Lance Armstrong and the death of a romantic dream

Lance Armstrong speaking at SapphireNow

(Photo by Tom Raftery, used under Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons)

I watched Lance Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory through a blinding haze of alcohol, in the blazing heat of a summer of celebration in France. I was teaching English at Cavilam in Vichy, having just graduated from Manchester University, so it was a final farewell to student life.

The two summers I spent in Vichy were among the most fun of my life – I was there during France’s World Cup win in 1998 and spent a summer with my friends in the town. A young Englishman, nearly fluent after a year living there, in a provincial French town can have a lot of fun. And I did, but that’s another story.

(I may have missed a few classes due to late nights and not been the best behaved, but that was life for me then: keeping it together just enough to get by on my wits and living life to the fullest.)

It was a time of blissful ignorance, both for me and for cycling. The rude awakening of the Festina Affair had apparently just been a bad dream and then along came this implausibly perfect story that no one wanted to disbelieve.

Cycling wasn’t as important to me back then – music and cinema were my main obsessions – but I remember the pure romanticism of Armstrong’s first win. After everything that had threatened the event in 1998, it was the perfect clean start, delivered with a fresh icon that few, if any, wanted to doubt from the outset.

Like the vast majority of casual sporting fans, I didn’t follow the intricacies of cycling which gave reason to the doubt. Neither do I like to think the worst of things which I enjoy outside of work, where doubt is a compulsory skill.

The problem with doubt is that it doesn’t require want or desire to begin or to grow. And the longer a question goes unanswered truthfully, the more irresistible doubt becomes.  The details came later when I rediscovered my love of the bike in 2004.

At that point the appeal of Armstrong had extended well beyond being a simple cycling story. For anyone who entered road cycling as an activity in those years, the master narrative of the miraculous comeback, based simply on hard work and determination, was utterly compelling.

I’m usually wary of mocking people who still want to believe in that narrative. It’s hugely powerful, seductive and – for those with a fresh love of cycling – can form a huge motivation to challenge themselves to achieve.

While the weight of evidence now hangs heavy, until the publication of LA Confidentiel in 2004, the questioning was fairly spread around. It was from very reputable sources and of often of remarkable journalistic quality. But being spread around and largely confined to print rather than digital, not accessible in the way it might be now.

Even after reading and digesting all the main tracts which existed over the course of my rediscovering cycling, part of me still didn’t want to be convinced that such a fraud could be possible. Who would want something so incredible to be so tainted?

Buried deep down in that is a sense that no one wants to be taken for a mug. It’s hard to admit you might have fallen for a charade. I got motivated by a charlatan? Yep, that’s hard to accept, but yes it looks like Armstrong sold me a lemon when I got back into cycling. And if that’s how I feel as a journalist, someone who stands up stories for a living, how is everyone else meant to feel?

For an entire generation of riders, in particular the ones now being asked to comment, Armstrong’s achievements were likely a touchstone of what kept them on an upward trajectory to the professional ranks. So I can see what so many feel uncomfortable putting themselves in judgment, because to do so puts their own position and deep held beliefs about what they can achieve in question.

All that pure belief that you can overcome, gone. Can you really give that up for a soundbite, or is it too complex emotionally to surrender it for the benefit of the press?

But over the years, the more I read and the more evidence that came to light, the more convincing the questions became. The master narrative had become like soot and tallow obscuring a renaissance fresco and the questions a restoration process: Painfully slow, delicate and with immense risk, requiring painstaking attention to detail.

I think by around 2007 I had seen enough questioning evidence for my romantic view to have died.  Why did it take so long? Because the context was difficult and because the quality of debate made it almost impossible to keep moving forward. It’s frequently been noted that Lance Armstrong is one of the most divisive sporting stars in history, and the debate around the evidence on both sides reflects this.

As time has passed, the nature of the answer to the fundamental question “Is it possible Lance Armstrong won all seven Tours clean?” never really changed. Nor did the answers from both sides didn’t, entrenched immovable in their bunkered and blinkered views. Of course he did, of course he didn’t.

At the point of schism there was something strange happening. The longer the questions remained unanswered, the more it seemed that everyone was answering different questions: Morality, sporting law, xenophobia, globalisation all intruded on what should have been straightforward examination of evidence.

The evidence was slow to develop and relied on trust that papers like Le Monde, L’Equipe and The Sunday Times were still standing up stories in the proper way. Take for example Emma O’Reilly’s account of effectively being asked to traffick substances across the Franco-Spanish border. It had to be taken on trust that David Walsh had got a second account corroborating events. It turns out that was Simon Lillistone, O’Reillly’s former husband (link is to £ Sunday Times site).

By the time of Puerto then Landis, I’d resigned myself to the absurd. The question didn’t even seem to be worth asking. I think a lot of people had become resigned to it, perhaps that what he wanted.  Resignation, a sure sign of the demise of romance.

We knew that there were people out there that knew, we knew that the likelihood of someone dominating such a tainted era clean was unlikely. The romance of the sport destroyed by a continued erosion of trust.

So whatever your feelings about guilt or  innocence, unchanged as they will be by this blog post, perhaps what rankles most for me is the cynicism with which the Armstrong era has blighted the sport.

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