HUESCA, Spain (VN) – “Should I tell you what I really think or what I can officially say?”
That comment from a rider at the Vuelta a España summed up perfectly the muted reaction Friday among the peloton to the stunning news that Lance Armstrong looks likely to be officially stripped of his seven consecutive Tour de France crowns.
The Vuelta peloton woke up Friday morning to headlines that Armstrong would not fight doping allegations leveled by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, meaning that a lifetime ban and the disqualification from his record seven Tour victories seem all but certain.
Most riders and directors kept their personal opinions firmly tucked under cover and only a few would publicly comment on the latest twist in the Armstrong saga.
“I cannot really comment on it all. We are here to do our job. That’s our prime focus,” said Garmin-Sharp sport director Allan Peiper. “Cycling in the last years has really progressed as a sport. I think we’re really on a great track and the youth of today has a lot greater chances than they did 10, 20, 30 years ago. That’s the positive side of cycling these days.”
No one at RadioShack-Nissan, where team manager Johan Bruyneel is also facing a possible lifetime ban, would make a statement to the media.
José Azevedo, who rode alongside Armstrong during his final two Tour wins in 2004-05 and now is a sport director working at the Vuelta,, refused to answer questions from journalists.
Bjarne Riis, the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank manager who had his 1996 Tour win stripped after he admitted he used EPO, said the news wasn’t good for cycling.
“Everything like this is bad news for cycling,” Riis said. “What I think is not important. I really do not have an opinion. What’s important are the fans.”
Alberto Contador, who was Armstrong’s teammate on Astana when he returned in 2009, faced a wall of cameras and microphones when he stepped off the team bus, but would only say he is “focused on the Vuelta.”
“I am not really on top of the case,” Contador said briefly Friday. “I do not know if the case is closed or what. All I know is that Lance was like a fortress, intelligent and with a strong head.”
Another director, who did not want to be quoted, was exasperated at the ongoing Armstrong saga.
“This is just what cycling needs, dragging all this out for so long,” he said, shaking his head. “And what do they do to the Tours now? Give it to (Alex) Zulle and (Joseba) Beloki? Baagh, come on …”
That question remains unresolved, but it’s very likely that if Armstrong is indeed stripped of the Tour titles, those races will simply remain without an official winner. It’s unlikely that Tour officials will be keen to try to rewrite the history books on a chapter of the sport so laden with doping scandals.
In Europe, the UCI said it would not comment until USADA spells out its case against Armstrong and formally registers its intention to ban Armstrong for life and strip him of all racing results from 1998 to 2011.
Writing on his personal website, Bruyneel said the USADA against his former star rider was “unjust.”
“Today, I’m disappointed for Lance and for cycling in general that things have reached a stage where Lance feels that he has had enough and is no longer willing to participate in USADA’s campaign against him,” Bruyneel wrote. “Lance has never withdrawn from a fair fight in his life so his decision today underlines what an unjust process this has been.”
On his own case, Bruyneel refused to expand on his intention to challenge the allegations through arbitration. Reiterating comments to VeloNews from last weekend’s start of the Vuelta in Pamplona, Bruyneel said, “due to the sensitive nature of legal proceedings, I have been advised that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this stage.”
Others chimed in as well. Oscar Pereiro, who inherited the 2006 Tour crown after Floyd Landis tested positive, said the case against Armstrong was “pathetic.”
“It all seems pathetic to me what’s happening, this puts the entire anti-doping system in doubt,” Pereiro told Europa Press. “I am convinced that the riders who have declared against Armstrong did so with the promise of not being sanctioned and that they do not have to return the money they’ve earned. Does that seem normal?”
The Armstrong story seemed very far from the Vuelta as teams lined up in a parking lot outside the Palacio de Congresos in Huesca on midday Friday in Spain. Fans still clamored for autographs and riders went about the business of preparing for the day’s stage.
How much impact the ongoing Armstrong saga has on the cycling of today remains to be seen. Everyone insists that the sport has permanently changed for the better, but the ghosts of cycling’s past continue to cast long shadows.
After the sign-on protocol was finished, riders lined up and sped off toward the day’s finish line in Alcañiz, hoping that the story will remain in the rear-view mirror.