The recent compilation of fifteen years worth of scuttlebutt and allegation by the USADA regarding Lance Armstrong contains no real surprises. Most of the doping stories and conspiracy theories have been mapped out previously, especially by L’Equipe editor Pierre Ballester and Sunday Times journalist David Walsh in their book L. A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong. The pouty sulk offered in response to the Reasoned Decision is not a surprise either. Indeed, it is par for the course, transparency is not what this conversation is about. The doping conversation has always been about how to evade the conversation altogether, how not to talk about doping in professional cycling, how to make the issue go away.
This desire and strategy is because the image of Lance and Tyler Hamilton shooting up EPO microdoses in some rural pension in the south of France is not an image that keeps the dollars coming in. It’s a bit too close to the Trainspotting crew for comfort (if I close my eyes I can almost hear the US Postal team giggling as they lie back, post hit, and digest their carbs). No shock that the sponsors are starting to abandon their stakes in Lance & Co, Livestrong, and Tailwind Sports. It is conceivable that the blowback will impact the Tour itself and its pipeline of TV contracts. Better then that the issue be dealt with by appropriately obscure bodies in Parisian suburbs unpronounceable by US sportscasters. That keeps a nice lid on things and it has worked for years.
There’s something very holocaust denial about the conversation: show me the drugs! No, not the Festina panel van drugs; no, not the vials in David Millar’s bathroom vanity; no, not the broken and distressed remains of Marco Pantani, everyone knows cocaine was his thing; and no, not the lab results, as if they can be trusted at all. When we get to Lance himself either he must have done it or, alternately, catcalls ring out for the smoking gun: prove it buddy! Let us hear the man say it himself, the only proof considered worthy.
‘Beyond strong’ is how the USADA described the evidence but what really counts is the number of hardcore deniers, real loveable and admirable procyclists, who have finally spoken up and done so knowing the likelihood that they would be shat on and ostracised by many of their colleagues, as well as Lance and his army of cheerleaders, possibly even the UCI and the national cycling bodies (as per poor Matt White). For years, decades I suppose, speaking up has been the behaviour of a stool pigeon, an informer, a dobber. It’s to spit in the soup, and if you spit in the soup the expectation must be that you’ll be made to sup from that very tureen. Times have changed, but how much?
Omerta is embedded in the practices of procycling. Remember stage 18 of the 2004 Tour: Filippo Simeone and three others broke away from the peloton, Lance chased them down even though it was just another breakaway of no strategic import, and having caught them he then chastised Simeone for telling tales about Dr Michele Ferrari (doyen of medicalised sports dope doctors) ending with the lovely threat: “I have a lot of time and money and I can destroy you.” Armstrong even made the zip the lips gesture to make sure his dodgy Italian didn’t mean the message was lost. Talk and you die.
It didn’t end there because in Stage 20 Simeone decided, since he was already persona non grata with the peloton, he would give it another try. Simeone wasn’t subtle in choosing his moment as he put the rubber to the road: just at the point Lance was toasting himself and his victory for the cameras, that moment where the team ride abreast and smile hearty smiles of a job well done, Simeone attacked. To the sound of smashing champagne flutes Simeone was chased down again but this time it was worse. Lance didn’t bother to do the chasing, the peloton did it for him (everyone wants a sprint finish on the Champs-Élysées) and when they caught him they spat on Filippo Simeone. They gobbed him until the slime ran down his legs to the pedals. How do you like them apples?
That was eight years ago and if we have a quick squizz at the honour board to see who’s been top since then we would see that the enforcement of peloton discipline has done its work: the winners are cheaters and the cheaters are winners. Everyone is cloaked by the silence. Get busted and take the time, train hard and don’t say a word: under these circumstances a cyclist may be allowed back into the peloton and maybe even the chance to win. There’s Kloden who received illegal blood transfusions; Basso & Ullrich, who were busted by Operación Puerto; Hamilton and Landis who’ve confessed to being career long dopers; Menchov and Popyvch who had their homes raided for drugs and in which drugs were found; Rasmussen who was so successful in 2007 that his own team kicked him out on suspicion; Valverde, busted for EPO; cheating David Millar, of course; Frank Schleck done for a masking agent; Contador tested positive for Clenbuterol in the 2010 Tour; not to mention the gadfly of the Peloton, Alexandre Vinokourov who’s been busted half a dozen times and finished off his career by winning the Gold Medal at the 2012 Olympics. Tell me that the peloton is interested in an open conversation about doping, tell me.
Lance Armstrong once remarked that losing and dying were the same thing. I wonder if he still thinks that.