Thirteen years ago, on an idyllic summer’s afternoon, I stood by the side of a road in the cheesemaking region of Cantal and watched Lance Armstrong speed by, tucked into the peloton, on his way to his first victory in the Tour de France.
It was 1999. A year earlier the Tour had been in tatters, devastated by a doping scandal that had seen police and judges raiding riders’ hotel rooms in the middle of the night, seizing drugs. Armstrong’s successful arrival on the scene after overcoming cancer “is symbolic of the way the Tour de France is emerging from its own battle against disappearance,” said the tour director at the time.
His victory would be “highly symbolic of the combat he fought against death, and that we are fighting against doping,” promised Jean-Marie Leblanc.
It turns out that Mr. Armstrong beat the Tour de France organizers just as he had beaten death. Today the International Cycling Union (UCI), accepting evidence gathered by the US Anti-Doping Agency that Armstrong was a serial drug-taker, stripped the US “champion” of all his titles.
Even back in 1999, people suspected something was wrong. “Armstrong is very strong, too strong, incredibly strong,” commented one French TV journalist the evening that the US rider won a punishing stage in the Alps.
But that could be dismissed as sour grapes, as an American charged into a sport long dominated by the French and swept all before him, “winning” a record seven Tours.
And we all wanted to believe in Armstrong, from the UCI – for whom he was a magnificent money-spinning mascot for his sport – down to the lowliest spectator standing by the side of the road who admired his comeback courage.
Well, not all of us. My (French) wife never believed Armstrong was clean. She never believed that any of the top riders were clean. In argument after argument over the years I called her cynical, pointing out that my hero had never failed a drug test. Now I know that she was just clear-eyed.
Everybody who followed Lance during his “glory days” will have his or her own way of feeling disappointed now that the truth, it seems, is out. (Armstrong has not acknowledged any guilt but says he will not challenge the USADA report.)
For me, the news has tainted some of my happiest memories of reporting in France. I used to love covering the Tour, driving halfway up an Alp one July afternoon, parking my car near a steep hairpin bend, picnicking sociably with whomever I found parked next to me (and there were always crowds of families waiting for the Tour to come by), sleeping in the car, and then the next day enjoying the hoopla of the publicity caravan before the riders themselves came by, just an arm’s length away, thighs straining, sweat pouring from their chins, teeth gritted.
It was an annual treat for me, the most fun I have ever had at work. And watching these men at the outer edges of endurance even inspired me to take up cycling myself: I had a go at one of the Tour’s mountain stages in 2005 and I spend my weekends now cycling up and down mountains. (You can imagine what my wife thinks about that….)
Lance Armstrong, whose feats excited a lot of interest in American newspaper readers, was my passport to this kind of fun, and now that we know he was cheating, it feels almost as though I was piggyback cheating by having that fun.
Even at the time though, I realize, I could not entirely ignore my wife’s doubts. That evening in July 1999, as I dictated my article over the phone to my editor, I ended it with something the spokesman for Credit Lyonnais bank, the Tour’s leading sponsor, had told me.
“We cannot be certain that a scandal won’t drop on our heads,” he said. “I have just one hope: that the rumors about Lance Armstrong are not true.”