan grit. At the time, I kidded myself that no matter how unusual his win looked, it was a fluke. If you’d asked me at the time, I’d have said he was lucky rather than doped.

Obviously, the next few years would come as quite a shock.

You couldn’t kid yourself in 2000. Ullrich was there, and he wasn’t fat. Well, not by his standards anyway.  Pantani was there and, well, he’d had a bit of a rotten year. Still, he’d been blessed by the Pope, so that must have counted for something, right?

Except it didn’t.  Most people thought Ullrich was the strongest Time Triallist in the sport at the time, and perhaps one of the strongest in history, but it was Armstrong who won the race’s 58Km test. Worse still, he came second on the race’s first mountain stage, more than four minutes ahead of Ullrich. Then there was the Ventoux stage, where he chased Pantani (probably not the cleanest rider himself) all the way up the Giant of Provence, covered every move he made, then gifted the stage win to the greatest climber most of us have ever seen. Gifted it!

At the same time that he began to stretch credibility to breaking point, we also got the first hints that he had a shitty character as well. He’d bullied Christopher Bassons the year before, but that had gone largely unreported and unseen. You couldn’t miss the blow up with Pantani though. It’s been shamefully glossed over, but as I recall it, Armstrong spent the press conference following the Ventoux stage all but screaming “It was a gift, I gave it to him” in the graceless manner of someone who had belatedly realised that he’d given away a stage win on hallowed ground and wished he hadn’t.  When Pantani pointed out that such posturing was undignified, Lance proved just how undignified he could be, calling Pantani  “Elephantino” in reference to his prominent ears, and describing him as a “little shit starter”.

Two days of on-road debate and finger-wagging followed, before Pantani went on a suicidal all-day mountain attack, giving Lance his only scare of the race, and then quitting the Tour. Within a couple of years, he’d have had his ears pinned back. In 2004, he overdosed in a hotel room. Neither of those things had anything to do with Lance, but even now I have a hard time not choking up when I think about how much joy I got from watching Pantani, and how sad his life became.

There was precious little joy in watching Armstrong. With the exception of the tremendously exciting 2003 Tour, Lance’s victories were dull. His 2001 victory was man against boy, as he beat Ullrich by nearly seven minutes, gave him ‘the look’, and won two individual time trials and two mountain stages. In 2002 he barely bothered to race - he sat there until the first mountain stage, then allowed his superior teammate Roberto Heras to tow him into an unassailable lead on the very first mountain stage. Oh for a bit of internecine treachery! 2004 was so dull even L’Equipe was speculating about the 2005 event before the first week was over, and as for 2005 … well, catching and passing Jan Ullrich within 14Km of the first stage of the 3,592Km race made for a pretty tedious three weeks.

Armstrong continued to throw his weight around in those years as well. There was the “No French” furore, the chase, catch and saliva shower suffered by Fillipo Simeoni for having had the temerity to testify against Michele Ferrari (Armstrong called it protecting the sport; I think the rest of us would describe it as bullying at best, witness tampering at worst). There were the “It’s Lance, you won’t need your notepad” Sunday afternoon phonecalls to the homes of journalists who’d criticised him, and in later years, the snide tweets about Alberto Contador.

So, he was a shitty personality whose performances defied credibility, but he isn’t the first shitty sportsman, and he won’t be the last cheat, so why do I dislike him more than any of the others? Why do Ullrich, Zulle, Pantani et al get my forgiveness for their cheating, while I’m happy to see Armstrong nailed to the wall?

Perhaps it’s because his cheating seemed so egregious. Plenty of riders have cheated their way to a Tour win, but to seven? In a row? With a career total of 25 Tour De France stage victories in all, including six in a single Tour? There’s cheating and then there’s cheating. It prompts the American quip - don’t piss in my face and tell me it’s raining. It was insulting. But then … Bjarne Riis. His 1996 victory was pretty shameless as well, yet I rhapsodised about it here.

A bit of disturbing food for thought as well … why am I bothered by the appearance of cheating more than I am by proof of it? Why will I forgive confessed dopers like David Millar while continuing to rail against riders who haven’t technically been caught doing anything but just look too good to be true? Is it that a rider who has been busted can be treated as proof that we’re cleaning up cycling, while riders who consistently put in ridiculous performances without getting caught make it clear that we’re not? Am I guilty, in essence, of wanting the sport to look clean whilst not really caring if it actually is? Or worse, am I quietly doing what I loathe in everyone else, and assuming that any winning performance is also a shady one?

