[A version of this article ran on May 27, 2011 after cyclist and Lance Armstrong’s former teammate Tyler Hamilton told 60 Minutes that Armstrong not only took erythropoietin (EPO) and received a banned blood transfusion but also encouraged teammates to do the same.]
If you went to bed early last night, here’s what you missed:
American folk hero Lance Armstrong—who won a record seven Tours de France after beating cancer; founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation to support cancer victims and survivors and their families; and made silicon wristbands a sought-after fashion accessory—gave up his fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
The USADA is now free to ban Armstrong from cycling and triathlons for life and strip him of his seven Tour titles and Olympic bronze medal. (He finished third in the men’s time trial in 2000 in Sydney.)
Armstrong maintains his innocence. He claims that the USADA is overstepping its jurisdiction and that his decision to concede his struggle against the USADA had nothing to do with any new evidence against him.
The USADA did not suddenly discover a smoking gun yesterday, but the organization has found enough smoke and enough guns over the past thirteen years to build a strong case against Armstrong. It would be hard for an objective person at this point to believe that Armstrong never broke the rules to his advantage.
Armstrong filed two lawsuits against the USADA, both of which judges threw out (on July 9 and August 20, respectively). His last recourse would have been to take the case to arbitration, but it’s unlikely that arbitration would have worked in Armstrong’s favor.
No One Has Ever Accused Cycling of Being a Clean Sport
Doping is almost as much a part of professional cycling as pedals and gears. Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs said it best:
Let’s remember that the history of the sport we’re talking about here is more or less the history of doping. From the end of the 19th century to the present day, competitive cyclists have injected, swallowed, or otherwise consumed for the purposes of performance enhancement wine, brandy, whiskey, Champagne, horse ointment, strychnine, cocaine, cocaine metabolites, cannabis, nitroglycerin, chloroform, aspirin, amphetamines, solucamphre, ronicol, nicotinyl alcohol tartrate, peripheral vasodilators, palfium, fencamfamine, coramine, cortisone, pemoline, tetracosactide, ritalin, probenecid, celestone, amineptine, HGH, HCG, EPO, bromantan, bronchodilators, clenbuterol, ephedrine, norbolethone, probenecid, norandrosterone, noretiocholanolone, Aranesp, heptaminol, nicethamide, phentermine, clostebol, carphedone, stanozolol, prednisolone, prednisone, triamcinolone acetonide, metelonone, benzoylecgonine, methylecgonine, triamcinolone acetonide, salbutamol, salmeterol, finasteride, dehydroepiandrosterone, methylhexanamine, methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta, and powdered boar testicles. To name a few.
Abusing any of these substances is probably very bad for you. So is pedaling a bike really fast up a very big mountain, day after day after day (an activity, incidentally, that is every bit as unnatural as anything on WADA’s naughty list). As long as the sport requires its athletes to push themselves to the outer limits of their aerobic capability, those athletes will respond by exploring the outer limits of modern pharmacology.
Many of the Tour de France’s greatest champions have had ties to doping.
- Belgian Eddy Merckx, who won five Tours and who is quite possibly the most accomplished cyclist in history, tested positive for banned substances three times (though one of the substances was later removed from the banned list) and was expelled from the 1969 Giro D’Italia, a race he was leading after 16 stages.
- Jacques Anquetil, the Tour’s first five-time champion (he won in 1957 and 1961–1964) confessed to doping on French television.
- More recently three-time Tour winner Alberto Contador became two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador when he tested positive for a banned stimulant during the 2010 Tour and had to concede his 2010 title to runner-up Andy Schleck.
Perhaps instead of getting worked up about cyclists who have taken illegal substances to gain an advantage, we should celebrate the sport’s great champions who appear to be clean.
Two five-time champions—France’s Bernard Hinault (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985) and Spain’s Miguel Indurain (1991–1995)—have not been implicated in doping scandals. (Indurain once tested positive for a banned drug called Salbutomol, but the Union Cycliste Internationale allowed him to take the drug for his asthma.)
And for Americans, there’s Greg LeMond.
America’s Great Clean Cyclist
An American cyclist cheats death then returns to his sport to win its premier event, the grueling three-week-long Tour de France.
