Lance Armstrong’s Shadow Looms Large Over 100th Edition of Tour de France
Will an exceptionally beautiful 2013 Tour de France help everyone forget an exceptionally ugly ride for cycling? Presented with great pomp in Paris on Wednesday, the route for the special 100th edition of the world’s most famous—and more recently, infamous—bicycle race is a stunner. Only 48 hours after disgraced American hero Lance Armstrong, 41, was officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, the videos of sweeping Alpine and Pyrenean vistas on the big screen at a crowded Paris conference center were a dreamy pause from the fallout of the biggest scandal in the sport’s history. In France, the downfall of Armstrong, who has repeatedly denied doping, was met with a mix of schadenfreude, soul-searching, and new calls to rescue cycling’s holy grail, arguably the world’s most arduous and spectacular sporting event, from drug-tainted infamy.
That ugly flipside weighed heavily at Wednesday’s Paris ceremony. On Monday, the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport’s governing body, concurred with the findings of a landmark 1,000-page United States Anti-Doping Agency report that accused Armstrong, as head of the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, of “the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
In stripping Armstrong of his Tour de France titles—seven consecutive victories from 1999 to 2005—and disqualifying all of his competitive results since August 1998, UCI president Pat McQuaid said he was “sickened” by USADA’s findings. “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling,” McQuaid declared. French daily Le Figaro’s next-day headline belonged on the obituary pages: “Lance Armstrong, l'Epitaphe,” it read. “The end of a lie, a myth, a system, an era,” noting his now best-ever tour finish was a 36th place in 1995, before his well-known bout with cancer.”
Despite organizers’ best efforts, Armstrong’s specter won’t be far out of mind when riders take on the epic 100th Tour de France’s 3,479 km, 21-stage route on June 29, no matter how distracting the scenery. For the first time, the tour begins in the Mediterranean, in Corsica, nicknamed the “Island of Beauty.” The 2013 route favors climbers—two ascents of the legendary Alpe d'Huez in a single day are a first—and touches 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the majestic Mont Saint-Michel off France’s northern coast. The Château de Versailles opens the last ride to the Champs-Elysées. The 2013 winner will climb the podium, unusually, dramatically, around sunset on July 21.
Yet in a quirk of the calendar, the 2013 Tour de France was revealed even as the seven new winners of the 1999 to 2005 races have yet to be determined. In light of USADA’s evidence, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme has pled for leaving the winner’s name blank in the history books, to underline the dark years; current and former riders, too, have come out in favor of a victory vacuum. “In the USADA report, two things are called into question, a system and an era. That era must be marked by an absence of winners,” Prudhomme told reporters on Monday. But the UCI will have the last word at a meeting in Geneva on Friday. Should the seven slots be left blank, the hiccup in the Tour de France winners chart would match its last hiatus, from 1940 to 1946, for World War II.
This may be the best course of action, as finding consensus winners for Armstrong’s stripped years would be a surreal puzzle. Recently disqualified Tour de France champs—2006’s Floyd Landis and 2010’s Alberto Contador—have seen second-place finishers Oscar Pereiro and Andy Schleck, respectively, promoted after the fact. But as USADA’s report argued, “The era in professional cycling in which [Armstrong] dominated as patron of the peloton was the dirtiest ever. Twenty of the 21 podium finishers in the Tour de France from 1999 through 2005 have been directly tied to doping, through admissions, sanctions, and public investigations or exceeding the UCI hematocrit threshold.” (Trivia fiends will note that, of the 21 accused in that assessment, the last man standing is one Fernando Escartin, of Spain.) USADA added that 36 of the 45 podium finishers over the wider 1996 to 2010 period were similarly tainted.
Addressing a crowd of 4,000 including riders and media in Paris on Wednesday, Prudhomme addressed the tour’s troubled history. “The enemy is doping. The enemy isn’t cycling, and even less the Tour de France.” Without naming names, but in evident reference to Armstrong, Prudhomme looked to offer hope for the race’s future: “Those who might have been afraid in the past of some of their colleagues need no longer be afraid. The tour is on their side; the tour will be on their side.” To a crowd that included Contador, the 2007 and 2009 Tour de France winner who was suspended six months after being stripped of his 2010 win, Prudhomme applauded one initiative to encourage teams not to rehire riders suspended more than six months. And he pointed an accusatory finger beyond riders to irresponsible managers and the shady doctors who enable a doping culture.