Maybe it’s an anti-American thing. Sorry, I know how iffy that sounds, but I’m trying to be honest here. As a left-leaning, Chomsky-reading, pro-Palestinian liberal who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s barely been a moment in the last ten years when I’ve been able to watch the international news without a grouchy, perpetually-teenaged part of me feeling like the Yanks are the bad guys. Maybe that has poisoned my view of international sports as well? Greg LeMond’s victories in ‘89 and ‘90 were brilliant (I didn’t see his ‘86 win) but for me, cycling is a quintessentially European sport. Its headquarters are in Switzerland, its official language is French, and it’s littered with terms like “tete de la course” and “lanterne rouge”.  Maybe I’m bitter because cycling lost a little of its je ne sais quoi  when its races adopted English as their second language, American voices filled the roadside crowds and a bloke with a comicbook name became the sport’s biggest star.

If that’s the case, I really am a huge hypocrite. I remember when Lennox Lewis was Heavyweight Champion and numerous Americans, including no less a figure than the late Bert Sugar, would exhort each successive American challenger to bring the belts “back where they belong”.  It used to drive me up the wall. If you want to have a global sport, you can’t treat the victories of other nations as if they're some sort of aberration to be rectified. It’s offensive, it demeans other people’s efforts and it cheapens your own victories. If I’m guilty of treating cycling the way that the Americans used to treat boxing, I’d be particularly ashamed of myself. But … but I loved LeMond’s victories. To this day I cheer for George Hincapie. I was in awe of Tyler Hamilton’s broken collarbone rides in the Giro and the Tour, and rooted for Bobby Julich in 1998. I just don’t think my dislike of Lance can be blamed on anti-Americanism.

Maybe it’s because Lance has behaved like a nasty piece of work so often and so publicly? Certainly, I loathe Floyd Landis for the way his defence team treated Greg Lemond. I tend to think that if you surround yourself with people who would stoop that low, you’re probably pretty vile yourself. If you don’t know what I mean, Google “Will Geoghegan” because I’m not going to repeat the story here. I can think of footballers, boxers and athletes I’ve disliked because of their behaviour, without any hint of shady tactics. Taking against Armstrong’s personality is as good an explanation as any I can come up with for why I dislike him so much more than other dope cheats.

The funny thing is, after all these years of wanting him to get his comeuppance, now that it has finally happened, I almost wish it hadn’t. Not for Armstrong’s sake, but because the last of his Tour wins was nearly a decade ago. In the intervening years, the sport really does seem to have taken great strides in cleaning up its act. I’ve followed cycling for too long to ever feel comfortable making a definitive statement about a rider’s cleanliness, but I’d give Carlos Sastre the benefit of the doubt, and I’m as close to certain as I can be that Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins are clean. Ryder Hesjedal’s Giro? Clean. Vincenzo Nibali’s Vuelta win? Clean. David Moncoutie’s four Vuelta mountains jerseys? Clean.

You can see the change in riding as well. Multi-mountain breakaways have become a suicidal dice roll rather than a normal tactic, one that riders will pay for whether they seize the race lead or not. Late Km attacks, defensive riding and bonus chasing (the purest form of marginal gain there is) are the new race-winning tactics, rather than the Hautacams and Luz Ardidens of the bad old days.

The fact that the Armstrong decision has taken over the headlines means that doping stories from the dark days of the ‘90s and early ‘00s are more prominent in people’s minds than the steps the sport has taken to clean itself up. Once again, cycling is the whipping boy of sports.

This always gets my goat. FIFA carry out roughly one-sixth as many dope tests in a year as the UCI. When Spanish Police busted Eufemiano Fuentes as part of Operacion Puerto, he made it clear that he’d worked with tennis players, athletes and footballers, yet Puerto was treated as cycling’s scandal. In football, we’ve got  a selection of racists, thugs and airgun wielding idiots shooting the work-experience kids. In boxing we’ve got steroids, the man in the hat nobbling judges, and blocks of plaster of Paris in the handwraps. Formula 1 teams sell trade secrets while taking races to repressive regimes. Yet it's always cycling that's seen as the sewer of sports. Cycling is the joke. Cycling is the whipping boy. 

I wish Armstrong had never cheated to win his races. I wish he hadn’t treated those who tried to tell the truth with such cruelty, and I wish he hadn’t shown such contempt for his rivals. But I don’t think his crimes somehow make cycling worse than any other sport. I don’t think cycling is dirty and other sports are clean, but thanks to Armstrong’s prominence, it’s cycling that has the grubby reputation.

Maybe that’s why I dislike him so much.

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