Armstrong and our fallen dreams

armstrong-9I wrote this in early 2013, after seeing Lance Armstrong’s revelatory interview admitting he had taken performance enhancing drugs.

Sitting here, looking at Lance Armstrong opening up, or really breaking down in front of Oprah Winfrey, it’s hard for me not to feel sorry for him but also hard not weep for all of us and our fallen dreams.

In 2001 when I had first got interested in the sport of cycling I watched Armstrong, Armstrong the proud, the bold, turn to look into the eyes of his great rival Jan Ullrich and then launch a devastating attack up Alpe D’Huez. Out of the saddle he seemed to glide up the mountain, his face impassive, his legs chopping out his savagely high cadence. Ullrich’s pained face, puffing out of his mouth as he tried to follow, seemed to show the difference between gods and men. Armstrong, spinning into the clouds, rounding the hairpin corners as if they were descents, was ascending to Olympia.

It was not that I particularly liked Armstrong, it was plain even then that the saintly cancer survivor image was only one part of a complex personality. Any teammate who questioned his authority – Jonathan Vaughters, Levi Leiphiemer, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, immediately got the boot. Armstrong, it seemed, did not have friends. His only friend was victory.

Gracelessly he would never acknowledge weakness or favours – when Ullrich waited for him after a crash in 2003, when Marco Pantani narrowly beat him up Mont Ventoux in 2000. Armstrong would simply deny that it happened. That just wasn’t Armstrong’s way. He was the kid who had to always win grown up.

Like most people, by the time of his late Tour de France victories in  2003, 2004 and 2005, I fervently wanted to see him beaten. His performance was too well drilled, too controlled by his team, too risk averse. It was also highly suspicious. Riders who had previously suffered in the mountains such as Floyd Landis and George Hincapie were suddenly climbers, were now leading lithe mountain men like Roberto Heras and Joseba Beloki up the Pyrenees, paring down the field for their boss.

It was obvious, especially in 2004 and 2005 that Armstrong’s US Postal and then Discovery teams were operating on a different plane of human performance to the others. Obvious too from Armstrong’s ugly bullying of Italian rider Filippo Simeoni ,who was outspoken on  the use of drugs in the peloton and who had testified against Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferarri for ‘sporting fraud’, where this advantage was probably coming from.

American journalist Daniel Coyle nailed the attitude of most European cycling fans to Armstrong. We didn’t dislike him because he was taking drugs – we sort of silently accepted that they all did that, it was that he didn’t give us the spectacle we craved, of man struggling against fate. He didn’t do heroic breakaways, he did military precision, attacks only at specified times, calculated down to the last millimetre. Winning was all.

So most of us would have forgiven Armstrong his doping, but even we had limits. I lost all interest in professional cycling the following year when Floyd Landis, an ex-team mate of Armstrong’s went to pieces one day in the mountains while leading the Tour but the following day recovered the 20 minutes that he had lost, fresh as a daisy, as if the previous day had never happened.

My feeling was like the circus customer who finally turns away in disgust from the show – ‘they really want us to believe that?’ Not too surprisingly, Landis failed a drug test shortly afterwards and was stripped of his Tour title. That year also, most of cycling’s major stars, including Armstrong’s great rival Jan Ullrich were caught up in a Spanish police anti-drug operation – Operacion Puerto – and banned from the sport.

That was it for me. It just wasn’t feasible that Armstrong had ridden clean and still beaten a man like Ullrich when he was doped. And yet when Armstrong was finally caught and stripped of his Tour titles in 2012, all I could feel was sorry for him. I didn’t think he was innocent but for some reason I didn’t want him to get caught. It would have tarnished all the memories of his greatness. In the years leading up to that, including his ill-advised comeback of 2009-2010, I just wanted him to keep his mouth shut and not to comment on the allegations, it was just making his inevitable fall all the harder and more gruesome.

Pride truly does come before the fall, and there never was a man prouder than Armstrong and no man whose fall was more humiliating. Armstrong the man who controlled his team as a military commander. had to watch his former team mates, under threat of committing perjury, line up one after the other to incriminate him. Armstrong who had appeared to make conquering the mountain passes easy since 1999 had been doing it all with oxygen-boosting EPO. Armstrong who had called his accusers liars, finally admitting that he was himself a liar.

The point about cycling is that it represents in some way a conquering of nature and our own physical limits. We now know that to do this honestly is not possible. Weep, weep for our pride.

As for the actual confessional interview, I’m afraid I’m not impressed. It started off promisingly, with him admitting doping, (though, ‘not a lot’) during his 7 Tour de France wins. ‘It was like putting air in our tyres and water in our bottles’, he said. That much, at least rings true.

But there was too much evasion and dishonesty. That he never forced team mates to dope. Extensive testimony from former team mates – or should that be subordinates – contradicts him. That he was clean in 2009 and 2010. Why would a rider who admitted doping since the mid 1990s start to ride clean suddenly when in his late 30s? And how could he still finish third against men two thirds his age? That his doctor Michele Ferrari was an honest doctor. The Italian Court that convicted him of sporting fraud would disagree.

But in a way most galling of all was this story that, ‘I’ve changed’ and, mere weeks after denying utterly any wrongdoing, that he’d now seen the error of his ways – proof positive that he has not in fact changed. Armstrong – a knife fighter by instinct – pretends that he’d put away his blade. In fact, winning is the only thing that ever mattered to Armstrong, the truth is not in him.


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