Strained relations: Lance Armstrong and the media have often been at odds.WHEN Lance Armstrong appeared on television on August 23, I thought little of it. But it was deadline day. Would Armstrong defend himself against doping charges laid by the United States Anti-Doping Agency?
I was three days into a holiday, sitting in a bar in Santa Monica with my wife. Life away from the bike was pleasant. Of course, Armstrong would fight USADA. It would go to a hearing later this year. Or, so I thought.
No sooner had we returned to our hotel from dinner and switched the television on that we learnt Armstrong had given up the fight. I was shocked that Armstrong had walked away, despite reading the statements from Armstrong and USADA. But by the next day I was disappointed. I had wanted to hear Armstrong answer USADA’s charges. Those charges were so serious I felt he needed to respond – for his sake if he was innocent – to everyone in cycling who deserved to know the truth, and still do.
Because of the conflicts it created, the Armstrong era heightened the ”omerta” which had wrongfully existed in the sport when it came to doping.
In my book What A Ride, I wrote of the Armstrong reign being bitter years on the Tour. Conflict on and off the bike was constant. He thrived on it.
One of my regular travelling partners was Sunday Times writer David Walsh who, with former professional cyclist and now journalist Paul Kimmage, has driven the quest to expose dope cheats. In doing so, both have crashed into conflict with Armstrong, who they have accused of doping. Both have also criticised the cycling media for failing to expose the gravity of doping in the sport, and for being complicit with the problem. 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 been collectively stronger to tackle it sooner.
Maybe the discussion and investigation of today would have existed earlier, stymied doping’s explosion in cycling and paved the way for those who race clean to get the recognition they deserve earlier.
But as unbelievable and wrong as it was, it was not so easy to take Armstrong on. Since refusing to answer USADA’s charges, the agency has stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories. When he claimed the first in 1999, the success story spawned an explosion of business: media, broadcasters, advertisers, sponsors and race organisers all jumped aboard.
Yes. Me too, having known Armstrong since late 1992 when he turned professional after the Barcelona Olympics and leading up to his 1996 cancer diagnosis.
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 with him and his team. But cross him and you did so 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 Walsh’s friend. 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 disgraced Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari was a friend. But by 2003, when he knew Walsh and I were still travelling together, the ban was slapped back on for the rest of his Tour-winning years.
It was still an issue at the 2004 Tour. Walsh recently wrote that he was told by someone in our car in Liege that we could not take him because it would threaten co-operation with Armstrong. I can’t recall all the facts, nor do I dismiss how Walsh feels about what happened. What I do know is that I did not ask for him to not be in the car.
I had no access to Armstrong. And Walsh was a mate. Despite having argued that with Armstrong in emails, I once had a stand-up over that friendship with his sport director, Johan Bruyneel, and in 2003 with his press officer, Jogi Muller, who said I must choose my friends as he put a ban back on me.
But as Walsh wrote, I did later apologise for how it unfolded in 2004, and I still regret whatever circumstances led to him not following that Tour with us.
My access to Armstrong resumed by chance. When he announced his comeback in late 2008, I found an old email address and sent a message. A few minutes later 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. Fair enough, I thought. So regular interview access returned, including in late 2009 a visit to Austin, Texas, to follow him for two days on his cancer campaign and interview him about his comeback year, the highlight of which was his third-place Tour finish behind winner Alberto Contador.
He spoke of his disdain for Contador and admitted he fed off 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 all he and his career stood for by doping to do it.
Fast forward to the aftermath of USADA’s verdict that Armstrong doped to win his Tours and during his comeback years. While I have reported on the doping accusations – since then and recently – and Armstrong’s responses, I have done so with the aim of being impartial until official evidence is presented. It is rumoured USADA will make its evidence public soon, possibly next week. That could be a lethal blow for Armstrong after last week’s launch of The Secret Race, co-written by Dan Coyle and former teammate and confessed doper Tyler Hamilton, which details doping allegations against him.
But if USADA’s evidence proves true, I will admit I got it wrong. These are times when everyone in cycling must be ready to acknowledge the errors of their beliefs and judgments if they really want the sport to advance. I am ready.
Rupert Guinness lived in Europe covering cycling from 1987-96. He has covered all of the world’s biggest races, including 24 Tours de France.
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