Most people who follow sports even remotely are aware of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) decision this past October to strip Lance Armstrong of all his cycling victories from 1998 on, which includes all seven of his consecutive Tour de France victories from 1999-2005. This decision was rendered when Armstrong refused an arbitration hearing offer from USADA a few months earlier, in which an overwhelming array of evidence regarding his use of performance enhancing drugs and practices was to be presented. The drugs included erythropoietin (EPO) and steroids such as testosterone, and the practices included self to self blood transfusions. Armstrong apparently realized that it was futile to fight the strong evidence against him, and decided therefore not to go through the arbitration.
There are wide-ranging and very mixed feelings about this whole episode, and there’s been a lot of moralizing and hand wringing over it. I’ve read most of the USADA report, including the affidavits from his former teammates, and watched most of the interviews, and there can be no doubt that he is guilty of blood doping and steroid use, encouraging/coercing his teammates to do the same, trafficking in same, and conspiring to hide all this by an elaborate system of detection avoidance, among other things. Even worse, he appears to have bribed the UCI (cycling’s international, governing body) to hide a positive drug test in 2001, fabricated stories on steroid use in the 1999 Tour, and intimidated and threatened other riders who opposed him or who spoke out about blood doping in the sport, both while racing and very recently. These are very bad things indeed. Nevertheless, I think there’s more to this than much of the sermonizing admits to, or sees.
My views are likely colored by the fact that I’ve always been an athlete, and I’ve been a cyclist for a long time. I never raced (might have, had I gotten into it earlier) but I have ridden many thousands of miles in all kinds of terrain and conditions. Half way through college I decided to take fall quarter off, convinced a high school friend to take me and my $100 used bike with him to Albuquerque, and took off from there on a ~3000 mile ride through the mountains of the western United States. Much later, during graduate school in Davis CA, I went on many group training rides with racers and former racers, including a weekly ride in nearby Sacramento, wherein my tail was utterly kicked by some very fast riders indeed. That ride often included some lesser-known members of the professional 7-11 team.
Seven-Eleven was the first really good American cycling team, later becoming the Motorola team that Armstrong rode for for several years. It included most of the best American cyclists for over a decade, including Olympic speed skating champion Eric Heiden, Alexi Grewal, Davis Phinney, Andy Hampsten and Chris Carmichael (later to become Armstrong’s coach/trainer). It was the first American team to be invited to the Tour de France, in 1986, the year that American cycling finally made a serious statement in a sport owned by Europeans since the dawn of time. It was on those Sacramento rides, against guys maybe a notch or two below their level, that I fully realized just how difficult high level cycling was–these guys were just impossibly fast–I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t hope to keep up with them–and I was in good shape and knew how to ride (although I was not ready for the brutal California heat, was older than most other riders, had breathing problems due to the poor air quality, and was beginning graduate school). There was no chance I could compete with them in races, none.
The 7-11 team at the 1987 Tour, their second.
At that time all attention revolved around Greg Lemond, the first really great American cyclist, an absolute phenom** and three time winner of the Tour, who could very well have won it three more times had he not been nearly killed in a hunting accident, and likely also sacrificed one to help teammate Bernard Hinault win his fifth Tour. Lemond’s victory in the 1990 Tour, his first Tour after the accident, remains the closest ever, and one of the most amazing–he won the 2000+ mile race, over three weeks, by eight seconds. American cycling was completely energized by what Lemond was doing, at least partly because nobody had ever come even close to such success before. It is not unreasonable, especially knowing that Lemond raced clean and Armstrong did not, to argue that Lemond was Armstrong’s equal or superior, and one of the top two to four cyclists ever.
Greg Lemond (left) on teammate Bernard Hinault’s wheel during a climb in the 1986 Tour, the year in which Lemond won his first. Lemond likely sacrificed his own chance to win the previous year for his teammate, and Hinault did not reciprocate the following year as promised, but Lemond won anyway.
I’ve read Lemond’s and Armstrong’s autobiographies, and just re-read the latter. They’re both very good, even though Armstrong clearly lied about his blood doping. The most inspiring parts of both are their near-death experiences, followed by highly successful resumptions of their race careers. You can hardly find more inspiring stories among world class athletes than these.
Lemond describes how, after his first Tour win in 1986, he was sure he was going to die after being shot point blank in the back by his brother-in-law while pheasant hunting. He lost two thirds of his blood volume and was life-flighted to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where doctors did not even have time to administer pain killers before beginning to operate. There were too many lead pellets in too many places to remove them all, some very close to vital organs; he carries many of them still and suffers from lead poisoning because of it. He survived, but missed almost three years of competition at the height of his abilities, and had a long and slow recovery to his previous state.
Armstrong’s battle with cancer is similarly gripping. His cancer was very far advanced when first discovered–it had already moved into his lungs and brain and would almost certainly have killed him in short order. Then came a whirlwind two months of brain surgery and intense chemotherapy. His determination not to give in to despair, his aggressive self-education on all things cancer, the things he learned about life and its meaning, the agony of the chemotherapy, and his decision to start a cancer awareness and support foundation, are moving. He’s very real and very open in his discussion of what he went through, and of the importance of the women in his life (his mother and girlfriend) in getting him through it. And of course, the Livestrong Foundation has funneled millions of dollars into cancer research and patient support services, and Lance has personally inspired many cancer patients both by his story and by personal visits.