Thus reads the hagiography of Armstrong, who survived advanced testicular cancer then won seven consecutive Tours, from 1999–2005. But it is also the story of Greg LeMond, who rode victoriously into Paris ten years earlier with 37 shotgun pellets in his body, the result of a 1987 hunting accident.
In 1986 Minnesota’s Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France. The year before he’d finished second to teammate and five-time winner Bernard Hinault. (If team managers hadn’t instructed LeMond to ride in support of Hinault, he may have won the 1985 tour as well.)
Less than a year after his first Tour win, LeMond’s career—and life—nearly ended.
While turkey hunting in California, LeMond’s brother-in-law accidentally discharged his shotgun while standing only a few feet away from the champion cyclist. Sports Illustrated has the details:
LeMond started to straighten up, to ask, “Who shot. . . ?” when he felt the blow of approximately 60 No. 2-sized pellets in his back and side. He discovered he could barely breathe — his right lung had collapsed. His kidney and liver were hit. So were his diaphragm and intestine. Two pellets lodged in the lining of his heart. As LeMond lay in the field, awaiting the helicopter that would ultimately save his life, he thought he was going to die.
LeMond’s recovery was slow, hampered by an infected tendon in his right shin. He missed the 1987 and 1988 Tours de France, and he struggled early in the 1989 season. He wasn’t among the favorites for the 1989 Tour, and his personal goal was only to finish in the top 20. When he finished fourth in the Prologue time trial, he set his sights higher.
By Stage 5, LeMond had captured the yellow jersey. For the remainder of the Tour, the maillot jaune passed back and forth between LeMond and French two-time champion Laurent Fignon.
Fignon led by 50 seconds going into the final stage, an individual time trial. The lead seemed insurmountable, but LeMond rode one of the fastest time trials in the history of the race and gained 58 seconds on the leader.
LeMond won the 1989 Tour by 8 seconds, the smallest margin ever. (No Tour since then has ended with a time trial.)
(An aside: In the summer of 1989 Greg LeMond was my hero. I watched almost every stage of the 1989 Tour on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. After watching each one, I’d take off on my bike, pretending that the mild incline toward the end of the street was the Alpe D’Huez and that my three-mile afternoon ride was a 140 kilometer trek through the French country side. Alas my dream of one day being a competitive cyclist ended when I decided that my paper route money was best spent on Little Debbie snack cakes in the middle school cafeteria.)
Later that year, LeMond won the UCI World Championship race, and Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year. In 1990 LeMond won his third Tour, this time by a more comfortable margin.
For his career LeMond won 3 Tours de France and placed in the top three 5 times. He won 2 Coors Classics and one Tour DuPont (each of which was the biggest American race at the time) and twice won the World Championship. And he lost two years of his prime. Not bad.
In 1991, the year after LeMond’s final Tour win, Indurain won his first Tour de France. Indurain won again in 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995, all by wide margins.
A few years later Lance came along, beating cancer and supplanting LeMond as the greatest American cyclist. The American public soon forgot about the Minnesotan who’d given them one of the great sports moments of the late twentieth century.
Greg LeMond has never been accused or suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. But his legacy and credibility are linked to the sport’s doping scandals because he has been so outspoken on the topic.
He publicly criticized Armstrong’s relationship with trainer Michele Ferrari. He testified against Floyd Landis. He wrote an op-ed in France’s LeMonde (no relation) newspaper questioning whether Alberto Contador—winner of the 2007, 2009, and 2010 Tours de France—was clean. All of this gave him the reputation of being a tattletale.
When LeMond first raised questions about Armstrong, he appeared jealous. Upset that he’d been replaced by an American cyclist with more victories and a better story. Desperate to keep his name in the spotlight. He was a clean version of the 2005 Jose Canseco.
But like Jose Canseco, LeMond’s credibility has healed as we’ve learned more about the degree to which doping infected his sport. (This is where the Jose Canseco comparison ends.)
Maybe he wasn’t bitter. Maybe he wasn’t bent on keeping his name in the headlines. Maybe he really had the best interest of his sport in mind.
Even if he is bitter and jealous, LeMond had a great career and one worth remembering. Depending on what we learn about Armstrong, LeMond may go down as the United States’ greatest endurance athlete. And we have no reason to suspect that he didn’t do it the right way.
So enjoy this: