Tainted Sport

08.24.12

In France, Decision Against Reviled Lance Armstrong New Doping Stain on Troubled Tour

The USADA’s desire to strip the cyclist of his seven Tour de France titles surprised few in France, which never warmed to him anyway. But who would be declared winner of all those races? Tracy McNicoll on the implications for the famed race—and its long roster of alleged dopers.

‘"Lance Armstrong Dethroned." "Lance Armstrong, The King Deposed." "Armstrong, The Downfall of the Boss." Headlines in France were cutting on Friday morning as the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that the illustrious seven-time Tour de France winner would be stripped of his record-holding collection of titles.

For pundits and fans in France—many of whom never warmed to the unheard-of feat of the cancer-beating Texan who so thoroughly dominated their race, cycling's holy grail, from 1999 to 2005—the news was met with little surprise. But it’s generally seen as yet more bad news for the century-old, three-week long, more than 3,000km annual July spectacle, a race considered one of the world's most difficult sporting challenges. And so as the cycling world awaited authoritative comment from the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport's global governing body, French media solicited a peloton of domestic cycling stars and consultants.

"It isn't a surprise. We had been expecting this for a while," Daniel Baal, the former president of the French Cycling Federation, told France Info radio. "I have only one wish now. It's that the USADA follows through and puts the whole dossier on the table because we must know everything, and notably all the accomplices who benefited Lance Armstrong," Baal argued. "I think we won't have a lot of revelations, but instead a lot of confirmation of things we suspected, because one can imagine that in each of Lance Armstrong's teams the doping was organized, scientifically organized, with one major objective, to slip through the net of the antidoping controls," Baal added.

"It's very bad news for cycling. It's again a problem of this infamous late-90s/early-2000s period," former French cyclist Bernard Thévenet, who won the Tour in 1975 and 1977, told RTL radio. "That said, if Armstrong cheated, it is completely normal that he be sanctioned ... If the UCI follows the USADA, it's true that the message is very strong to cyclists and to those around them who would be tempted to cheat."

Cycling consultant Patrick Chassé called it "very good news for the sport as a whole" despite the "disastrous image" it lends to cycling. "The deception has been brought to light and that's very good," he told i-Télé. Separately on French radio, Chassé added, "When Armstrong was winning his titles, it was said that the Americans weren't looking to fight doping." He told Europe 1 radio that "we saw that there were a lot of scandals in the United States and, in the end, this result today is mainly because in France, around the Tour de France, there is a very severe battle against doping that continues to bear fruit."

Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, another former top French rider, told Europe 1 radio, “It’s too late. For me, it’s finished, it’s forgotten. I’m not saying he doped, I’m not saying he didn’t dope, I’m just saying that he is being relegated too late.”

But reactions in France went beyond schadenfreude. The former French road-racing star Laurent Jalabert conceded that, if Armstrong's titles are stripped, there must be a reason. But his ambivalence was clear on RTL radio. "Armstrong is someone who has always been controversial. He is someone who has always done cycling good. I am persuaded that he is an immense champion. He made this sport popular beyond Europe," Jalabert argued. "He had a lot of success, a lot of talent, and also a way of practicing his sport that didn't please everyone. There were those who adored him and those who hated him because he was arrogant, because he loved to win by crushing his adversaries. And so I think this news will please some. I am a bit torn."

Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, another former top French rider, told Europe 1 radio, "It's too late. For me, it's finished, it's forgotten. I'm not saying he doped, I'm not saying he didn't dope, I'm just saying that he is being relegated too late."

Indeed, some French commentators on Friday are making a game of sorting out who would be declared winner of the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005 if Armstrong's titles are officially stripped. Recall that early this year, 2010 second-place finisher Andy Schleck was declared the winner of the 2010 Tour de France after the Spanish rider Alberto Contador was stripped of his title in another doping scandal. In 2007 Spanish cyclist Oscar Pereiro was declared the winner of the 2006 Tour de France after American rider Floyd Landis was stripped of his title for doping. Pereiro, too, had initially finished second.

But in comments today, French media noted that some of the runners-up to Armstrong's Tour victories—including Jan Ullrich, who finished second to Armstrong in 2000, 2001, and 2003—have been charged or suspected in doping cases themselves. In some cases, suspicion taints multiple top-place finishers, making establishing true rankings a tough task. Johan Hufnagel, a cofounder of France's version of Slate, argues on that site that to come up with the top 10 finishers above suspicion in the 2005 Tour de France, for example, one has to look as far down the official ranking as 28th place.

The surreal implications are ripe material for sarcastic French tweeters. In Le Monde's compilation of the funniest tweets on the subject, @j_pariente fancies his 2013 Tour chances on a Vélib, one of Paris's popular curb-side rental bikes. "With a little luck, I'll be declared the winner in 20 years or so," he jokes. Another issues a comic proposal to rerun all of the Tours consecutively starting next month and through November. And French-language tweeters are giddily rehashing an old Lance Armstrong doping joke on Twitter, conflating the accomplishments of Armstrong's namesakes, and countrymen, Neil and Louis. The gist? "Next we'll learn that Armstrong never walked on the moon and couldn't play the trumpet."