Southern France, Thursday 23 July, 2009. Stu spreads a local map on the dinner table and invites us to share in his revelation: that we could actually fit in an extra stage of the Tour de France, in addition to the penultimate stage on top of Mount Ventoux. That’s two stages of Le Tour in our first ever year as a team. Phenomenal! Quickly we mobilise on an early, yet already hot Friday morning. We drive the van somewhere near Aubenas and make the pilgrims walk to the ‘circus’.
I watch as Lance motions to the top and I cheer him on.
I don’t know which town we’re in, but it seems much civilised and highly organised. An elderly lady directs us to the town centre where the show is about to begin. By our cotton caps, I think it’s obvious what we’ve come for. The crowds pack the high street as far as the eye can see, when, beep-beep! The first bunch of the circus drives by. Cheers reverberate and everyone seems to be smiling from ear to ear.
We make tracks to our left leaving the crowds behind; passing a cinema adorned with cartoon faces. Beyond the cafes until we discover the neighbourhoods and things are a lot more relaxed. Outside a home window sits a modest note that says: ‘Go Lance’. Unusual. Lance has never been popular here in the land of the velo.
The road is wide, long and gradually steep. Ideal for viewing a professional bicycle race. Both sides are populated with locals sitting on their chairs or sofas normally found in their living rooms. Their radios and TV’s are all tuned into the same channel with only one programme desired – Le Tour. A local spots us and invites us to view the ride as it approaches. The picture is grainy, but we see the antagonists battle it out. All the top names of the time are there: Pelizzoti; the Schleck brothers; Bertie Contador; Sylvain Chavanel; Thomas Voeckler; George Hincapie; Cadel Evans; Stuart O’Grady; Ryder Hesjedal; Jurgen Van Den Broeck; Luis-Leon Sanchez; Tony Martin; Nicky Roache; David Millar; Mark Cavendish; Bradley Wiggins, and Lance Armstrong (LA).
We leap to our feet as the peloton approaches. Franco Pelizzoti draws near and we spur the KOM on. He pauses; looks directly at us; smiles and kicks into gear, as if saluting his audience. I watch as Lance motions to the top and I cheer him on. I feel like I’m the only one.
…once cited as being cycling’s most influential man
Early on in the doping investigations it all seemed very much like a witch hunt. After all, being a racing champ from the age of 13; with two decades of elite cycling; a ‘clean’ record of 500 plus doping tests; accusing the Tour de France winner of cheating would be nothing short of foolish.
Why all the fuss? Let me try and put this into context: it’s akin to a sport’s captain; let’s say football, winning the world cup. Imagine the reputation? The national pride, even. Particularly when the captain puts his success down to hard work, void of any performance enhancing drugs. Just a dream? Well, what about this: this same captain comes back from advanced testicular cancer that has spread to both his lungs and brain and goes on to win the cup seven times in succession. And fifteen years on, continues to give hope to millions of people worldwide through his charity work at the LiveStrong Foundation. Lance Armstrong is this man.
Oh how swiftly our perception of LA has changed. These past two weeks have seen him lose the confidence of former friends, family, sponsors and fans. With some of the aforementioned contributing to the evidence built up by the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA). It has been a trying time for the man who was once acclaimed as being cycling’s most influential man, to what Tom Fordyce, Chief Sports writer of the BBC describes as the ‘Fall of a Sporting Hero’.
Who is telling the truth? With up to 50% of Tour contenders doping, or sanctioned for doping in the last 15 years, and for now 2012 being the only clean year so far, the clear-out won’t end just with Lance.
Local pundits aren’t shy to voice their support for an all out purge: “I’m surprised to see so many people worried about “decimation” of the current peleton. I don’t care if 90% of the top teams are proven to be involved and are subsequently removed from competition. There are plenty of teams with smaller budgets, younger riders, or just less public image, that regularly get denied entry to all the major races because all the slots are taken up by the usual suspects. Let’s clean house. There’s an endless supply of great talent out there just waiting for a chance to race clean on the big stage.”
“Isn’t it nice to be a fan of the only sport which seems determined to sort its act out?” – Andy P. on Road.cc
Unlike certain Spanish prosecutors, Italian investigators are going after their ‘men’, wherever they may be. Twenty teams are implicated and the connections with vanquished former medical doctor, Michele Ferrari, the former MD to LA’s US Postal Service team will continue to fuel investigations.
Closer to home, Alex Dowsett of Team Sky describes LA as “…still a legend.” Yet, like many, he is clear to point out there is no place for doping in the sport. Long time pro favourite, Jens Voigt tweeted: “When i said crap than i meant all the lying and all the bad things some people did in the past and its payback time for them now.” Earlier, he writes: “Apparently raised 1.5 millions for the fight against cancer and thats all what matters to me.”
It’s a view I’m hearing a lot of: “He (Lance) should disappear for 6 months. Away from the limelight and write a book of ‘what I did’ and ‘why I did it.’ Give all of the proceeds to charity, and we’ll forgive him. Just stop lying to us.” – O.C.
It is as if the emperor’s fleet has rallied to his coronation, or to a mobster’s funeral.
I return to France in hope to witness Lance make a success of his second attempt at a come-back. It is not to be so. Standing amongst half-a- million spectators watching LA’s last stand of 2010, I am astonished at the number of LiveStrong vehicles lining the streets. All dressed in black and gold. It is as if the emperor’s fleet has rallied to his coronation, or to a mobster’s funeral. It is a far cry from the splendour of 2005, when Lance made his speech on his seventh successful tour: “And finally the last thing I’ll say for the people that don’t believe in cycling. The cynics, and the sceptics; I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles, but this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe. You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people. I’m 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. Vive Le Tour – Forever. Thank you.”
An Unprecedented Leader
It would be a very dull sport without colourful leaders. From Coppi, to Merckx to Indurain, each has dominated an era. And each has been marred with accusaions. Yet no one has influenced the sport as much as Lance has. Which is all the more reason to question him. D.Kantor, a Minneapolitan cyclist writes: “I have remained a big fan of Lance Armstrong. However I am a bigger fan of the sport of cycling. If telling the fullest truth of this story can make cycling a healthier sport, so be it. There’s a reason they don’t leave Lance alone, and we’re about to learn what that reason is. No one, including Lance, should be above the sport, or above the truth. No one. I can hold this view and still have respect for Lance and what he did for the sport of cycling.”
Lance is asking us to believe him again. Can we?