Oct 31, 2012

Bookends in Grey: Who Wins Armstrong's Tours?

With all that went on with the revealing of the United States Anti-Doping Agency's [USADA] report in the last few weeks, there's been plenty of talk about what would happen if Mr. Armstrong was stripped of his 7 yellow jerseys in the Tour De France.  Does 2nd place win, and each person moves up a step on the podium?  Poor riders, ripped off by Lance.  They should've had their chance in the spotlight.  Trying so hard while Lance cheated so despicably.

But in fact, it's not quite that simple.  In fact, it's not simple at all.  Let me show you, by looking at the first tour Lance won.  The Miracle Tour:  1999.  Who should be the real winner of that year?  Because here are the facts on the top 10 riders.  Click on the links, of course, if you have the stomach to read more.


Alex Zülle was second that year.  He admitted to taking EPO the year before with Festina.  Had he cleaned up his act in one year?  You tell me.  In 3rd place was  Fernando Escartín.  A police raid called the Giardini Margherita in 1998 found his name involved.  Was he clean a year later?  Which brings us to fourth place, Mr.  Laurent Dufaux, who freely admitted to doping to the police during the Festina affair of 1998.  Anyone see a pattern yet?

In fifth that year,  Ángel Casero would later be named in the 'Operacion Puerto' cycling case. Was he clean in '99?  You tell me.  His countryman,  Abraham Olano tested positive for caffeine and/or "undisclosed products" in 1994. He was also later implicated in that Giardini Margherita raid in 1998 along with Escartin.

In 7th place, and with no known scandals surrounding him, we may possibly have the winner of the 1999 Tour De France:  Italian  Daniele Nardello.  There's no chance our 8th place rider will follow him on the podium, though:    Richard Virenque tearfully admitted during that Festina affair to taking EPO and HGH.  I sound like a broken record, but are we to believe he saw the error of his ways and suddenly rode clean for the 1999 Tour?  

As we continue to try to round out the podium, we look to  Wladimir Belli, listed as ninth place that year.  In 2001 members of his team were indicted for taking banned substances. But nothing particular aimed at him. 2nd step on the podium?  Maybe.  And finally, our 10th place rider,  Andrea Peron was listed during the 2001 San Remo raids by police. Nothing clears attached to his name, and he's made no confession. Possibly 3rd place?

As you can easily see, this is a murky mess with few clear "winners".  You can begin to understand how people like Malcolm Gladwell (author of the Tipping Point, etc.) can say that Lance Armstrong was simply the best cheater among a sport of cheaters.
Frankly, the more I look at this stuff, the less I am interested in cycling as a sport.  It has its romance and its glory, but I loved it for that, not because I wanted to become some kind of cheating expert, an amateur doctor who knows what each of the cheating drugs does to help athletes win illegally.

So Lance went on to win many more Tours, some in quite convincing fashion.  He was the unquestioned Godfather of the Peloton.  But as he approached a record 6th and then 7th TDF wins, how had things changed?  Had cycling begun to clean itself up?  Or had the head cheater made everyone else follow in his wake, in order to make a "level playing field" as some have said?  Let's take a look at the top 10 of  his final tour (that he won- he did ride a few more) and see if we can find an honest man to give the jersey to.


Second place rider Ivan Basso was suspended as part of Operacion Puerto.  He admitted in 2007 that he'd been involved, but said that he had been checking things out with the intention to dope, but never did.  Sure, Ivan.  Jan Ullrich tested positive various times but also admitted to associating with Dr. Fuentes of the Puerto scandal during his career.  He has also paid money to "end investigations" in his home country of Germany.  In addition, many of his Telekom team admit they used EPO, much like Mr. Armstrong.  Francisco Mancebo was implicated in the Puerto case as well.  His team fired him for it, so that is perhaps telling as to his guilt or lack of.  Vinokourov won the Olympic Road Race in 2012, but before that, he tested positive for blood doping in the 2007 TDF.  Levi Leipheimer recently admitted during the USADA investigation that he had taken banned substances in 2002-2004 with US Postal.  Had he stopped by 2005?  Maybe...Michael Rasmussen left the 2007 TDF in explosive fashion over questions of his whereabouts when testers tried to test him in the months before the Tour.  Rabobank then fired him.  Again, why did his team leave him so quickly?  You tell me.  Cadel Evans admits he met Dr. Ferrari for a test once but only that.  As of October 2012 he has proclaimed his innocence.  Floyd Landis admitted as part of the USADA investigation (and before) to doing HGH and Testosterone (which was of course why he was stripped of the TDF title in 2006.)  And finally Oscar Pereiro, who tested positive for salbutamol, but the French later recieved a certificate of exemption for.  Innocent?  Maybe.  Still, at the risk of being wishy-washy, an asthma inhaler is pretty tame compared to the other methods, so perhaps Mr. Pereiro is our winner?  Sort of?

So you see, things aren't as simple as we wish they could be.  Even when we discover the bad apple or see a worm crawl out of it, it's only a means to discovering that the whole apple cart is full of bruised and compromised fruit.  Are there honest athletes in this sea of cheating?  There could be.  This may be one of those glass-half-full situations.  But facts are facts, and clearly, the glass is at least half empty.

If this sort of thing interests you, by all means take a look at the USADA report, and pick up Tyler Hamilton's book The Secret Race, that details how Lance's Team went about their cheating.  As for me, I'm going to go for a bike ride to clear my head.

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