Editor’s note: The following feature story appears in the August 2013 issue of Velo magazine, available now. With the announcement Wednesday that multiple riders, including race winner Marco Pantani, provided samples at the 1998 Tour de France that were retroactively determined to contain evidence of EPO use, the question of how to treat cycling’s darkest doping era continues to dog the sport.
In USA Cycling’s gleaming Colorado Springs headquarters, hundreds of photos of America’s great cyclists, past and present, adorn the walls.
Images of mountain bikers, track riders, road racers, and time trialists, dressed in national colors at world championships and Olympic events, provide constant reminders of both the federation’s purpose, and its successes.
A photo of Lance Armstrong, once America’s best ever, is much harder to find. After the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency scorched professional cycling last year with its reasoned decision, USA Cycling took Armstrong’s pictures off the walls of its new headquarters — a building Armstrong’s meteoric rise no doubt helped to bring about.
That star crashed and burned spectacularly over the past year, leaving the federation — and the sport of cycling — to pick up the pieces, with no precedent on how to reconcile Armstrong’s nullified results.
“There’s actually one Lance Armstrong photo, from his [1993 world championship win],” USAC CEO Steve Johnson says. “So it’s not like he never existed.”
Of course Armstrong existed, and profoundly, winning seven Tours in clinical fashion. He was a star, rubbing elbows with presidents and rock stars, all while providing hope to cancer patients across the world. He was charismatic, handsome, and ruthless, one of the great ones that blossoms in sport every generation or so — a Jordan, a Gretzky.
ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and USA Today all took interest in cycling. Armstrong transcended sport, pop culture, hope, and advocacy.
He was also a cheater. In an era of coordinated, medically assisted cheating, he perfected the art. Within the pro peloton, he was far from alone in what he did, but he certainly profited the most, and made the most enemies. It’s true that he beat cancer, and it’s true that he stood on the podium in Paris on seven consecutive occasions, but much of the rest of the Armstrong myth was built upon lies peddled by Armstrong and his acolytes, and perpetuated by an eager media.
Now, it’s as though Armstrong hardly existed at all, at least in a historical sporting sense. Seven Tour wins, the most ever? How about one world championship instead?
This is the odd space Armstrong occupies: once the cyclist of reference for every American, now someone who the UCI and ASO, the owners of the Tour, say never won the sport’s greatest race once, let alone seven times, though it’s been made clear he was far from the only bike racer of his era to use drugs.
That’s not an excuse for Armstrong; it’s a fact. That Armstrong cheated is indisputable. That he’s been treated fairly, in the context of other Tour winners, is less clear.
The storied list of Tour de France winners now falls like a cliff into the sea. There is a seven-year gap with no name, though the rider who used to be there still lives on, at least in cycling’s collective imagination, running through a field and jumping over a ditch and back on his bike. He’s unforgettable in the most visceral sporting sense, but his legacy remains undefined. It’s an uncomfortable situation for cycling, as there’s literally no one to hand over the titles to.
On one side of Armstrong’s victories are names like Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani; on the other, names like Oscar Pereiro and Alberto Contador. Each has been, either directly or indirectly, linked with doping during the sport’s Wild West doping era. So why are the Tours from 1999 to 2005 the only ones without a winner?
“I’m the wrong guy to ask,” Armstrong told Velo. “Ultimately, people will have to decide. History will have to decide who won those races. If I didn’t win, then who did? I think it’s a shame. Take me out of it — it’s a shame. It’s ridiculous to have seven blank years. There’s no second place, there’s no third place, there’s no twelfth place. I don’t know. It was an unfortunate era… and, you know, nobody’s stood up to claim them.”
That’s a point worth noting. Since USADA published its report, since the UCI stripped him of his Tour wins in October 2012, no rider has come forward and said those wins belong to him. Not Ivan Basso, not Jan Ullrich, not Andreas Klöden — no one.
For some contemporary riders, Armstrong remains the winner and star of an unfortunate generation, though cheating and the Tour de France go hand-in-hand, be it cocaine, amphetamines, or, further back, hitching rides on trains.
“It’s a tricky one. The fact of the matter is, when I was growing up and watching the Tour de France, there was Lance Armstrong winning. You can’t change history, can you? A lot of the Lance haters now were some of his biggest fans then,” Team Sky’s Richie Porte told Velo. “Watching Lance race and win seven Tours back in the day, it was amazing, no matter what you say. Who has stuck their hands up and said they won it? Nobody. That was their generation.”
Armstrong cheated, obviously. Armstrong was penalized, heavily. If that were the end of the story for every cheater in the sport, it would be one thing. But the inconvenient truth is that a great number of winners in the modern era (and past eras for that matter) have either admitted to using drugs, or are now so deeply suspected, that we assume they did out of common sense — the blind faith, which has seen fans duped, time and time again, has eroded to a natural cynicism.
What remains is skepticism, and a deep desire to move on, though that’s difficult without resolution of what’s transpired over the past 25 years, and how punishments have, or haven’t, been issued.