Photograph by Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Published January 17, 2013
Editor's note: England-based writer and photographer Roff Smith rides around 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) a year through the lanes of Sussex and Kent and writes cycling blog My Bicycle and I.
And so, the television correspondent said to the former Tour de France champion, a man who had been lionised for years, feted as the greatest cyclist of his day, did you ever use drugs in the course of your career?
"Yes," came the reply. "Whenever it was necessary."
"And how often was that?" came the follow-up question.
"Almost all the time!"
This is not a leak of a transcript from Oprah Winfrey's much anticipated tell-all with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, but instead was lifted from a decades-old interview with Fausto Coppi, the great Italian road cycling champion of the 1940s and 1950s.
To this day, though, Coppi is lauded as one of the gods of cycling, an icon of a distant and mythical golden age in the sport.
So is five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil (1957, 1961-64) who famously remarked that it was impossible "to ride the Tour on mineral water."
"You would have to be an imbecile or a crook to imagine that a professional cyclist who races for 235 days a year can hold the pace without stimulants," Anquetil said.
And then there's British cycling champion Tommy Simpson, who died of heart failure while trying to race up Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, a victim of heat, stress, and a heady cocktail of amphetamines.
All are heroes today. If their performance-enhancing peccadillos are not forgotten, they have at least been glossed over in the popular imagination.
As the latest chapter of the sorry Armstrong saga unfolds, it is worth looking at the history of cheating in the Tour de France to get a sense of perspective. This is not an attempt at rationalization or justification for what Armstrong did. Far from it.
But the simple, unpalatable fact is that cheating, drugs, and dirty tricks have been part and parcel of the Tour de France nearly from its inception in 1903.
Cheating was so rife in the 1904 event that Henri Desgrange, the founder and organizer of the Tour, declared he would never run the race again. Not only was the overall winner, Maurice Garin, disqualified for taking the train over significant stretches of the course, but so were the next three cyclists who placed, along with the winner of every single stage of the course.
Of the 27 cyclists who actually finished the 1904 race, 12 were disqualified and given bans ranging from one year to life. The race's eventual official winner, 19-year-old Henri Cornet, was not determined until four months after the event.
And so it went. Desgrange relented on his threat to scrub the Tour de France, and the great race survived and prospered—as did the antics. Trains were hopped, taxis taken, nails scattered along the roads, partisan supporters enlisted to beat up rivals on late-night lonely stretches of the course, signposts tampered with, bicycles sabotaged, itching powder sprinkled in competitors' jerseys and shorts, food doctored, and inkwells smashed so riders yet to arrive couldn't sign the control documents to prove they'd taken the correct route.
And then of course there were the stimulants: brandy, strychnine, ether, whatever—anything to get a rider through the nightmarishly tough days and nights of racing along stages that were often over 200 miles (320 kilometers) long. In a way the race was tailor-made to encourage this sort of thing. Desgrange once famously said that his idea of a perfect Tour de France would be one that was so tough that only one rider finished.
Add to this the big prizes at a time when money was hard to come by, a Tour largely comprising young riders from impoverished backgrounds for whom bicycle racing was their one big chance to get ahead, and the passionate following cycling enjoyed, and you had the perfect recipe for a desperate, high-stakes, win-at-all-costs mentality, especially given the generally tolerant views on alcohol and drugs in those days.
After World War II came the amphetamines. Devised to keep soldiers awake and aggressive through long hours of battle, they were equally handy for bicycle racers competing in the world's longest and toughest race.
So what makes the Armstrong story any different, his road to redemption any rougher? For one thing, none of the aforementioned riders were ever the point man for what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has described in a thousand-page report as the most sophisticated, cynical, and far-reaching doping program the world of sport has ever seen—one whose secrecy and efficiency was maintained by ruthlessness, bullying, fear, and intimidation.
Somewhere along the line, the casualness of cheating in the past evolved into an almost Frankenstein sort of science in which cyclists, aided by creepy doctors and trainers, were receiving blood transfusions in hotel rooms and tinkering around with their bodies at the molecular level many months before they ever lined up for a race.
To be sure, Armstrong didn't invent all of this, any more than he invented original sin—nor was he acting alone. But with his success, money, intelligence, influence, and cohort of thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers—and the way he used all this to prop up the Lance brand and the Lance machine at any cost—he became the poster boy and lightning rod for all that went wrong with cycling, his high profile eclipsing even the heads of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the global cycling union, who richly deserve their share of the blame.
It's not his PED popping that is the hard-to-forgive part of the Lance story. Armstrong cheated better than his peers, that's all.
What I find troubling is the bullying and calculated destruction of anyone who got in his way, raised a question, or cast a doubt. By all accounts Armstrong was absolutely vicious, vindictive as hell. Former U.S. Postal Service team masseuse Emma O'Reilly found herself being described publicly as a "prostitute" and an "alcoholic," and had her life put through a legal grinder when she spoke out about Armstrong's use of PEDs.
Journalists were sued, intimidated, and blacklisted from events, press conferences, and interviews if they so much as questioned the Lance miracle or well-greased machine that kept winning Le Tour.
Armstrong left a lot of wreckage behind him.
If he is genuinely sorry, if he truly repents for his past "indiscretions," one would think his first act would be to try to find some way to not only seek forgiveness from those whom he brutally put down, but also to do something meaningful to repair the damage he did to their lives and livelihoods.
Emma O'Reilly could have worked at Massage Envy. She chose to work for a world class athlete; she knew what she was getting into. She ate from Lance's plate, as did every other single person whom he "bullied". They were incredibly disloyal. Cycling in Lance's era required taking PEDs. He didn't invent that; it existed long before him and will continue long after, USADA's ridiculous hyperbole notwithstanding. You can find a more ambitious and aggressive drug program in any football locker room, or on any Spanish or Italian cycling team of the Lance era. He did what he needed to do to win, what everybody on his team knew he needed to do and did themselves, like any winner in any sport. And then these folks think they can make another buck by turning on him with impunity? They got what they deserved.
@Jeff Silver Being publicly branded as a "prostitute" by a celebrity is pretty much a career-ender for any massage therapist. Do you seriously think Lance Armstrong was acting in the interest of justice?
@Abel Dean @Jeff Silver I don't think Armstrong was acting in the interest of justice. I think he was acting out of vengeance for a confidence betrayed. I don't know if Emma O'Reilly was a prostitute. However, she made her choices. She participated in the same lies as everyone else and snitched when it was convenient. If her career and reputation is damaged like everyone else's in this fiasco, that does seem just to me, regardless of Armstrong's motivations.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Latest Photos Galleries
A family traces the trailblazers in the 1950s using original records