In the final race of his career [before the comeback in 2009] Lance Armstrong did the same thing he’s done every July since 1999 – dominate the Tour de France. The Texan was always strong enough to respond to his challengers and won an unprecedented seventh title. The 92nd edition of the world’s greatest race marked the end of an era but allegations a month later raised questions about the legitimacy of the champion’s Tour achievements.
Words: Rob Arnold
In Paris on the final day of the 2005 Tour de France Lance Armstrong stood on the podium and declared that his career was over. The seven-time champion was thinking of retirement. A lot has unfolded since… enough even for him to consider a comeback.
Lance Armstrong likes to be in control. This is not surprising for a man who has become such a force in cycling that the world now pays close attention to a sport which in some countries was largely ignored until only recently. The Tour is why he’s a global phenomenon and his name is now firmly entrenched in the 102 year history of the race. No rider had been able to win six titles before. Armstrong has raised the bar again and the tally to beat now is seven!
At the age of 34 he was in command throughout the final race of his career. He was motivated to lead right from the start but missed out because of a compatriot’s effort. But only two riders, both from the CSC team, were able to get in the way of an all-yellow trip around France this July. Of course he won a stage, but he waited until the end to sign off with a fine display of his time trial style.
In the car that followed sat John Kerry, a candidate at the last US presidential elections who made the trip to the Tour to witness history. “I admire the guy for so many reasons,” he said at an informal gathering in the car park of a hotel in St-Etienne on the final Friday of the Tour.
“Of course there’s the cancer story. I’ve read the book but I’d followed his career before that anyway. He rides with panache and although I did appreciate what the Tour was all about before, he has made it even more interesting.”
Senator Kerry sipped champagne from a plastic cup and admitted it was the first time since the election he’d been without bodyguards. He clapped along as Laurent Bezault played on drums from Burkina Faso while other Tour staff sang songs they’d learned in the African nation that also hosts one of ASO’s races. This was no official function. It was a gathering at the end of a long day and an arduous three weeks. But the Tour de France has a way of bringing nationalities together and attracting interest from the millions who gather on the roadside to cheer, or the television audience around the world, or visiting movie stars and politicians.
It’s a good thing to be in control of the Tour de France. It is run by a professional organisation which sets the standard for what a major event should be. Everything is catered for to ensure that people get to see the race that matters most on the cycling calendar. Jean-Marie Leblanc has become a master politician during his tenure as race director. Sometimes mocked in the press for nationalistic wild-card selections in the past as well as other issues, he is a proud man who has taken the Tour to new heights since 1989.
Jean-Marie is due to retire at the end of next year’s race and his successor is former television commentator and media man Christian Prudhomme. These are the men responsible for the event but the person who controls the race is Lance.
Armstrong is the reason a guy like Senator Kerry stands in a car park drinking, singing and talking about cycling. His presence is what brings visitors from far and wide. Lance is what compels people tune in to the coverage on television, the internet and radio in record numbers. He’s become the boss of a very large piece of sporting real estate. And it’s happened because of his achievements since 1999.
The statistics say it all. Lance tasted success early, a stage victory in his debut year. While wearing the stars and stripes of the US national champion, he outsprinted Raul Alcala and Ronan Pensec for the win. It was in Verdun and in sixth place was 1987 Tour winner Stephen Roche. The self-declared fastest man in the world Mario Cipollini was seventh after leading the bunch home 14 seconds slower than Armstrong.
He retired after 11 stages as planned. He was 21, too young to push his body to the level required for the three week race so early in his career. But he was not too young to claim the world championship later that year after breaking away in filthy wet conditions in Oslo, Norway to win by 19 seconds. Lance finished ahead of Miguel Indurain, Olaf Ludwig, Johan Museeuw and Maurizio Fondriest: a five-time Tour winner, the future director of T-Mobile, a Classics legend and future world champion and an Italian former world champion.
Then came 1994. Armstrong – 2nd in the team time trial as captain of Motorola (0:06 behind GB-MG), 13th in the individual time trial (6:23 behind Indurain) and DNS stage 15.
Next, 1995. Armstrong – 6th in the team time trial, again as leader (1:59 behind the Ferrari-fuelled Gewiss-Ballan team), 2nd in a two-up sprint against Sergei Outschakov with the main bunch 19:14 behind and 1st in a beautiful solo effort only two days after the death of a team-mate. 36th overall.
1996. Armstrong 12th in the prologue (0:24 behind Alex Zülle). DNF stage six. Testicular cancer. Surgery. Chemo.
1997-1998. NP – non partant.
Clearly there’s a reason why he is known as The Boss of the bunch. Seven titles demand respect. Or so the theory goes. But since his victory speech on the Champs-Elysées a lot has transpired and all sort of questions have been raised by a number of high-profile sports administrators, the media and even former practitioners. The Armstrong Empire, however, remains healthy. After the celebrations in Paris he returned to the States, got engaged to Sheryl Crow, failed to stay out of the headlines and threatened a comeback.
