This week appears to have the makings of a massive one in the annals of world cycling, and the chronology of the announcements has provided me with an easy headline, stolen straight from the cover of David Walsh’s book, From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France.
On 9th September, Lance Armstrong announced that he was to retire from being a retired cyclist, and return to the professional peloton. At the grand old age of 37, it’s arguably the most unexpected return from retirement in any sport. Armstrong retired in 2005, following his seventh Tour de France win.
Sporting comebacks are understandable and, in some instances, actively encouraged. When athletes leave competition earlier than expected – through illness, injury, or for personal reasons – it may be felt that they have things to prove. Armstrong himself suffered illness. He suffered one mother of an illness, which should have left him dead. Instead, it left the almost indestructible Armstrong scarred, and with a plastic testicle. His diagnosis of, treatment for, and recovery from testicular cancer is one of the most widely known and written about cancer stories in the world. Far from prompting his retirement from sport it, in fact, preceded seven straight wins in the Tour de France, and the story of the greatest comeback from illness ever told.
So why is Armstrong making a return to professional cycling? What could he possibly have left to prove? He claims on his website, or it might be one of the associated links (I’d look, but I don’t have Armstrong’s apparent drive and determination), that he wants to raise awareness of the global cancer burden. I have never worked for a charitable organisation, let alone created one, as Armstrong has, and I concede that my knowledge of the extent to which worldwide diseases such as cancer affect the population is limited. However, just how Armstrong’s return as an athlete is going to raise cancer awareness beyond those levels he’s already achieving as a former professional cyclist is something that’s almost beyond my comprehension. So, is this a case of Armstrong having something to prove, or are we to believe that, as he claims, he is returning for some higher purpose?
There are many that feel he does have something to prove – that he can win clean. Throughout his career, Armstrong was dogged by stories of doping, and his continued associations with Dr Michele Ferrari did nothing to dispel fears that Armstrong was using illegal drug products. Various sources on cycling doping claim that Ferrari was one of the best doping doctors, with unparalleled expertise at avoiding detection. His public statements reveal a pragmatist whose aims was to get the best results without getting caught. Amongst other statements, Ferrari is on public record as saying, “If it doesn’t show up in the drug controls, then it’s not doping,”, “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink ten litres of orange juice.”
Armstrong retained the services of Michele Ferrari after other top cyclists had dropped him due to his tainted reputation. Ferrari was involved with the US Postal Service Cycling Team until October 2004, helping Armstrong to his seven straight Tour victories. Such continued associations only added further fuel to the “Does Armstrong Use Doping?” fire, and even being possibly the most tested athlete on the planet* did little to ease the suspicion.
Following Armstrong’s shock announcement on Tuesday, the BBC Sport website reported on the proposed return to the professional peloton by the disgraced rider Floyd Landis. Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title, after he tested positive for exogenous testosterone following his 120km Tour-winning solo escape on the 17th stage of the race, from St.-Jean-de-Maurienne to Morzine. Landis had started the 2006 TdF as the clear favourite for overall victory, but on the 16th stage, from Bourg-d’Oisans to La Toussuire, he lost over eight minutes in the final 8km, dropping not only from the overall lead but out of the top ten riders in the race. Landis’s performance on stage 17 was initially seen as one of the greatest comebacks in recent Tour history. The urine sample taken immediately after the stage win, and return from eleventh overall to the top of the General Classification, showed banned synthetic testosterone as well as a ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone nearly three times the limit allowed by World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules.
Despite all the evidence against Landis, he has maintained his innocence throughout. Such claims are very difficult to believe, as any suggestion as to the cause of the positive urine sample has been repeatedly superseded by another, once the former cause or excuse had been discredited. Paradoxically, had Landis said something like, “Why would I use testosterone? It’s so easy to detect that I’d have to be stupid to think I could get away with it?”, I may have felt inclined to believe that he had a valid claim of innocence. However, his claims are as inconsistent as my current cycling form, and I’m not having a word of it.
I find that, on the issue of blood doping in sport, I have conflicting views. I would like to see an end to doping in cycling, and would like to see those that use doping products, ruining the sport and potentially ruining themselves, driven out of the sport. However, that would require the exclusion of those riders – proven dopers who have admitted their guilt, shown remorse for their actions, and served their suspensions – such as David Millar, of whom I’m becoming increasingly a fan, being similarly excluded. Riders such as Millar are now becoming the cornerstone in the fight against doping. In the case of Landis, however, he has shown no remorse. He has not even the strength of character to admit that he has made a mistake. I hope that he fails to get a contract for the 2009 season, and finally retires into obscurity.
* Was Armstrong the most tested athlete on the planet? If he wore the maillot jaune for half of the Tours de France he won, that’s approximately seventy tests. Add to that the additional tests that he may have been subjected to when not leading the race, in other competitions, and random out-of-competition testing. Maybe his claim was accurate?