A French mountain road in July. In the real world, it leads to a quiet, anonymous carpark called La Plateau de Beille, a ski resort called Le Alpe de Huez, or the wind blasted radio tower that crowns the ‘Giant of Provence’, Mont Ventoux. The Tour de France, though, is not the real world.
Today, these outposts are amphitheatres. Wind rustling in the grass is replaced with shouts and screams, cowbells and horns. All along the tortuous route to the summit, excitement crackles like electricity, heralding the approach of the gladiators. The noise grows greater as the excitement builds into a pitch. Suddenly, he arrives. Effortlessly powering up the road, the gradient barely registering on his face, he powers past in seconds.
Agonising minutes later, others pass. The big German, Jan Ullrich, grinds past, head down, forcing himself up the slope, his team’s pink jersey strangely incongruous with his gritted teeth and toil. Kazak Alexander Vinokourov, was riding for his late compatriot Andrey Kivilev, while Italian Marco Pantani burnished more his glittering record. Joseba Beloki, the Spanish challenger and Thomas Voekler, the young French darling, tried to hang on to the race, their faces masks of pain.
After conquering cancer, Lance Armstrong defeated the Tour de France. The Texan won the competition seven times in succession, a feat never achieved before. In every victory salute, every bike ride with the president, every fundraiser, he personified determination. “Pain is temporary”, he preached, “quitting lasts forever”. In his steely-eyed, loose-limbed style, he carried the hopes of thousands of cancer patients with him, as he soared to the summit of the world’s hardest bike race. Statistically, Armstrong should be dead. Instead, he stood, a living, breathing icon, handing out ‘livestrong’ bands and crushing the Eurocentric world of professional cycling.
But the crowds that lined the roads of the Pyrenees and the Alps for him every summer did not see the other side of the story. They did not see cyclists getting up in the middle of the night to stretch to prevent their artificially thickened blood from stopping their heartbeat. They did not see Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong’s trusted lieutenant, staring at his black urine in horror following a botched blood transfusion. They did not see Armstrong sat in his team bus, injecting himself with testosterone, or micro-dosing EPO stored in a thermos flask.
Armstrong was a cheat. At the time, few suspected him. The number gradually swelled, until USADA, the American anti-doping agency, announced that he and his team had run the ‘most sophisticated doping programme of all time’, and that Lance would be stripped of his seven Tour de France victories. He responded with a photograph of himself at home, surrounded by his collection of yellow jerseys.
Eventually though, after years of witness intimidation and bullying, he admitted that he had cheated. The great superhuman athlete, gliding to victory up lung-burning mountain passes, had indeed been just that. Armstrong had gone beyond the limits of human possibility, and it was all a lie.
It was not just Armstrong who took drugs to go ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger.’ Ullrich confessed to taking drugs throughout his career, and said that he did not want to be rewarded for those tours in which he came second behind Armstrong. Beloki and Ivan Basso, two of Armstrong’s challengers were named in the Spanish Operation Puerto investigation, while Vinokourov, who won the Men’s Road Race at the London 2012 Olympics, was also banned for transfusing blood. Pantani was unceremoniously pulled from the 1999 Giro d’Italia, the day before his victory would have been confirmed, for artificially increasing the capabilities of his blood.
Ominously, the problem has not gone away. Today, Vinokourov manages the Astana team of current Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali – the same team that recorded three failed drugs tests in 2014. Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, a young Devon cyclist, had his results stripped for a doping violation.
Other sports are not immune. The International Athletics Federation has recently been accused of covering up hundreds of athletes with ‘suspicious’ blood values. Olympic silver medallist and swimmer Michael Jamieson warns: “Cycling is most definitely not alone”. Armstrong has taken the fall, but drugs cheats are not confined to the bike.