Something Armstrong couldn’t control happened while he was absent from the Tour. He was not involved in one of the biggest scandals in sport but his return from cancer coincided with the first post-Festina Affair race. EPO had been exposed and the peloton was rife with it. All cyclists were now under suspicion because of the 1998 race which very nearly came to a grinding halt after a team car was found to be carrying a cache of doping products. Subsequent police raids revealed that Festina was not the only team implicated, even if the Andorran-registered squad did earn naming rights for the infamous, problem-plagued Tour.
The last man to win before the Armstrong Era was Marco Pantani. The Italian didn’t cope with the pressure created by his success. He became a recluse and although he returned to the race and even won two more stages, his career was in tatters after having failed a doping control on the eve of what should have been a second Giro d’Italia victory in 1999. He developed an addiction and a little over five years after his Tour triumph, Pantani was found dead in a hotel room.
The Tour lost some of its sparkle at the end of the 1990s. Redemption was required and that’s when Armstrong reappeared on the scene. Since the prologue in 1999, Lance has won seven titles, 22 stages and the hearts of fans everywhere. He set a new standard for racing the Tour with a pragmatic approach, single-minded focus, committed team-mates and guidance from a former rider from Belgium, Johan Bruyneel.
He was the first winner to finish the three-week race with an average speed higher than 40kph. He achieved this in 1999 and again in 2001, 2003 and 2004. His winning time this year lifted the speed to a new record. He rode 3,595.5km in rain and wind, over mountains and onward to Paris at an average of 41.654kph! He was spurred on by some of the best athletes in the world but even his nearest rival was four minutes and forty seconds slower. It was his farewell race and he was still in complete control.
Dominant victories are cause for celebration. It’s why the Champs-Elysées becomes a stadium for a day with thousands of fans chanting Armstrong’s name. But they also arouse suspicion. Triumphs in the modern era of sport are often lauded and analysed at the same time. And while there was a party atmosphere in Paris on 24 July a battle of a different kind had already begun.
A writer for the French sports newspaper L’Equipe had published an article declaring that an athlete’s retirement had never been so welcome. It was this sentiment that inspired Lance to stand on the podium on the last day of his competitive career and explain his views on the event and what it takes to win it. “To the cynics, the sceptics… I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles,” he said from centre stage on the famous Parisian avenue. “But this is a hell of a race… You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people. I’ll be a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live. And there are no secrets; this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it.”
The fact that the American survived cancer was a miracle. For him to come back and ride one hell of a good race helped revive the event. But L’Equipe responded to Lance a month after his victory with dramatic claims relating to tests that apparently revealed traces of EPO in six of the urine samples provided by the rider in the 1999 Tour. It was a retrospective analysis which the drug testing lab in Châtenay-Malabry had performed at the request of the French Ministry for Health and it was for scientific purposes only. No names were meant to have been released as the tests were performed purely in the interests of improving future controls.
After some investigation, journalist Damien Ressiot claimed the positive samples were Armstrong’s. He insisted he would publish the names of the other riders implicated when he could confirm who they were, but it was Lance who Ressiot claimed challenged him to dig up information from the rider’s past. “Do you think I’m doped?” Armstrong asked journalists at a press conference during his reign. “Prove it!”
There has long been conflict between the French media and the rider who is both loved and loathed in the nation where he achieved his most significant victories. Early in his retirement Lance didn’t get much rest. He’s a person in high demand. There were sponsors to visit, charity functions to attend and he even visited George Bush and went for a mountain bike ride with the president on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter what political persuasion they represent, Armstrong has enough charm to be able to associate with both parties. As Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans, the US president was riding with Lance. “That old boy can go,” Armstrong said afterwards. “I didn’t think he’d punish himself that much, but he did.”
The ability to offer compliments is part of the repertoire of most successful politicians and Lance was playing the game as he lobbied Bush for cancer research funding. “I’ve never asked someone for so much money before,” said the ex-rider.
Fundraising is something Armstrong is very good at. The yellow ‘LiveStrong’ wristbands have raised millions of dollars to help the cancer community and although there are rip-offs in a vast range of colours supporting every cause from anti-racism to the quest to “make poverty history”, the yellow ones are the originals and arguably the most popular.
All this is important to Armstrong especially now that he no longer has to spend his days training. But as early as six weeks into his retirement he stated that he was back on the bike and even contemplating a return to the Tour. Ressiot’s article – and the subsequent reactions of everyone from Jean-Marie Leblanc to WADA’s chairman Dick Pound and the IOC’s president Jacques Rogge – infuriated Lance to such an extent that he hinted at a comeback as early as next July.
“I’m thinking about it,” said Armstrong about his threat to try for an eighth title in an Austin Daily Statesman article the same day he announced his engagement. “I’m thinking it’s the best way to piss [the French] off.”
