Twilight of the Idols: The Coming Fall of Lance Armstrong

by Julian Sayarer   May 23, 2011  

Lance Armstrong after crashing on Stage 8 of the 2010 Tour de France © PhotoSport International.jpg

Guest blogger Julian Sayarer of reflects on what it will mean to him if the rider who inspired him and his teenage friends falls from grace

“He can’t have been doping, that would mean we were living a lie.” That was the message my friend and old cycling partner sent me amid increasingly firm allegations that seven-time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong, was likely to have all along been using performance-enhancing drugs.

As teenagers we had watched, transfixed, as Armstrong tackled the mountains of Europe, leaving us to emulate his feats on the rather more modest roads of Leicestershire. In 2001, on the famous slopes of Alpe d’Huez, we watched Armstrong feign weakness at the back of a lead group containing his long-standing rival, Jan Ullrich. All day he pretended to suffer, let the German’s Telekom team set the pace, and then, approaching the base of that final climb, Armstrong dropped the act and pulled to the front. He looked round at a struggling Ullrich, fixed a stare upon him, a hard stare that came to be known as only ‘the look’, and a moment that has since entered into cycling folklore. Armstrong opened-up, began to spin his famous cadence against the 7.9% average gradient of the mountain, and a little under forty minutes later he had destroyed the threat of Ullrich and set the fourth-fastest recorded ascent of Alpe d’Huez, thirty-eight minutes and one second.

In 2003, descending from the Alps to a stage finish in the town of Gap, Armstrong raced downwards, neck-and-neck with the main contender for his yellow jersey, the Spaniard, Joseba Beloki. With the summer heat melting the bitumen in an old road surface, and the two diving for a hairpin bend, Beloki’s front tyre snatched from under his wheel, leaving Beloki in tears upon the tarmac with a broken pelvis, and Armstrong taking the only available option other than a crash. At breakneck speed he rode through a field, dismounted, jumped over a ditch, and regained the road to finish in a competitive time. There are countless instances of the natural ability and stunning determination that has seen Armstrong spend a decade giving goosebumps to cycling fans and neutrals around the world. He has achieved so much since recovering from cancer in his twenties, when doctors felt that his career, if not his life, was over, that the recovery is now a footnote rather than the main reason for the respect he commands as an athlete. When you know how it feels to train hard for an average speed of 20mph, it becomes incomprehensible to think that professional riders average 25mph through three weeks, two mountain ranges, and 2,500 miles. When we saw what Armstrong was capable of inflicting on his rivals, when we saw the force with which it was done, it was impossible not to be mesmerised.

In a television interview due to air in the US on Sunday night, Armstrong’s former lieutenant, Tyler Hamilton, has confirmed his own history of doping, also saying he saw Armstrong injecting erythropoietin, the hormone known infamously in cycling as EPO. Used to boost the production of red blood cells, the drug improves recovery after major exertion, and has never been far from the doping scandals of cycling’s recent history. Hamilton himself forms part of my complicated relationship with cycling, his own fall from grace beginning with a two-year doping suspension in 2005, after he was found with someone else’s blood in his body. Hamilton spent years pleading innocence, and I was not alone in wanting to believe the claims he made. Three years earlier, at the 2002 Giro d’Italia, Hamilton crashed in the early stages, breaking his shoulder but riding on to finish second overall. Come the end of the race, after three weeks clenching his jaw in pain, Hamilton underwent dental work on the surfaces of eleven teeth that he had ground away. Life can be tough as a fan of professional cycling, where revelations periodically oblige you to accept that moments you believed testament to the human spirit were in fact made possible in a laboratory, and facilitated by the rider’s emotional weakness rather than his human strength.

Accusations against Armstrong are nothing new, and though the Texan commonly points to a record of 500 drug tests all returned negative, his former teammate, Floyd Landis, has dismissed this defence, stating that “500 tests that come back negative are meaningless because the tests don’t work.” Landis himself, disgraced after his 2006 Tour de France victory was annulled for unnaturally high testosterone levels, alleged in 2010 that doping had been rife at Armstrong’s US Postal Service cycling team. In response to Hamilton’s confession, Landis has said, “we just doubled the number of people telling the truth.” With Hamilton having suffered from depression since his downfall, there appears to be a sense of relief on the part of two riders who have over the years been painted as villains rather than sadly typical.

It is the Postal Service connection that has transformed long-standing accusations into a formal case against Armstrong. What was a cycling issue has grown into the prospect that a US public body was sponsoring an outfit involved with illegal drugs, trafficking those drugs, and obscuring the payments through which they were purchased. The federal Foods and Drugs Agency has become involved, and the timing of Hamilton’s confession is the result of his being called before a grand jury to give evidence. His emotions are evident in a letter to family and friends, in which he says of the experience, “I told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I felt a sense of relief I'd never felt before.” A big-money legal and PR campaign, trademarks in Armstrong’s often venomous defence of his name, has already accused Hamilton of courting publicity for a forthcoming book release. Whatever the accuracy of such a charge, it must be said that self-promotion and the truth are not necessarily incompatible, and having long-ago tarnished his reputation, it is hard to imagine Hamilton risking criminal proceedings by lying in a federal investigation.

How all this fits into the history of cycling is a difficult issue, in some ways cheating is a chapter in the legend of the sport. The 1904 Tour winner, Maurice Garin, was disqualified amid accusations that he caught a train through one of the stages. The early history of grand tours is littered with anecdotes of poison slipped into drinks by rival riders, felled trees and tacks being laid across roads by rival supporters. In 1967, English rider Tom Simpson died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux with a performance-enhancing cocktail of amphetamine and alcohol inside him. The spectre of this early-day doping has not stopped Simpson’s dying words of “put me back on the bike” taking their own special place in cycling mythology.

And yet, however intriguing we might find moral collapse in the face of human ambition, systematic doping can never be permitted to become institutionalised in a sport that desires to be taken seriously. I do not fear for the sport of road cycling, sponsors and stars will come and go, but I have faith that pure-spirited people will always be compelled to ride and race bikes together. Our sport has earned a bad reputation that brings with it great shame, but has also generated a determination to be rid of drugs, and a self-reflection, of which to be proud.

What happens next is key to the short-term future of professional cycling. Sadistic though it might be, if Armstrong is finally found guilty, the completeness with which his image, myth and brand is destroyed will be directly proportionate to the good of cycling. The whole affair teaches us the perils associated with the taking of heroes. We must experience greatness ourselves, the highest beauty of the bicycle is that it allows us to do so, with our own legs, and in our own lives.

16 user comments

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I've been reading Herbie Syke's book on the Giro over the last couple of weeks, and reading your post made me thing of Giovanni Gerbi and the story of how he first bribed - and then later had his associates tie up - a signalman, to prevent the riders behind him from catching him in the 1906 Giro Di Lombardia. He eventually won by 40 minutes, but was banned for two years after his actions came to light. At the time there were big protests as the fans saw Gerbi as simply being more clever than his opponents - to them cycling was about "stealth" as much as stamina.

I think your point that cheating has been a part of the sport since the get go is an important one, but I do kind of wonder whether that's because the world of cycling, and the extreme demands the race calendar places on the riders is so conducive to doping that it basically becomes inevitable. Isn't it institutionalised already? Doping was rife in the peloton in Tom Simpson's day, and it seems like little has changed in nearly 50 years. While the global shock that would accompany any fall from grace that might befall Armstrong could be enough to bring real change to the sport, I can't help but think that until the cycling world sits down and actually recognises the link between the doping of the past half century, and that of today - and sees how the institution itself is as much of a cause as a trigger - the UCI will always be chasing after the next target.

posted by jijiandnoah [53 posts]
23rd May 2011 - 20:46


Cheating has certainly been a part of cycling since the start, but then so has it been for every professional sport - but in each the cheating takes place in a form best suited to the sport. Pretty early on with the likes of Choppy Warburton et al it became apparent that doping was the form of cheating that works best for cycling… so much easier to get away with than tying up signalmen or having your fans take potshots at rivals or knock them off their bikes. Well, it was until Choppy's charges started dying all over the place.

Doping would seem to be the best method of cheating for most endurance sports, while industrial espionage works best in F1, and diving and conning the ref, and kicking your opponent off the ball works best in football, although you certainly wouldn't bet against doping going on there too.

I do find it interesting the way in which the way one sport cheats is held to be so much less acceptable than another it must be something to do with our abhorence of drugs, blood and needles, but you could argue that the only physical harm doping cyclists do is to themselves whereas in sports such as rugby and football cheats often prosper by hurting their opponents.

The other thing that I wonder about is what happens in cycling if doping is eliminated? Cheating/seeking to gain unfair advantage is a part of all professional sports so what new form of cheating would pro cyclists turn to?

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4192 posts]
23rd May 2011 - 23:18


I think part of the answer to your question Tony is that they are DRUGS.

Let's face it drugs have a bad rep. To the average punter and official with a clipboard it's on a par with shooting up smack in a Brixton alleyway.

So before we get all righteous on Lance's ass let's ask why performance-enhancing drugs are illegal anyway ?

Cheating is not an answer - it's only cheating when someone does something against the rules so that begs the question (which may also be one of the few times you ever see that phrase used correctly - put up a blue plaque).

Medical reasons ? Solution - better medical supervision and responsiblity. That's simpler, faster and more effective than prohibition if the aim is to protect health.

Gaining an unfair advantage ? Circularity again - make it legal and supervised then anyone can do it so it isn't unfair. Not everyone will, or will have the capability, but do we also ban training at altitude, or using a wind tunnel and technology that not all teams/riders/countries have access to ?

Anything else ?

Going back to the parallel with the Brixton smackheads, the war on drugs in sport has as much chance of succeeding as the war on drugs in society.

Banning things doesn't work - how many times do we need to see that ? Alcohol, divorce, abortion, free speech... Unless there is an overwhelming agreed social imperative, such as the protection of other members of society (which is why we ban murder and rape) then it's doomed.

The sooner the authorities start to realise that and realistically look at ways to deal with drugs instead of defeat drugs the sooner we will stop this farce.

abudhabiChris's picture

posted by abudhabiChris [635 posts]
24th May 2011 - 7:16


That's a really interesting point from abudhabiChris. Tackling the issue of drugs really should achieve more than simply trying ban them. If drugs - or shall we call it 'medication' - were allowed within proscribed limits, then anyone could take anything that was 'legal' and competition would stand a chance of being equal amongst all competitors.
What's bad about the current situation is that those who can afford to pay for the 'best' drugs and the 'best' ways of hiding them, and disguising their presence in their blood stream, will always have an advantage over those who can only afford 'poor' drugs and 'poor' deception processes.
It's a bit like taxation. You'll never stop people trying to avoid it, but it would be daft to ban it. So you simply have to limit your losses by making avoidance as difficult as possible.
Don't try to ban drugs. Just make their use as difficult as possible by getting all the authorities to act in unison.

Fran the Man

posted by Fran The Man [76 posts]
24th May 2011 - 10:00


Fran the Man - it may be an interesting point but it is very wrong. EPO thickens the blood to the point that a coronary is a very real possibility. This is why certain drugs are banned. There are plenty of performance enhancing "drugs" that are legal, eg caffeine and energy drinks.

If cycling is indeed a sport of self-abuse why aren't more cyclists sectioned under the mental health act?

posted by hairyairey [294 posts]
24th May 2011 - 10:11


The sooner the authorities start to realise that and realistically look at ways to deal with drugs instead of defeat drugs the sooner we will stop this farce.

Even if you legalised all performance-enhancing drugs you deemed to be safe, there will always be drugs that will be rightly banned for safety reasons. some of those drugs will inevitably give a performance advantage, and some riders will inevitably take them.

There'll always be a line. Moving the line might help in the short term, but it's not a long-term solution. As soon as the banned PEDs are allowed they'll no longer constitute a performance advantage, so those riders looking to cheat will move on.

Picking up on what hairyairey said above, EPO use has fairly sizeable risks attached. I'd need to see a much better case for its legalisation than 'everyone's doing it'...

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7748 posts]
24th May 2011 - 10:58


abudhabiChris wrote:
The sooner the authorities start to realise that and realistically look at ways to deal with drugs instead of defeat drugs the sooner we will stop this farce.

So, a talented young rider will have to start taking drugs at some point if they choose to pursue a career in cycling. If they don't fancy being injected, they will be considered "unprofessional". Will their parents want them to be involved in such a sport?

I welcome the UCI's recent no-needle policy. I didn't seem right to me that riders could go on glucose-saline drips to recover after a tough stage. Anything more complex than such simple policies would be a mess.

two wheels good; four wheels bad

posted by cat1commuter [1405 posts]
24th May 2011 - 12:10


Yes, EPO use has got sizeable risks attached - if you don't know what you are doing… most of the people using it these days though do know exactly what they are doing. Plus of course the way it is used has evolved people are micro-dosing now, it's just another incremental gain (albeit an illegal one). Used like that the chances of popping your clogs when you're sleeping are pretty slim.

Ironically or not, the "harm reduction" approach was I think advocated by Hein Verbruggen back in the late 90s and I'm pretty sure he once characterised the fight to eliminate doping as an "anglo saxon" obsession by implication doomed to failure because it doesn't take in to account human nature.

If you accept that it is part of human nature to cheat, why is some cheating in cycling by doping, less socially acceptable than cheating at, say, football by diving or kicking a lump out of your opponent? It's interesting too that in more 'medicalised sports' like American Football there seems to be a much more relaxed attitude to cheating via the point of a needle. Is there a big money professional sport in which people don't cheat?

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4192 posts]
24th May 2011 - 12:22


I don't think the health issue stacks up.

Here's the scenario... rider signs with team and team doctor - who has a duty of care which can not be waived, you can't authorise someone to kill you - injects drugs that seriously harm or kill him.

Rider/family sue the crap out of the doctor and the team and the sponsor.

I think actually that would do more to stamp out doping than anything else.

