Editor’s note: As we ring out 2013, we look at 13 of our favorite stories of the year. Matthew Beaudin’s examination of the question of Tour de France titles in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Velo magazine.
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.
Different sports have different ways of dealing — or not dealing — with the sordid achievements of their stars.
Barry Bonds, for example, is still Major League Baseball’s home-run king, though he wasn’t elected earlier this year to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. If his name weren’t tethered to steroid use, his numbers would have assured him a first-ballot entry. Bonds holds the record, but to many, Hank Aaron is the true king, a throwback to a simpler, and allegedly cleaner, era.
Marion Jones, who won five medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but later admitted to doping, was ordered to return them by the U.S. Olympic Committee, and formally stripped of her titles by the International Olympic Committee. Only some of her results were given to those who finished behind her: the 100-meter gold medal from the 2000 Olympics belongs to no one, but her 200-meter sprint gold medal and long jump bronze were redistributed.
As for cycling … it’s complicated. There is one other seven-year winner gap in the list of Tour winners, when the race was postponed during World War II.
What has transpired over the past 25 years, from a results standpoint, has been nothing short of remarkable, given the fact that Armstrong is now winless and Riis — who earned the nickname “Mr. Sixty Percent” for his ludicrous EPO-fueled hematocrit numbers — is still the winner of the 1996 Tour. After Riis admitted to having used drugs, his name was stricken as the winner, but then added back in, with notes regarding his PED use.
Ullrich, the 1997 winner, was ultimately found guilty of doping by CAS in 2012 as his name was part of the Operación Puerto list, and all results were removed from his palmares from the spring of 2005 on (including a third place at the Tour that same year). The German is still the winner of the ’97 Tour, and his second-place finishes, all five of them, still stand, at least as of press time. Just before the 2013 Tour de France rolled out of Corsica, the German finally admitted to blood doping.
“We are both guilty,” said Ullrich. “I am no better than Armstrong, but no worse either. The great heroes of old are now people with failings that we’ve got to come to terms with.”
Ullrich may stand to lose his Olympic medals, a road race gold and time trial silver at the 2000 games, according to Thomas Bach, president of the German Olympic Federation and a vice president of the International Olympic Committee.
Suppose he did lose those medals and they were awarded to lower-placed finishers. Alexander Vinokourov finished second in the road race, and Lance Armstrong, of all people, finished third in the time trial. Vinokourov served a two-year ban for blood doping at the 2007 Tour, but returned to win the road race gold at the London Games in 2012.
Pantani, also on the Puerto list, never tested positive, but he was pulled from the Giro d’Italia in 1999 with a high hematocrit (52 percent, over the UCI-set standard of 50) and it’s been reported that he repeatedly posted enormous hematocrit numbers. He died in 2004 of cocaine poisoning, but he did so a Tour champion in spite of sweeping evidence of EPO use.
Tyler Hamilton’s gold medal for the time trial in Athens in 2004 was taken away from him and given to Viatcheslav Ekimov, Armstrong’s trusted lieutenant at the U.S. Postal Service — far from a perfect solution.
After Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour win for drugs, Pereiro was named the winner. Le Monde, a French newspaper, reported that Pereiro tested positive for an asthma drug that the UCI later gave him permission for, and the French anti-doping body ultimately dropped its case. Landis later implicated Pereiro as having used drugs when they were teammates at Phonak in 2005. When asked about Landis’ accusations by Velo’s Andrew Hood, Pereiro infamously answered, “In 2006?” followed by, “I am not going to get into a game like this.”
Asked what should be done with titles that once belonged to Armstrong, Landis — who is currently suing Armstrong in a whistleblower lawsuit alongside the Department of Justice — replied simply, “Give them all to Oscar Pereiro.”
So, what then? Strip Riis, Ullrich, and Pantani? How far back does it go? Each of the race’s five-time winners have either admitted to doping (Jacques Anquetil), failed a drug test (Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault), or been suspected of doping (Miguel Indurain). Two-time Tour winner Fausto Coppi was no stranger to amphetamines, yet he is celebrated as one of the race’s legendary winners from a golden era. At what point do we accept the past, for all its deplorable truths? And who is best equipped to make this judgment — governing bodies, fans, or the athletes themselves?
Velo is not alone in asking this question. In the weeks before this issue went to press, Bicycling editor Bill Strickland proposed, on Twitter, bringing together every living Tour winner, in Paris, prior to this year’s race, to determine, once and for all, what the Tour’s official list of champions should look like. A week later he wrote that he’d heard back from only three Tour “winners”: one, Armstrong, said he’d be willing to participate; another said he would participate, but added that it would never happen; a third said he would not be involved under any circumstances.