Only days later he dismissed his comments, promising that he was finished with competitive cycling as a participant.
He’s been known to be a little hot-headed at times. Why else would he have reacted to an attack by a lowly-ranked rider only two days before sealing his historic sixth victory at the end of the 2004 Tour? This behaviour was part of a vendetta against Filippo Simeoni because of the Italian’s comments about a doctor both riders had consulted during their careers. Lance didn’t agree with what had been said and intended on making an example of Filippo by publicly chastising him.
On the bike Armstrong had the power to control almost every circumstance. His legs would spin the cranks at a rapid rate and while others would follow they eventually dropped by the wayside because they just weren’t able to continue with the effort. There are many places where Lance has stamped his authority on the peloton with a fine display of climbing or time trialling. The names of these towns and ski stations are now recognised by all of us. Some have become the title of products that are now part of the Armstrong catalogue. Sestrières. Hautacam. Alpe d’Huez. Luz Ardiden…
They are all sites of great conquests. There are French towns which we have heard about but perhaps would not have seen had it not been for cycling. On the last day of his career, Armstrong narrowly escaped crashing into three team-mates who had fallen on slippery roads just after the first intermediate sprint on the way to Paris. It was yet another example of the luck this man has experienced at the Tour over the years. On the tarmac lay the Best Young Rider, Yaroslav Popovych, but Lance missed riding into him more by chance than anything else. The accident was in Châtenay-Malabray…
A non-descript town on the outskirts of the French capital, this place would return to haunt him a month later. Had Armstrong’s good fortune run out at last?
“Truth is on my side,” announced Armstrong in a statement released the day after L’Equipe ran Ressiot’s exposé. “They talk about six samples being positive… there were more samples given than that. Where did they all go? And who are the other athletes? Why is it just me? Doesn’t that sound fishy?”
The Tour had been won but the victor was preparing for another battle, a bureaucratic one which looks likely to drag on for many more months. The UCI has appointed Dutch lawyer Emile Vrijman to investigate the newspaper’s claims. His initial comments about this task related mainly to questions about how retrospective analysis should be handled.
Others think the issues are broader because they infringe on a person’s rights. “According to the world code, that laboratory should have ensured the anonymity of the samples used in their research, or asked the athletes concerned for permission to perform analyses,” said Denis Oswald of the IOC. “It’s not a question of protecting anyone, but of applying the rules.”
Virtually everyone has an opinion on the allegations that put Lance’s name back in the news for all the wrong reasons. They received mainstream coverage. Such headlines attract attention, sell newspapers and deliver ratings. But no one knows all the facts except the man involved.
Former soigneurs and personal assistants have made claims about Armstrong’s association with doping products. It’s as though a micro-industry has developed around speculation about him being a clean rider or a cheat. Books have been written on the topic and court orders have been issued to retract their content in some countries.
One thing is clear about Armstrong and doping, and he brings up this point time and time again: he’s one of the most tested athletes in the history of sport and never has he returned a positive result. This is more than dumb luck. Perhaps Vrijman’s investigation will offer a conclusion to the brouhaha. Until then the speculation and accusations will no doubt continue.
The rider will use media such as the talkback show Larry King Live to convince the public that he’s always been clean and other theories are bound to emerge. The last time a media outlet prompted an investigation, that dragged on for 18 months and ended when a public prosecutor dismissed claims by a French television network that Lance’s team had been dumping ‘suspicious’ packages during the 2000 Tour.
Armstrong has learned a lot over the past seven years, and not all of it relates to how to win the Tour de France. Other riders have been quick to try and imitate his approach but one thing is certain: there will never be another athlete like him. With his victory over cancer he became a role model for millions. Through his conquests at the Tour he has left a lasting legacy in the sport. He believes in miracles and helps others do likewise.
Armstrong has the power to inspire fans, frustrate his rivals and taunt the media. He is usually in control and that’s the way he likes it. When asked of his political aspirations on the eve of the 2005 Tour, he conceded that although he’s considered the notion it’s not the life for him… but then again, it could be worth a small wager.
“A short while ago a bookmaker offered me 100 to one for you to make it to the White House and become president of the United States,” said an English reporter at the pre-race interview. “I stuck 100 pounds on. Have I wasted my money?”
With a broad grin Armstrong offered his response.
“You’re a rich reporter, you can afford that… you never know. Actually I shouldn’t say that. It’s true that things like politics and the good of a country interest me but I don’t know if I’m cut out for politics. I need a few years to just relax and re-evaluate what I want to do with my life. If that’s a life in the public eye or not, I’m not sure. There will be things that keep me busy but I have no dreams of the White House.” Then he reconsidered. “Oh, I’ll split it with you.” The last thing Lance Armstrong would want is to relinquish some control and for a journalist to make money out of him.
– By Rob Arnold