UCI President Pat McQuaid yesterday declared that “the sport of cycling has a lot to be thankful for because of Lance Armstrong" after the seven time Tour de France winner announced his retirement from competitive cycling with immediate effect.
McQuaid’s comments came just hours after it had been revealed that he, his predecessor as UCI President Hein Verbruggen, and the governing body were threatening legal action against the man who won the first Tour de France after Armstrong’s initial retirement in 2005, Floyd Landis.
As ever with Armstrong even his going was controversial with some seeing the timing of his announcement just a day after Alberto Contador was cleared of doping offences by his national federation as a final favour to the UCI in deflecting media attention away from the acute embarrassment of the Contador affair. Indeed as with so many moments in history even the facts of Armstrong's retirement were open to different interpretations was this his third or only second retirement from the sport? the media were divided.
Likewise more than one interpretation could be put on the timing of the UCI's announcement on Landis. The threatened legal action concerned allegations made in a German TV show by Landis during November that the UCI and its current and former presidents, “may protect certain cyclists suspected of doping and not others, may falsify results and create stars, and that they may be corrupt,” as their lawyer put it.
That’s an impression that McQuaid may have unwittingly reinforced in comments quoted by the Associated Press yesterday, in which he praised Armstrong but made no reference to the ongoing investigation into the Texan following allegations of doping made by his ex US Postal Service colleague Landis last May.
Nor will it be lost on many observers that while McQuaid has roundly condemned Landis and his insinuations against Armstrong rather than remaining neutral on the subject while the enquiry continues, the UCI appears to be taking a much keener interest in establishing the facts and pursuing a sanction in the case of Alberto Contador case.
The governing body is thought likely to appeal the decision to appeal the Spanish national federation’s decision, also on Tuesday, to exonerate three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador following his positive test for clenbuterol in last year’s Tour de France.
The crucial difference between the two men who have won 10 of the last 12 editions of cycling’s biggest race is of course that Contador tested positive and faced charges, while Armstrong, has never failed a doping test. (He was cleared in 2006 of allegations made by the French newspaper L’Equipe that a sample taking from him during the 1999 Tour had tested positive for EPO). With the US investigation ongoing, however, McQuaid’s apparently black-and-white view of events appears a curious one.
There’s no doubt however that at his peak Armstrong, who has attained a global status accorded to few sportsmen before him – Muhammed Ali, Pele, Tiger Woods prior to his scandal – attracted legions of new fans to cycling, something that McQuaid was quick to acknowledge.
"His contribution to cycling has been enormous, from both the sporting point of view and his personality,” said the Irishman. “All sports need global icons and he has become a global icon for cycling."
Armstrong, who last month took part in the Santos Tour Down Under, which he had already stated would be his final overseas race, had been due to continue to ride in North America including the Amgen Tour of California in May, but yesterday revealed that he had decided to retire from all competition, in what he described as ‘Retirement 2.0,’ echoing the title of the ‘Comeback 2.0’ that charted his 2008 return to the sport with Astana.
Counting the 1993 World Champion’s enforced withdrawal from cycling after his diagnosis with testicular cancer that later spread to his lungs and brain in 2006, almost ending his life before his stunning return to dominate the Tour de France for the best part of a decade means that talk of ‘Retirement 3.0’ might be closer to the mark.
Speaking to the Associated press, Armstrong said: “"I can't say I have any regrets. It's been an excellent ride. I really thought I was going to win another tour,” he said, referring to the 2009 race in which his relationship with team mate and eventual winner Contador deteriorated on the roads of France. “Then I lined up like everybody else and wound up third,” he added.
"I have no regrets about last year, either," continued Armstrong, although it proved to be one Tour too many, the 39-year-old finishing the race in a previously unthinkable 23rd place. "The crashes, the problems with the bike — those were things that were beyond my control," he insisted.
A storming ride at the front of the race on the last day in the Pyrenees apart, when he was no longer a contender for the overall title apart, there was to be no last hurrah for Armstrong, whose final day on the race he once dominated was overshadowed by the debacle over his RadioShack team causing the start to be delayed by wearing unauthorised jerseys promoting his LiveStrong cancer foundation.
The Los Angeles grand jury enquiry into doping and the investigation being led by Food & Drug Administration led by Special Agent Jeff Novitzky have undoubtedly taken up much of Armstrong’s time and effort over the past few months, but he maintains that he is not unduly concerned by it.
"I can't control what goes on in regards to the investigation. That's why I hire people to help me with that. I try not to let it bother me and just keep rolling right along,” he insisted. “I know what I know. I know what I do and I know what I did. That's not going to change."
Armstrong distanced himself from longstanding rumours that he might one day seek to enter politics – a decision that would, in effect, be made for him if he were ever found guilty of any charges brought as a result of the US investigation – and gave a hint that he had simply become tired of cycling and the politics, the rumours, the innuendo and rivalries that accompany a sport in which he had once been the patron of the Tour de France, but had now become just another rider in the peloton, if that were at all possible.
"A lot of that has been overanalyzed and inaccurately portrayed, but it's part and parcel of cycling. It's how cycling operates," he said. "There's too much infighting, jealousy and bitterness within the sport, so everybody tries to pick apart a person or a spectacular performance.
"And some of it," he stated, "we bring on ourselves."
In a message he subsequently sent on Twitter, Armstrong said, “Thanks for all the messages on retirement 2.0. And thanks for ALL the support the past 2.5 yrs. Onward!”
To what, for now, remains unclear, other than his work with LiveStrong and his ongoing defence against doping allegations. One thing is certain, however – we haven’t heard the last of him.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.