When contacted by Velo for an opinion on what should happen to the titles that once belonged to Armstrong, Greg LeMond, the only American to have stood atop the Tour podium in Paris and not be stripped of his titles, was to the point.
In an email, LeMond wrote, “Your question about what to do with his titles deserves no answer. Titles? According to USADA, and the last I heard, the UCI and the Tour de France, Armstrong doesn’t have any Tour de France titles to speak of. This is not debatable, and I don’t want to debate it.”
The bigger question is this: How can the sport’s authorities strip one winner, for cheating, and leave other cheaters in the books? Were Armstrong’s heights so great — a scion of the sport’s biggest race and opportunistic American advertising dollars — that only he should plummet so far?
“There’s no good answer for that,” said Garmin-Sharp CEO Jonathan Vaughters. “You really can’t award it to anyone. And then you could say, ‘Well wait a minute. Is it really fair that Jan Ullrich gets to keep his?’ And I don’t know the answer to that. I feel like all of this is just a part of the history of the sport and it’s not a particularly fun history. And I don’t know how you really deal with that. I think fairness is something that is essentially impossible to arrive at in this situation.”
ASO, which owns the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and other major races, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
UCI president Pat McQuaid, when it was announced that the UCI was relieving the Texan of his titles, said: “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. Lance Armstrong deserves to be forgotten in cycling.”
That, however, is impossible. Armstrong seared himself into the conscience of cycling, on Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, and on Oprah Winfrey. His staccato denials of PED use are worthless now; but he’s not gone, and the hypocrisy of the record books is a mockery. If Armstrong is to be forgotten, why not the others? And what would it mean to have a list of Tour winners with a 20-year gap?
“It’s obviously a sad state where fans who’ve followed a wonderful sport are confused on who the heroes of the sport should be, or shouldn’t be. The sport ought to take action going forward to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said USADA CEO Travis Tygart, whose organization was largely responsible for Armstrong’s undoing.
“Nobody likes it,” Tygart added. “If you like sport, you don’t like it. But you don’t like the fact that all the athletes, or many of the athletes within that culture, decided to cheat. Although you can’t lose sight of the fact that there were many that didn’t cheat that rode at the pro level. But more importantly, there were a lot who left the sport because they were unwilling to do it to stay in the sport. And those are the true victims and the true heroes that ought to be celebrated in the history of the sport, not those that intentionally violated the rules and later had their results disqualified.”
Garmin’s 24-year-old Andrew Talansky, an outspoken advocate for clean racing, said it didn’t help matters to remove Armstrong from the books, and that Armstrong’s era was a grim time for cycling in general.
“When you look back at that time, you need to look at the entire era, not just piece by piece, or race by race. Sure, you can remove Lance Armstrong from the record books, but that doesn’t help us move forward. It’s just. It’s completely just [that Armstrong was sanctioned]. It was a dark time for cycling as a whole,” he said.
“It wasn’t just Armstrong, it was the entire culture of that time. Lance was the most prominent figure of that time period, and for many he’s come to represent that era, but that’s not fair, either. You have to acknowledge there were hundreds of people involved in that culture, not just one person. People seem to be dwelling on it, getting stuck on it, whether it’s right or wrong. Taking away titles … it’s all pretty irrelevant now. Luckily, we don’t have to live in the past anymore. With all the things that have come out, we can put that era behind us. That’s all allowed us to move forward.”
And so cycling moves blindly forward as it always has, but without reconciliation of its monochromatic past, grayed by cheats, frauds, and champions.
“I don’t care a lot about my legacy,” Armstrong said. “What I do care about is … I will not accept, and I don’t think my generation will accept — and I’m talking about the dudes who fucking rode the pave on the Champs Élysées — I don’t think any one of those 1,400 guys, a 200-strong peloton for seven years, I don’t think they will accept me being characterized as the Bernie Madoff of sports, the biggest fraud in the history of sports, the greatest heist in the history of sports. I don’t think those boys who rode over that pavé with me in Paris will believe that.”
In his photo at USA Cycling, Lance Armstrong is smiling, a young world champion in a white jersey with rainbow bands. He didn’t know then what would happen years later on the road, just like we don’t know now what will happen years later on the road — or in the record books. And though the rest of his pictures are gone, and his name is written in invisible ink in the record books, those yellow jerseys, those infamous yellow jerseys, haven’t gone anywhere.
“I mean… hey, those jerseys are still hanging on my wall,” Armstrong said. “Nobody came to get them.”
At least not yet, they haven’t.