Category Archives: Cycling

The Ghost of Alpe d’Huez

Lance Armstrong is many things. He is a Texan. He is brash. He is a cancer survivor. He is a doper. But one thing he will never be is forgotten.

Of course, the president of the UCI, Pat McQuaid would like us to all develop a little case of selective Alzheimer’s and forget that Lance and the last decade of pro cycling ever existed: “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling.”

The records, now stripped, leave a gaping chasm between the years 1999 and 2005 where the world’s greatest cyclist once reigned supreme.

But it’s a troubling idea to forget such a remarkable era of a sport’s history. Our memories are the foundation for everything in our life. We remember how to put our pants on in the morning, remember where to go to work, and we remember who we are and the people we love. Without these memories we are lost.

So where will cycling be if everyone just quietly goes about their business and pretends the “lost era” simply didn’t exist?

With Lance Armstrong being named and shamed by what seems like every rider of his era – both friend and foe – cycling is trying to move on, but in the process they are forgetting a piece of who they are – and what made the sport great.

Like it or not, Armstrong’s day was an absolutely incredible time to watch cycling. He put an entire sport on the radar in North America, and provided some of the sport’s greatest moments in the process:

– The frantic dash through a field when Beloki went down mere feet in front of him.

– Crashing when his handlebars caught an errant flag on a climb at Luz Ardiden, then recovering to win the stage.

– And then “The Look”. How could anyone forget? It was one of the great moments in sport when Armstrong glanced back, stared down a labouring Jan Ullrich, and said something to the effect of, “You will always live in my shadow,” before hammering to the top of Alpe d’Huez.

(Or perhaps enjoy this montage with an incredibly fitting – and ironic – Coldplay soundtrack:)

These are the very moments that enchanted an indifferent North American audience. They were exactly what were needed to captivate us and keep us coming back the next year.

Now we know they were all accomplished through the use of drugs. But were we not entertained? How many new cycling fans were born along with Armstrong’s wins? Then of course the countless others who took from his success a message of hope and optimism. Maybe it’s better to forgive than forget in this case.

Besides, how were the USADA and the UCI’s drug testing methods not more effective through these past two decades? Surely they, just like the MLB, could have done a better job cleaning their sport up. Or maybe they were just as happy to remain blissfully ignorant to the misdeeds while the sport made headlines and broke new ground in a lucrative market?

Regardless of who was in the wrong, the whole Armstrong debacle encapsulates the bizarre nature of drug culture in our society. It has a very strange existence, especially when it comes to sport, and the area of right and wrong is becoming increasingly grey.

For cycling, it’s EPO and blood boosting that live on the front lines of the war. For baseball it was “The Clear” and human growth hormone. Meanwhile cortisone shots and Red Bull are perfectly legal, socially accepted, not without adverse side effects – and certainly performance enhancing.

Of course, blood-boosting can be dangerous. There was a rash of deaths in the 80’s 90’s when the doping methods were new and not as well understood. But the stigmatization of drug use took a toll as well – Marco Pantani battled depression after doping allegations marred his career. He eventually died of a cocaine overdose.

Lance and company obviously just had it down to a science. The use of drugs enabled him to do amazing things, inspired millions and gave us something to cheer for. Now it should all be gone despite the positivity it brought?

It’s not to condone the actions, but why Armstrong is the only fall guy one can only guess. Sure, he lied many, many, many times. He is pig-headed as they come. But he wasn’t the first guy to do it and he’s certainly not going to be the last. He was just the best when doping was at its zenith, and he made the sport what it is today.

Really, the shadow will be cast very long and very dark over the lost era. Ullrich, Pantani, Basso, Contador, Hincapie and of course, Armstrong – all would-be legends now left with legacies in tatters.

But for what? The validation of an embarrassed UCI? We all embarrass ourselves through our mistakes. It’s how we reconcile them that shows our true colours. And frankly, the UCI is coming out a bit “yellow” on this one (pun intended). Pass the buck, blame Armstrong to save face. Perhaps a look in the mirror about how they handled the last two decades would be more fitting.

Next year’s Tour will be a moment to watch – if for nothing more than to see if some form of contrition come from above.

There are signs cycling is cleaning up its act. Ryder Hesjedal recently won the Giro d’Italia and his Garmin team is known for their strict drug-free approach to the sport.

But a jaded feeling has hung over this sport for so long, who even knows when it will lift. When the possibility of an advantage exists in a competitive setting, there will always be the whispers of transgressions.

So one can only wonder, next year, when a group of riders are hammering their way up Alpe d’Huez with their lungs on fire, will they remember the legends who rode before them, or will they choose to forget? One can only hope they don’t because it’s very much a part of who they are and where the sport goes from here.