It was very interesting to read, how, at the beginning stages of their athletic comebacks, just how incredibly weak both were. During training rides, each had weekend warriors blow past them on hill climbs–including, for Armstrong, a middle aged woman on a mountain bike! He describes how, once, with just a few pedal strokes out of the saddle, to mount a tiny rise in the road, he was almost done in at one point. My jaw dropped when I read these incidents. These are guys who rode at very hide speed for hours straight, day after day, on steep mountain gradients, through blistering heat, sleet, terrible roads, you name it, and had amongst the best cardiovascular endurance of anyone on the planet. Such is the extreme physical effect of coming close to death, even for the world’s best athletes.
Chief rival Jan Ullrich swerves to avoid Armstrong (left) and Iban Mayo, after a spectator collision with Armstrong, in the 2003 Tour, a key moment in the race. Ullrich waited for Armstrong to get back in the race rather than attacking.
Getting back to the issues of doping and getting my tail kicked on training rides in Sacramento, the question is, why did Armstrong do this if he was already one of the best cyclists in the world? The answer, given in one of the riders’ affidavits, is that he felt he simply had no choice if he was going to be competitive. Several testimonies mention how riders came to this same painful realization regarding their chances, and it had to be almost universal experience. It doesn’t take long–cycle racing is brutal–to find out whether you have what it takes to keep up with the field or not. We are talking about athletes who’ve worked for many years to get into the field at these international races, only to find they can only barely manage to hang on to the back of the peloton, with no hope for real success, because they are already at their absolute physical maxima. And the reason they can’t keep up…is that most of the other riders are blood doping and using steroids, creating an unfair advantage. Blood doping, via use of EPO and blood transfusions (withdrawing blood some time ahead of a race and then infusing it back in during the race, to increase the red blood cell count), is all about increasing the ability to transfer oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, which is the limiting factor to performance in intensely aerobic activities like cycling. It changes you, physiologically, just as steroids change you anatomically.
It is well known that professional cycling has been plagued by this problem for quite a while, but it appears to have ratcheted up a couple of notches starting sometime in the early to mid 1990s. [The year before Armstrong’s first Tour win, 1998, there was a major scandal in which the Festina team was caught red handed with doping products in their team cars and expelled from the Tour, along with numerous other individuals on other teams] When the system has become corrupted, such that a large fraction of its participants are breaking the rules, very possibly with authorities looking the other way, what choices does one have except to withdraw from the sport or join the rule-breakers? It’s one thing if only a few riders or teams are violating rules and pressure can be brought to bear on them to clean up their act or suffer the consequences. It’s another thing altogether if the problem has become pervasive and the pressure of the “omerta” (code of silence) has been brought to bear. Which it definitely had by 1998 and all through Armstrong’s tenure, including his comeback in 2009.
I’m not excusing his decision–nobody put a gun to his head. As far as anyone knows, Lemond, an outspoken critic of Armstrong from early on, rode clean his entire career. The mentioned Festina team produced a rider, Christophe Bassons, who refused to participate in blood doping or drug use while everyone else was rampantly doing so. Not only that, Bassons had the guts to speak out during the 1999 Tour about the prevalence of the problem, and how the 1998 fiasco had done almost nothing to change anything. He was severely ostracized and intimidated for this, which led to depression and his eventual retirement from the sport. Armstrong was directly involved in this; it was his phenomenal performance in that first Tour after the cancer fight, and even moreso the following year, that contributed to Bassons’ suspicions, and his ostracism and mockery of Bassons reveal a dark side of his character that’s been revealed by other incidents as well. These include his confrontation of Tyler Hamilton (second photo above), his most important teammate in his first three Tour victories, at a restaurant in Aspen Colorado in 2011, and other incidents described in the report. The man’s no angel, that’s clear, and a big part of that is how he attempted to coerce others into being silent about what was happening.
I’m not condoning Lance Armstrong’s behavior over the past 15 years, and some of it makes me furious. But I do think I understand a little about why he started down the road he did. And there’s a lesson here somewhere about tipping points in group behavior and the refusal to admit wrongdoing.
Lemond and Armstrong at the 1999 Tour, when they were still friends.
** Some of Lemond’s exploits early in his career are legendary. The most incredible of these, to me, was his third performance in the Tour of Nevada City (CA) criterium, 40 laps of a 1+ mile course, fairly steep and pretty tough. [I lived in Nevada City for a couple years and know the course]. Lemond raced the ToNC three times in the early 80s, winning each. The third time, Eric Heiden was in the field, having recently won his record five gold medals in the 1980 winter olympics in Lake Placid, and a few years later would become the first gold medal winner at the National Professional Road Race Championships. He was probably the most well known American athlete at the time. About one-third of the way into the race, Lemond lapped Heiden. When later asked what Lemond said as he passed him, Heiden replied that he didn’t know, Lemond was going too fast to catch it. Lemond lapped the entire field at least twice that day. This is the kind of ability we’re talking about.