LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) – The 99th Tour de France started this weekend cautiously optimistic about its future just as what could be the most devastating doping case of its history is flaring up.
Allegations leveled against seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, Belgian sport director Johan Bruyneel and four others by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) are casting an uncomfortable spotlight on cycling’s past just as insiders insist the sport has turned the page on doping.
With everyone focused on the start of the season’s most important bike race, however, Armstrong’s case seemed very far away from the hustle and bustle unfolding in Liège.
“Whatever is going in the past, whatever is going in courts, in America or anywhere else, there is no consequence to me. I do not engage with it,” said Team Sky manager David Brailsford. “I do not even think about it. It’s not relevant to me. It’s not relevant to what I do. What might have happened in the past doesn’t even cross my mind.”
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency leveled explosive allegations against Armstrong and company on June 12th. A review board decided late last week that it would hear USADA’s case against the six men at the heart of its investigation into what the agency alleges was a 14-year conspiracy to use and distribute performance-enhancing drugs and other doping measures. Armstrong has never been sanctioned for a positive drugs test and has vehemently denied the most recent allegations.
Brailsford’s attitude was common among the majority of riders and teams queried by VeloNews during the opening weekend of the 99th Tour.
Many say what might have happened a decade ago has nothing to do with the new reality of today’s cleaner, more credible peloton, where “clean teams” and the UCI’s Biological Passport have helped to break the chain of organized doping within the sport.
While the fight against doping remains a major hurdle for professional cycling, the mood at the start this weekend in Liège was one of cautious optimism about the future.
Yet few seemed willing to dig up the past.
“I am looking forward, I am not looking back. This is another story. I remember I beat Lance here by 1.6 seconds eight years ago, but I am not looking at what was many, many years ago,” said Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) after winning Saturday’s prologue. “In the end, it’s something Lance, Johan, and all the other people involved have to deal with that.”
Although Armstrong retired for a second time from professional cycling in early 2011, the contentious Texan remains a lightning rod of controversy both within and outside the sport.
Armstrong has repeatedly denied taking banned performance-enhancing products during his Tour reign from 1999 to 2005 or during his comeback beginning in 2009.
USADA, however, is pushing forward with allegations of widespread doping during the period spanning from 1999-2011.
A three-member panel ruled Friday to formally charge Armstrong and the others. An arbitration hearing could be scheduled this fall.
Others charged include Bruyneel, Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, Spanish doctors Pedro Celaya and Luis Garcia del Moral and Spanish trainer Pepe Martí.
The allegations are perhaps the most devastating Armstrong has ever faced. The Texan has successfully fended off previous claims, arguing that he never tested positive for a doping product during his professional racing career.
Rather than claiming a specific instance of doping, however, USADA is alleging a widespread doping conspiracy, arching over more than a decade that could ultimately see all seven of Armstrong’s Tour titles stripped away.
That raises the unsavory possibility of having the sport’s most successful Tour rider erased from the history books.
If Armstrong were disqualified, would the Tour rework the results sheet? Or simply put an asterisk next to those Tours?
That question is one that Tour officials do not want to have to face. Tour chief Christian Prudhomme refused to comment to VeloNews about the story.
“I cannot comment on Armstrong,” Prudhomme said Sunday. “We need to wait because with all this, ‘if, if, if,’ we will only have if’s. It’s for that we cannot comment.”
Indeed, few seemed in a hurry to speak openly about the explosive charges leveled against Armstrong and his entourage that once ruled the Tour with an iron fist.
Jonathan Vaughters, a former Armstrong teammate at U.S. Postal Service who now heads Garmin-Sharp, was hesitant to give too much away.
Vaughters’ own experiences as a pro in the 1990s provided the genesis to create the Slipstream Sports franchise behind the Garmin squad, one of today’s “clean teams” that has served as a model for cycling’s new reality.
When asked by VeloNews if allegations against Armstrong were relevant to the peloton of the modern Tour de France, Vaughters was succinct.
“I don’t think it’s relevant at all. Zero relevance. It’s irrelevant to this Tour de France,” Vaughters said. “I’m here to run a great team to do the best Tour we can after winning our first grand tour. We have to leave it at that.”
Away from the Tour, Armstrong’s legal team is preparing to battle USADA over the dramatic charges. Bruyneel, meanwhile, has decided to steer clear of this year’s Tour, something riders on his RadioShack team were more than grateful about.
“(Johan) is being professional and stepping back. I remember one year, I was with Bjarne (Riis) on the team, and he was stepping back, and he was stepping back to let us be in peace. That’s how it has to be,” Cancellara said. “What everything else that comes, well, it’s also not my problem. Sorry.”
In 2007, Riis, then the boss of Cancellara’s CSC team, infamously admitted to having used EPO during his 1996 Tour win.
While some argue that no one should stand above the rules, other players within the sport wonder whether the messy business of going after Armstrong might cause more harm than good.
But USADA is an independent agency pursuing its mission removed from the internal interests of professional cycling. Still, many insiders expressed the collective weariness about the ongoing allegations that have dogged Armstrong during much of his active career and have followed him into retirement from cycling.
Many have already made up their minds about the polarizing Texan — guilty or innocent. If the review board ultimately found him guilty, would the ruling change that much?
“To me it’s absurd to make war on the past. The sport of today has changed and that’s what’s most important,” said Liquigas-Cannondale team manager Roberto Amadio. “Where does this stop? The past is past.”
“What’s important to the sport right now is that is that we are on a very good path,” Amadio continued. “We have today a credible sport, perhaps less spectacular, but for sure it is cleaner and more beautiful. What’s happening right now in America doesn’t have anything to do with today’s reality. Personally, I find it sad that this is happening.”
The Tour has withstood endless scandals during its long history, but just how devastating a ruling against Armstrong might be to the sport remains to be seen.
Many are fearful that a guilty verdict would present not only another setback for cycling, but also threaten to overshadow the real progress that the sport has made.
“I feel sorry for guys like Mark Cavendish, Tony Martin, Bradley Wiggins. They had nothing to do with the past,” said ex-pro Brian Holm, who admitted that he took EPO during his racing years at Telekom in the 1990s.
“I believe that the new guys are clean,” Holm continued. “They are not doing a thing that’s wrong. People should believe that. From what I have seen, these new guys are doing things the right way. They really get mad when there is a doping case today. They get very angry, because they know there are still stupid guys who will try to cheat. The majority of the peloton is clean.”
Armstrong isn’t anywhere near this year’s Tour de France, but the seven-time winner’s legacies, both good and bad, continue cast a heavy shadow over the sport he once dominated.