Arrivée de la 2e étape du Tour de France 1969. (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Seven Tours: The Corrosive Effect of Cheating in Sports

I didn’t realize what had been stolen from me.

I was stunned to hear, a couple of days ago, that Chris Froome had just won his third Tour de France riding for Team Sky, which has won four of the last five. Stunned not by the achievements so much — although they are pretty impressive — but rather the fact that another Tour had come and gone and I had hardly noticed.

There was a time, not that long ago, when my years were marked by the annual rite of July which involved spending untold hours in front of the TV watching the rolling chess game play out over the imcomparable French countryside. The photography of the event was, and continues to be absolutely outstanding. The commentary was also an important part of the show which for as long as I can remember has been provided by the very distinctive and highly knowledgable Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. Bobke ‘Tore Day Frons’ Roll and Frankie Andreu rounded out the on-air talent and became part of the unique coverage of the Tour. From Prologue to the parade on the Champs-Élysées every moment was worth watching.

The Tour was what invigorated my love of cycling. Not that I was or ever will be any good at it—not even close to be being race quality, even in my wildest imagination, ever — but humming along an open country road opened up the possibility that you were that brave, lone rider on the break with the time gap steadily growing. I bought the stuff from the companies with their logos on their jerseys. I memorized the team colours and began to recognize the strange sounding European sponsors’ names. I even thought about planting sunflowers to remind me of those televised moments where the peloton sliced through fields of them in the plain stages between the Alps and the Pyrenees.

And then came Lance.

From 1999 to 2005 I watched as he knocked off one, two, three and eventually seven consecutive Tour victories. As Armstrong himself once said, he had been blessed with little more than an unusually high VO2 max but the rest of his success was attributed to his absolutely legendary work ethic. Listening to those who had trained with him, it seems at least that part of the story was true. As other teams gave up when it became too wet or too cold, Lance would demand his team do just one more climb before they called it a day.

Pas de cadeaux.

Then there were the books which I voraciously read. I marveled at how close Armstrong had come to death and bounced back. His physicians at the time gave him virtually no chance of survival, with the cancer having spread to his lungs and brain. I believe they eventually pegged his chance of survival at 10%. Subsequently they said that was really more a question of being kind — of leaving the door open just a little in the event of some highly unlikely miracle.

The highly unlikely miracle did occur, however, and when the opportunity arose many years later to put those Livestrong wrist bands on my desk at work, I did so and sold a bunch of them to raise money for the foundation. To say I was totally hooked on the whole dog-and-pony show would be an understatement.

There are two Armstrong moments which stick in my mind, even now: the first was Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour from Bagnères de Bigorre to Luz Ardiden. Armstrong was crushing it in a climb when his brake lever snagged the handle of a spectator’s souvenir musette. Instantly, Armstrong was on the ground, bewildered by the suddeness of the accident. He got back up, only to have a pedal break a little farther up the course. Despite all of that, he rode back, won the stage and even extended his lead by 52 seconds. It was everything you could possibly hope for wrapped up in one bike race. From tragedy, triumph.

Then there was the individual time trial up the mythical Alpe d’Huez in 2004, a stage which he eventually won, along with four other stages in the same year. This seemed to be it. Armstrong was arguably the greatest professional cyclist ever to take up the sport. His abilities seemed to be, ironically, superhuman. After each successful Tour he used to sit down with Charlie Rose for an hour and it always seemed like he wasn’t just a gifted athlete, but just a really decent human being. I think Charlie thought so too.

Then the rumours began to swirl that all was not what it seemed on Planet Lance. Actually, the rumours had been swirling for a while but they seemed to be the petty-mindedness of the jaded cycling press. I personally dismissed that snarkiness, with my logic in Lance’s defense always the same: why would somebody who had been that sick further tempt fate by introducing any foreign substance into his body? For a stupid bike race? It just didn’t make any sense. So I continued to believe and heaped scorn on the doubters.

The rest of the story is one that most already know. In 2012, the US Anti-Doping Agency said the rumours were in fact true: Armstrong had been doping all along. He would eventually be stripped of all of his cycling accomplishments from 1998 onwards including the seven victories in the Tour.

I still refused to believe it, for the same unchanging reason. Why would somebody who had come so close to death run the risk of poisoning himself for the sake of sport? Then came January 14, 2013 when Armstrong finally sat down with Oprah Winfrey. Until the precise moment I heard it from his lips to my ears I continued to believe that there would be some explanation, something other than the basic fact that he had cheated.

Sadly, that was not to be the case. Which brings me back to this year’s Tour de France. I tried watching a little, and many of the features that I knew and loved from years ago were still in place, not the least of which was the fantastic photography and the inimitable Liggett and Sherwen. They are as great as ever.

It’s not the same, though. It will never be the same. Are the stunning accomplishments of Tour riders truly the result of hard work and determination coupled with winning the genetic lottery? Or simply the result of a nominally successful science experiment coupled with a clever masking program. I’ll just never quite know for sure.

Although drawn from a wholly different context, I honour the late Elie Wiesel who said: “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” That’s the Tour for me now. I just can’t bring myself to care any more.

©2016 Terence C. Gannon

(Thank you for reading and your comments are welcome. If you enjoyed this, please click the little green heart, below. This essay is also available as an episode on the Not There Yet podcast.)