By Nick Friend
Lance Armstrong’s interview with BBC Sport Editor Dan Roan told us nothing new. Yes, he took performance-enhancing drugs in order to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles. Yes, he trampled all over anyone who stood in his way. Yes, his behaviour was deplorable. And yes, he is sorry – not for doping – but for being caught.
I can’t say that I sympathise with Armstrong’s plight. As he openly admits, he “was an a******* for fifteen years.” What he disagrees with, though, is the notion that he is a cheat.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cheat is someone who ‘acts dishonestly or unfairly to gain an advantage.’ In Armstrong’s opinion, although he acted dishonestly, it was not to gain an advantage but, in fact, to match the complicated doping scene that had long existed in European cycling.
The doping ring on the US Postal Service Team – of which he was very much the leader – did not set out to cheat but to compete. Indeed, doping was, to say the least, fashionable prior to the Texan’s arrival in European racing in 1993. Marco Pantani, who died of a cocaine overdose in 2004, remains the official winner of the 1998 Tour de France. Likewise, Jan Ullrich, who in 2013 admitted to doping throughout his career, still holds the 1997 yellow jersey. Bjarne Riis, winner of the 1996 Tour, admitted to doping later in his career. However, UCI still views those three wins as legitimate, citing the amount of time passed since the races. Given that reasoning and bearing in mind that Armstrong’s first triumph came in 1999 – a single year after Pantani’s, it is easy to see why Armstrong believes that he is the victim of a vendetta.
Oscar Pereiro is, officially, the first winner of the Tour after Armstrong’s retirement in 2006. Yet, in reality, he finished as runner-up to Floyd Landis – only for the American to be disqualified and banned for doping. The fact that Pereiro was awarded the yellow jersey following Landis’ positive test highlights Armstrong’s argument. Clearly, so many members of the peloton carried out doping throughout the timescale of his career that the UCI could not safely award Armstrong’s yellow jerseys elsewhere. Yet, these other riders received greater leniency, punishments varying from a slap on the wrist to two-year bans.
The fact that clean riders such as Christophe Bassons were eventually driven out of the sport – by both Armstrong’s brutality and their unnatural disadvantage – shows the sheer extent of the doping culture within cycling at the time.
Bassons’ story is an interesting one and one that emphasises why Armstrong, Christian Vande Velde, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Viatcheslav Ekimov and many more riders felt the need to take drugs. Simply, clean riders could not compete with their drugged up peers. In his 2013 report into Tour de France winners’ power outputs; former Festina coach Antoine Vayer described Miguel Indurain’s performance in the 1995 Tour as ‘mutant,’ and Armstrong’s 2001 triumph as ‘miraculous.’ For Bassons or any other rider to make a living, there was a simple choice. Maintain personal integrity but lose out on pay cheques and riding opportunities in the big European teams, or follow the increasing norm and join the European teams for big contracts and an opportunity at the pinnacle of the sport?
Bassons curtailed his own chances of victory with his choice. He was content with his clear conscience. However, for Lance Armstrong, a tough ultra-competitive Texan, he recognised the necessity to dope in order to even stand a chance of winning.
Both men’s choices have my respect. Cycling is unlike any other sport. Training is not a gentle kickabout in the morning or an afternoon net or even a fierce sparring session in the ring. It is about six hour brutal and tiresome uphill climbs against the clock and the strictest of diets in order to remain as gaunt as humanly possible.
It is a sport for warriors and for winners. That is why even Landis, raised as a devout Mennonite without alcohol, cigarettes or a television, eventually fell into the murky world of doping.
Take Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay’s recent positive drug tests. Can there be a worse feeling in sport than knowing that no matter how hard you work, there is someone out there who will always be superior? For Gay and Powell, that man is Usain Bolt. Always a step ahead – literally.
For Armstrong, his triumph over testicular cancer gave him a sense of invincibility, the sense that he could never be beaten – and then that he could never be caught. This second notion is what created the monster that Armstrong knows he became. Accusing his friend and masseuse Emma O’Reilly of being a “whore” was untrue and sickeningly disrespectful. Abandoning his great mentor J.T. Neal as he lay on his deathbed with cancer went against both human ethics and the very goal of his charity, Livestrong. Suing The Sunday Times’ Chief Sport Writer David Walsh amongst dozens of others for doing their jobs correctly was libellous and perjurious. Yet, his absolute hatred of losing is what separated himself from his fellow riders.
The fact that in his interview, Armstrong didn’t kneel at the feet of Dan Roan and apologise for all of his sins is not at all surprising. Equally, his claim that being caught is his only cause of sorrow should have been entirely anticipated. It fits in with the bullying persona that he admits to having created and maintained throughout his career. Yet, more crucially, for Armstrong, it has never been about the taking part. Why would he regret his seven titles against a field of similarly drug fuelled athletes? To him, doping was merely a part of the training regime of any self-respecting cyclist in the same way that DRS is a crucial part of the armoury of a Formula One driver. The fact that he won so many Tours was not a reflection on the drugs but on how well he trained. To Armstrong, doping was necessary to create a level playing field. His disdain for Christophe Bassons and other riders of similar ilk stemmed from what Armstrong saw as a lack of competitiveness and drive to win – a trait unthinkable in his mind.
While cycling’s doping culture (which no doubt Armstrong ruled with the most iron of rods) was shocking; anyone who knows anything about Lance Armstrong would fail to be surprised. His ‘win at all costs’ mantra eventually bit him back – in the form of all seven maillots jaunes being officially erased from the cycling annals.
His deplorable reign of terror, he believes, is at the root of his lifetime ban handed down by USADA – and if so – can have no complaints. Furthermore, his admission of bullying shows that there is some acceptance from Armstrong that his regime had gone too far.
Yet, his suggestion that he’d “probably cheat again” is not so much a further stain on flawed his moral compass but more an embodiment of the ultra-competitiveness and single-mindedness of Lance Armstrong and the extraordinary rigours and pressures of road cycling.