WHEN the image of Lance Armstrong appeared on a television screen on August 23 I thought little of it. It was deadline day. Would Armstrong defend himself against charges laid against him and five others by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for doping and other offences?
I was three days into a holiday, sitting in a bar with my wife on a balmy evening in Santa Monica.
Of course Armstrong would fight USADA. It would go to a hearing later this year. Or so I thought. No sooner had my wife and I switched on the hotel television than we saw the news: Armstrong had given up the fight. I was shocked.
But by the next day I was disappointed. I had wanted to hear Armstrong answer USADA’s charges. He needed to respond to everyone in cycling who deserved to know the truth.
Because of the myriad conflicts it created, the Armstrong era heightened the omerta that had existed in the sport when it came to doping. In my book What A Ride I wrote that the Armstrong Tour de France reign was bitter. He thrived off the constant conflict on and off the bike.
One regular among my travelling partners was the British writer David Walsh, of The Sunday Times, who, with former professional cyclist and now journalist Paul Kimmage, has driven the quest to expose dope cheats. In doing so, both clashed headlong with Armstrong, whom they accused of doping. Both have also been critical of the cycling media for failing to expose the gravity of doping in the sport, and for being complicit.
They have a point. Had more cycling media – including myself – pursued doping more vigorously in the 1990s and early 2000s when it rocketed, maybe we would have stymied doping’s explosion in cycling and paved the way for those who race clean to get the recognition they deserve earlier.
But it was not so easy to take on Armstrong. Since refusing to answer USADA’s charges, Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour victories. When he claimed the first of those wins in 1999, the success story that unravelled spawned an explosion of business: media, advertisers, sponsors and race organisers all jumped aboard.
Me, too, having known Armstrong since late 1992 when he turned professional after the Barcelona Olympic Games and having followed his career leading up to his 1996 diagnosis for cancer.
Walsh recently wrote of Armstrong being a puppeteer of a media reliant on access to him. There was also media reliant on the advertising gains from sponsors linked to Armstrong and his team. Cross him at your peril.
I found out how access could be cut off as quickly as it was given. Twice I was on Armstrong’s black list, both times for being a friend of Walsh. The first time, the ban was lifted after I reminded Armstrong that ”guilt by association” was what he had accused the media of because he claimed the disgraced Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari was a friend of his.
But by 2003, when he knew Walsh and I were still travelling together, that ban was slapped back on for the remainder of his Tour-winning years.
It was still an issue in the 2004 Tour. Walsh recently wrote that he was told by someone in our car in Liege that we could not take Walsh because it would threaten co-operation with Armstrong.
I can’t recall all the facts, but I did not ask for him to not be in the car. I had nothing to gain from that and I had no access to Armstrong anyway.
I once had a stand-up over that friendship with Armstrong’s sport director Johan Bruyneel, and in 2003 with his press officer Jogi Muller, who said I must choose my friends as he reinstituted the ban.
But I did later apologise for how it unfolded in 2004, and I still regret whatever circumstances led to Walsh not following that Tour with us. The incident does reflect, however, how divisive Armstrong could be in the Tour.
That my access to Armstrong resumed was only by chance. When he announced his comeback in late 2008, I found an old email address and sent him a message. He responded.
His return to racing in 2009 was a huge story, especially in Australia where he made his comeback at the Tour Down Under.
I knew, too, that for Armstrong’s comeback to succeed, he needed to rebuild bridges with the media. And so access to him returned, including a visit in late 2009 to Austin in the United States where I interviewed him about his comeback year highlighted with a Tour duel with winner Alberto Contador as he finished third.
He spoke of his disdain for Contador and admitted he fed off one-on-one feuds and created them to reach his optimal competitive edge. So when he failed to win in 2009 and 2010, I felt he must have been clean. I didn’t think he would risk his career and all he stood for by doping at age 38.
Fast forward to today – to the aftermath of USADA’s verdict that Armstrong used drugs to win his Tours and during his comeback years, which ended last year. While I have reported on the doping accusations, I have aimed to be impartial until official evidence is presented. It is believed USADA will make its evidence public as soon as next week.
If USADA’s evidence proves doping, I will admit I got it wrong. These are times when everyone in cycling must be ready to acknowledge their errors if they really want the sport to advance. I am ready.
Rupert Guinness has covered 24 Tours de France.
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