For the past 10 summers, I’ve had an odd July morning ritual. I wake up early and watch the Tour de France. What compels me to watch this low-tech version of NASCAR? One reason: Lance Armstrong and his inspiring story.
I was extremely saddened a few weeks ago when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) stripped Lance of his seven Tour de France titles, citing alleged instances of doping. Although most headlines posted that Lance had indeed lost all of his titles, it is still unclear whether the International Cycling Union (UCI) will actually go through with this drastic ruling.
The USADA was able to claim victory because Armstrong refused to challenge his case in court, saying that the USADA courts are a farce. While there is some legitimacy to this notion—for instance, the USADA uses standards of proof far below those of a regular American court—it is more likely that Armstrong knew that he would probably lose.
The USADA allegedly had testimonies from 10 former teammates and associates of Armstrong, all of whom claimed to have seen Armstrong participate in widespread doping. Most importantly, one of these 10 people was Armstrong’s right-hand man, George Hincapie. Unlike former accusers, such as Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, Hincapie’s honesty is beyond repute.
Typically, I have little sympathy for dopers. However, there are several mitigating factors that I believe leave Lance’s accomplishments intact.
First of all, cycling is well known for its notorious drug culture. Miguel Indurian, winner of five Tour de France titles in the 1990’s, admitted to cheating after his retirement. Winners before Armstrong, such as Jan Ullrich, Bjarne Riis, and Marco Pantani, have also been caught for drug use. If Armstrong is included, that would make 15 straight winners of the Tour de France, from 1991-2005, drug cheats. Cycling’s current star and two-time winner, Alberto Contador, has also been caught for doping. The UCI cannot even give most second place finishers the title of winner, because they too have taken performance enhancers. Given these facts, it seems hard to indict Armstrong for doping in a race where everyone else was doping too.
Secondly, Armstrong won his titles as much through guile as he did with physicality. Armstrong was an incredibly skilled tactician, scoping out the course months in advance, putting in tons of repetitions on all of the key stages. His teams were always solely focused on Lance winning, whereas other teams were not. It is incredibly reductive to say Lance just won because he doped and not because of other physical and mental factors.
Thirdly, while many imagine doping as having to do with steroids, the term has a much different meaning in cycling; although arguably, doping tactics in cycling are much more disturbing. Given the physical toll of a monthlong 3500-4000 race, cyclists take drugs to keep their blood oxygen levels at a high percentage to maintain their endurance. Thus, Lance would allegedly give himself blood transfusions of his own blood in an attempt to maintain his edge—seemingly a lesser form of doping.
Fourth, the USADA clearly has a vendetta against Armstrong, vigorously pursuing him before all others. When an agency does this, they bring themselves into disrepute.
Finally, it is hard to ignore that Lance Armstrong has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research and inspired thousands of people with his story.
For all these reasons, I will continue to support Lance, and confirm that those early mid-summer days were not a waste.
— Joshua Freedman