As I write the Lance Armstrong saga is still twirling away; revelation and statement, bombshell and rumour. Today’s news again included collateral – the departure of Bobby Julich from Team Sky, following his confessions over doping in the Armstrong posse of the 70’s. Fascinatingly, despite the sport’s genuinely low profile, this Lancething has become a fully-fledged sporting monster, substantially outgrowing the cycling hinterland. In its black and whiteness, its moral and dope-linked certainties, this is one Recognisably Juicy Story – something for everyone to hang a prejudice or molten opinion upon – even though only six of us in Britain watched Armstrong win all this stuff. In France; whenever he won it. On Channel 4.
Yup, suddenly, we all want to spout polemically on the Tour – you do call it just like ‘the Tour’, right? – something we knew nothing about until wooh, last Wednesday? Because it’s a pearler, this; a truly striking and intoxicating fable where the appalling quality of the breach of honesty at its devilish heart cries out for reaction from honest folks like us. Downing again our Doritos, we rise magnificently to bawl in outrage ’til the thing splatters exponentially across the screens of lives normally blissfully immune from interest in U.S freakin’ Postal. And the guy himself goes from being a cancer-defying god to a hollow cheat and liar. Who goes on lying, woodyabelieveit?!?
Who goes on lying… about drugs. Because it’s presumably just too big a deal to row back from this very biggest of porkies; the one that was SO big he felt (in his kingly arrogance) unimpeachable, unassailable, unapproachably clear of exposure as the blood-doped fraud he was. He who bullied and led; he who made blood transfusion an essential part of his winning process. (Yes, that’s er… blood transfusion – lying in the back of a bus – I picture him in some zonked-out cruciform, arms splayed – with ‘fresh’ blood coursing in like some scarlet, performance-enhancing elixir.) See? It’s beyond mere sporting crime and well, we-ell into symbol. And that’s properly big, right?
The fact that Armstrong is an American Icon does surely add some spice to all this. Witness the outbreak of world class wallowing amongst lefty Europeans as another absurd empire falls. Rarely, surely, has there been a clearer or better confirmation in the eyes of the liberal Old World of the essential unchristian hypocrisy of that same Great Nation – Lance’s – the one that gave us U.S. Postal. It’s right up there with Evangelical Frauds and Preacher Paedophiles; it has the quintessential grossness, the lies, the money, the betrayal. We’re loving it, aren’t we?
Armstrong won the Tour 7 times and yes he did fight off cancer. (I’m hoping nobody discovers some link between EPO and surviving cancer, by the way; that could just get too weird.) But given the serial extravagances here, surely, for this All-American Sinner, there must be an appropriately massive revenge of the masses. Some distant Asphixiatingly Brutal Punishment Planet we could send him to? Where they wear bright orange overalls, maybe? Imagine please the amount of labo(u)r – the amount of galactic rock – Lance Armstrong might un-zip, at peak physical condition in a 12 hour sesh. He could supply the Alpe D’huez Freeway Project with enough stone to cobble a way back to Paris, (ma’an).
That may or may not be funny. Certainly most of this story isn’t. Not in terms of what it says about the sport of cycling (we hope to god just) at that time and about fairness and honesty generally in the competitive situation. People, it seems, cheat in order to win? (Who knew?) The implications for cycling in terms of the likes of Rabo-bank pulling out as major sponsors and likely further and broader allegations arising, are seriously serious. As a slightly more than part-time supporter of the sport, I have gone fulsomely on record to argue for greater and wider acknowledgement of the magnificent levels of courage and athleticism and generosity found in the peloton. And – in defence of cycling, perhaps – I want to re-state some of this. Sadly, with certain qualifications.
If cyclists are clean then they are amongst the finest of athletes because;
- It takes rare courage and belief to race in a pro road race. Injury through crashes or wear and tear of weary limbs are likely. You descend mountains at around 60 miles an hour, in a racing group – which is phenomenally scary. Every fibre must be brilliantly, twitchily engaged for every moment.
- Stages in the Tour de France (for example) last typically for about 6 or 7 hours, or 120-odd kilometres. Even when these are not mountain stages, there are climbs; it hurts. Levels of fitness are astonishing. They ride 20 stages – 2,500 miles.
- Despite the intensity of the physical effort, top riders must be race-aware/tactically cute/ready to cover ‘attacks’. So there is little or no rest. In one of the truly great, possibly unique facets of the sport, ‘domestiques’ dedicate themselves day after day to enable success for a team leader they know has the best chance for an overall win. They ‘chase down’ opponents whilst their leader preserves energy; they ‘carry him’ through agonising climbs or periods of tiredness. And the ‘domestiques’ rarely win – not themselves. It’s about sacrifice; how wonderful is that?
The Olympics – and specifically the sensational and ongoing dominance of GB Cycling in the velodrome – gave us a further, more widely-appreciated reminder of the appeal of haring around on wheels. In fact one of the most anticipated events at London 2012, for die-hard fans and more recent converts was the Olympic Road Race, where a certain Manxman (Cavendish – one of the greatest currently-active champions in any sport, in my view) was challenging for gold. That didn’t work out. But cycling went big anyway, for that short period. Offering the hope that perhaps the most significant Olympic legacy may yet be the health/environmental benefit accruing from people getting off their arses… and onto their bikes. How wonderful is that?
‘Midst the genuinely shocking revelations from former team members/masseuse/(any-time-now?) Lance Groupie, the story of the (actual) action itself is subsumed. Racing action that included the most monumental effort from both Armstrong and his team. Sprinting and climbing; thousands of miles. Effort we now dismiss, if we can, from our memories. As we try to dismiss the inevitable daft questions; could he/they have won without doping? How good was he, really, without that stuff? And what about Indurain?
If we wanted to trawl back through (and beyond?) the major records we might be able to gather some picture of how good Armstrong was before; how good
he honestly might have been.
But that’s irrelevant now.
Today Bobby Julich- who coughed – became a former coach to the mighty Sky Professional Road Racing Team. Because as a team they have sworn to have no truck with cheating. And aeons ago, alongside and quite possibly for his team-mate Lance Armstrong, Julich cheated by doping. Whether this is the end of his career in the sport, who knows? But it is the end of something.