As for whether that is something people would want to do, the point is to help your body cope with the rigours of professional cycling. This is part of the PEDs = Smack view. It's not magic - I could take enough EPO to turn my blood to jam and I wouldn't win a Cat 1 race let alone a pro stage. They still have to train bloody hard and that will still be the difference between riders.

If they are not adversely affecting your health (see above) then how is that different to training to enhance your performance, or having surgery to repair a ligament ? Maybe we should just say that once you are injured you can't have it fixed other than through normal healing ?

I don't see that not liking it is a valid reason, otherwise we would ban boxing. Why would anyone encourage their children to go into a sport where someone is going to hit them repeatedly - but they do.

The point about people taking PEDs that are dangerous is a fair one but I think we would need to know if that is a real problem. Would anything be banned on those grounds - I don't know. At any rate, even if true, it could be at a much reduced level as riders would be under stricter medical supervision. Legalising certainly doesn't make that problem worse.

Again I go back to the question - why are PEDs illegal ?

So cheating will occur under any system...
Health is not an issue...
Because we don't like it ?

abudhabiChris's picture

posted by abudhabiChris [635 posts]
24th May 2011 - 13:06


I think abu-Chris' comments above are on to something already accepted in cycling: legalized use of drugs. Seriously, isn't the Bio-Passport just that? It sets a legal limit or range that which an individual riders levels of X, Y and Z hormone levels should fall? What sets the model passport levels? Is there a range for every cyclist depending on his metabolism, exertion levels, etc? Lets say i just use the cyclists blood samples for the last two years and he's been micro-doping with levels of untraceable synthetic X, Y and Z... haven't you just accepted my usage of "illegal substances" by saying you are "clean" as long as you stay within this range? Cheers! Let's have another 'special adult beverage' and a recovery ride! don't need to have any unusual levels of X!

posted by dino [60 posts]
26th May 2011 - 11:45


As Julian says,it will be sad if cycling looses the legacy of Lance. He brought a lot of great global attention to our sport. Especially for this reason, if he is guilty, it should come out. However, for now, I revert to the reasoning that if the tests don't work (as Landis said) then why did those same tests catch Landis and Hamilton and not Lance. Same teams, same tests and supposedly same drugs. I've read a lot of hear-say, but no real fact to expain it. Testing has caught lots of other athletes in other sports. Vociferate against Lance if you don't like him, but, the facts still do not say he cheated. Conspiracy theory does not count. Thinking


posted by flyin4alivin [8 posts]
29th May 2011 - 18:38


Innocent until proven guilty. Let's wait until something is proved one way or another. I hope that Lance is innocent as he is an inspiration to us all. He is a cycling superstar. But if he is guilty the truth must come out! Let's wait and see.

Giant Rob.
King of the East Midlands

posted by Giant Rob [60 posts]
30th May 2011 - 21:52


Great article - so many 'doping' accusations these days

posted by Adey [98 posts]
5th June 2011 - 19:53


Julian, that last paragraph is great. Well said. I've read a lot on the Armstrong debarcle and that stands out above all the BS surrounding pro racing these days.

I have no illusions about pro roadies in general. Not all, but most are doped and all the top ones are. Partly for the reason you give at the end of your article, i couldn't really care less about the pro race scene. If someone beats me up a hill or over the course of an event, good for you, I'm more concerned about whether i thought i could do better myself than whether i finish top 10% or bottom 10%.

Riders (or adventurers, etc) who achieve notable things by competing with no-one but themselves or simply following their spirit of adventure are so much more inspirational. Walter Bonatti. Goran Kropp. The Crane Brothers. Rob Lilwall. Andy Kirkpatrick. John Stamstad.

We need more people like that to look up to in cycling. Maybe not heroes, just inspirational riders who test themselves outside of organised competition where money, teams and dope can't help you. When you see that they can push themselves that far, you try to push yourself in the same ways if you can, and then you see (as you say) why the bike is so great.

posted by james-o [222 posts]
5th June 2011 - 20:24


Giant Rob - I guess one of the reasons (beyond the seriousness of a US govt affiliated team's involvement in drug dealing) why the Lance thing runs and runs is that he isn't an inspiration to everyone. As incredible as some of his performances were, I can still remember the whole nasty spat with Simeoni which I think revealed a pretty unpleasant side of his character - inspirational that most certainly was not...

posted by jijiandnoah [53 posts]
5th June 2011 - 22:31


Two small reasons why doping should be resisted at all costs: Riccardo and Ricco. We're not talking about taking an aspirin in terms of PEDs. These are body-altering procedures which, so the general rule of thumb has it, can bolster your performance by up to 40%. Cycling and sport in general should be fuelled by passion, not by somebody else's blood or by a test tube.

dullard's picture

posted by dullard [140 posts]
8th June 2011 - 14:39