Lance Armstrong

Winning sinner

That 1999 Tour needed Armstrong quite as much as he needed it


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

An unwanted silver jubilee hangs over this year’s cycling season. It is 25 years since Lance Armstrong won the first of his now annulled seven Tours de France. Though he has been expunged from the history books, the ramifications of what he did continue to reverberate — for they hit at the heart of how and why we watch not just his sport but all sport.

Do we shrug and accept doping as a necessary evil? Do we go the other way and denounce any sport with a doping problem as one without integrity (and if so, do we include rugby, tennis, football, the NFL and so on, because if you think they’re all clean then I’ve a bridge to sell you)? Or do we square the circle with a messy, rational, imperfect mental compromise?

That 1999 Tour needed Armstrong quite as much as he needed it. The previous year’s race had been a disaster: it began with the Festina team being expelled after one of their staff was stopped at customs with more drugs than a Grateful Dead roadie, then lurched through multiple police raids and rider protests. Only half the field made it to Paris, and even that had looked unlikely at times. A charismatic, articulate cancer survivor whose nationality would help open up the sport to vast new lucrative markets was the perfect symbol of rebirth.

Armstrong on the 1999 tour

Too perfect, of course, as it turned out. But the illusion lasted for years. Why did so many of us believe in him? Because we wanted to. For every journalist who said “this doesn’t smell right” (take a bow, David Walsh), there were millions of fans sucked into the narrative the pedalling cancer-Jesus peddled so seductively: suffering, resilience, redemption, triumph.

Not coincidentally, these are also the touchstones of the Tour itself, a three-week Calvary through 20-odd Stations of the Cross. Every rider reflects our desires back to us, but none of them shone as brightly as this megawatt Texan.

When, gradually, the suspicions became too great to ignore, the justifications shifted. What about all his work for cancer research (even though his Livestrong foundation focused almost exclusively on cancer awareness)? So what if he was doping: weren’t they all? (Eight different men stood on the podium with him during his seven-year reign, and every one has now been implicated in doping one way or another.)

And so what if he bullied and intimidated rivals and teammates alike? This was professional sport; it was a jungle; he was the apex predator. Oderint dum metuant, as Caligula said: let them hate, so long as they fear.

Two decades on, it’s still impossible to watch cycling without the subliminal soundtrack of those years playing just beneath the surface. Is the sport cleaner now? Almost certainly.

“If I was racing [today],” Armstrong has said, “I wouldn’t do it again because I don’t think you have to.” But is it totally clean?

Almost certainly not. Wafer-thin margins and enormous rewards mean riders will push the boundaries as far as they can, whether legally (bike tech, training regimes, nutrition) or illegally (doping).

But here’s the rub: there’s a large grey area between the two. The scientific justifications for which medications or supplements are allowed and which ones aren’t are often marginal, subjective or both. The authorities, under-resourced and poorly funded, are always one step behind new products. As Armstrong himself proved, not failing a drugs test is very different from not taking drugs: absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.

When I think of Armstrong’s Tour wins, I think of a damaged, unpleasant man who has nonetheless given me some of the most thrilling sporting moments I’ve ever seen.

Apex predator: Lance Armstrong

I watched him give Jan Ullrich “The Look” on Alpe d’Huez in 2001, staring into the eyes of his great rival and seeing he had nothing left. I watched his magnificently defiant time trial through 500,000 hostile spectators on the same mountain three years later, brilliantly described by the author Daniel Coyle: “a shaking forest of fists inches in front of his wheel. It seemed as if he was riding down some endless collective throat … He sprinted for the line, low and hard, fists clenched, teeth bared: an image of freshly peeled ferocity, a face that did not ask for applause or love or understanding or anything except the animal respect due a superior force.”

I watched his insanely quick reflexes and superlative bike handling to avoid Joseba Beloki’s horror crash on the way into Gap in 2003. I watched him fall on the way up to Luz-Ardiden that same year and then ride everyone else off his wheel, red-eyed with rage and determination. And each year, when the race was done, I watched his team’s Trek bikes glitter in the dark near the Arc de Triomphe.

But these moments are not lost like tears in Alpine rain: quite the opposite. Doping alone did not allow Armstrong to do those things. They came from deep within him, from the qualities which ultimately also turned out to be his flaws. The man himself may be tainted, but the moments less so: even writing about them just now has brought back the thrill of seeing them live.

It’s easy to denounce those who transgress in the service of their success and our entertainment, but harder to remember the truth of the old cliché: whenever you point a finger at someone, you’re also directing three fingers back at yourself.

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