In France, after Armstrong’s emphatic fall from grace, the media have been dominated by schadenfreude, detailing the American’s meteoric decline one disenchanted sponsor at a time as his cycling-industrial complex topples. L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper that sparked controversy in 2005 when it claimed Armstrong’s 1999 urine samples tested positive for the doping agent EPO, wrote of Armstrong’s stripped victories, “In itself, it’s huge. It’s not surprising, just huge.”
Others were primed for catharsis. “His nauseating prize chart: thief of dreams, cheat of rankings, falsifier of legend, intimidator of the peloton. Yellow jersey of EPO injections, ace of testosterone pills, the American, more godfather than boss, has sullied the glorious epic of the Tour de France,” the regional daily L'Est Républicain opined. “The Mephisto of the bike will forever mark a black, dirty era made of lies, deception, and illusions. He wanted to be an example for the world; here he is reduced to the status of a pariah, a gangster under the threat of prison for perjury.”
There were also the long-awaited declarations of I-told-you-so after years of unsanctioned allegations about America’s cycling monolith. Pierre Bordry, the former head of a French anti-doping agency, applauded the UCI’s decision; Armstrong, Bordry has said, boasted of asking for Bordry’s “head,” or at least his job, over lunch with then-president Nicolas Sarkozy. Pierre Ballester, who co-authored 2004’s L.A. Confidentiel, was hotly solicited by the French press this week. His book with Sunday Times journalist David Walsh detailed doping allegations against Armstrong while the American was still winning the Tour de France. (The cyclist pocketed a large out-of-court defamation settlement—reportedly £1 million—from The Sunday Times after the British newspaper excerpted the book; the newspaper said this month it is now considering legal action to recover those funds.)
A handful of current and former riders have stepped up in Armstrong’s defense, including Spanish champ Miguel Indurain, who now once again shares the Tour de France record with five wins. But others seem keen to let loose. “I raced with Armstrong before his illness,” the former French rider Eric Boyer told Le Parisien. “He had ordinary talent. He never could get past a climb among the 50 to 80 best in the peloton. He didn’t have the physiological qualities to win the tour.”
But for all the focus on Armstrong’s downfall, it is lost on no one that the 1999 Tour de France—the first of his seven straight wins—was supposed to be a “Tour of Renewal” after the 1998 race was marred by another doping disaster. That massive scandal was spurred only days before the race’s first stage, when a cache of doping products including EPO was discovered in the trunk of a Festina team car. “There is something rotten in the way the entirety of the cycling world is stomping on the fallen star. Because Lance Armstrong was knowingly used to repolish the image of a sport tarnished by the Festina scandal that destroyed the 1998 Tour,” the regional daily Le Républicain Lorrain argued this week. “As long as he dopes intelligently, without getting caught: that was the implicit order in the 2000s, during which time the leader of the U.S. Postal team was an awesome promotional tool and a formidable cash machine.”
Indeed, despite its clear ruling Monday, the UCI itself has not been spared, accused in the USADA report and by a ream of commentators of turning a blind eye. “[The UCI] pretends to turn up its nose in reading the USADA report when the nauseating aroma that tickled its nostrils for a decade never spoiled its appetite,” L'Equipe charged.
The idea is to get the renewal part right this time. “So that the sport can fully unshackle itself from the past,” USADA has proposed a South Africa–style Truth and Reconciliation Commission to encourage offenders to come forward. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s chief, meanwhile, has pitched an all-sports amnesty for contrite dopers. The UCI has promised to consider such options, although some critics are leery.
“There has to be a big clean-out,” Patrice Clerc, who headed the Tour de France’s organizing body from 2000 to 2008 and claims he fell out of favor for disagreeing with the UCI, told Le Monde. “Armstrong is dead, may he rest in peace. But today, we have to dismantle the system that allowed that. [Otherwise] cycling won’t come out of it.”
All eyes now will be on the sport’s next major test, as investigators in Padua wrap up a two-year international investigation centered on Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, an Armstrong associate banned for life by USADA in July. “Before talking about amnesty, the dossiers in progress must be followed through,” the outspoken FDJ-BigMat team manager Marc Madiot told Agence France Presse at Wednesday’s tour ceremony.
In the meantime, Tour de France devotees will still have visions of Versailles and the Alpe d'Huez to sleep on. Or those long July hours picnicking in wait for a fleeting rainbow streak of jerseys to spill through a mountain pass. The 100th edition 2013 race, as mapped out to the world in Paris on Wednesday, is self-consciously a “heritage” edition, looking back at a glorious past as it struggles to move forward. Some critics complain the sport has little incentive to change as long as forgiving fans crowd the roadside, rain or shine. But to paraphrase the Tour de France’s most infamous 36th-place finisher, “It’s not entirely about the bikes.”