Throw that name casually into a conversation amongst a group of cyclists and watch the sparks fly. There are those that will defend him, “everyone else was doing it, so he won his Tours by being the best,” (a point of view not without validity) and those that can’t hear his name, “he’s done more damage to the sport than any other single individual,” (another reasonable point).
If you follow cycling at all then you’ll know a fair bit about the Armstrong story. If you live on Mars you’ll have probably at least heard about possibly the greatest ever fall from grace, top sporting icon to international pariah in the time it took for the USADA reasoned decision to hit the world wide web.
The cancer sufferer, the cancer survivor, battled through adversity to win the Tour de France, probably the worlds most gruelling sporting event, a record seven times. The all American hero, he had the President on speed dial. The rumours were there, of course they were. Cycling is a sport mired in drugs since its very inception as a profession, but as he said many times, “I’ve been tested thousands of times and never failed one.” That Christophe Bassons broke the Omertà was deemed by Armstrong to be the ultimate treachery, and that Omertà still sadly exists in the sport today. Whilst seven years of victories have been expunged from the records due to doping, there are still many people involved in cycling that doped back in the days of Armstrong et al.
His famous quote “People ask me what I’m on and I tell them, I’m on my bike six hours a day busting my ass, thats what I’m on,” wasn’t untrue. He was a very talented rider, and at a time when almost the entire peleton was riding with precious little blood pumping round their EPO, he still had to work hard to ensure that he remained top of the tree. But there was more than just hard work, there was the bullying, almost megalomaniacal insistence on dominating everyone, in all ways, that still lingers. His famous chase down of Bassons after his column in L’Equipe was one of many instances of his overbearing manner. A lot of people say they can’t pass judgement on Lance Armstrong as they’ve never met him. I never met Pol Pot or Heinrich Himmler but I would wager I know enough about them to suggest I wouldn’t have liked them very much.
And then of course we bring up the name of Marco Pantani. A flawed genius, a brilliant climber. I read on a cycling forum yesterday “I’ve always wanted a Bianchi, ever since I saw Pantani climbing away from everyone on one,” and I totally understand what he means.
Pantani was no different than the remainder of the doped up peleton, his untimely death due to cocaine overdose, something clinically very difficult to do, but I loved Pantani. I adored watching him climbing the hideous mountains and cols, effortlessly leaving everyone behind him. His bald head glistening in the sunlight, bandana flying behind him, his tiny frame seeming to almost fly up impossibly steep roads. I’ve read pretty much everything there is to read on Pantani, a sad, lonely often confused man away from the bike, a determined Exocet on it and still I crave more reading material on The Pirate. One of my favourite ever Tour memories was the battle he had with Armstrong on Le Ventoux, one of the most brutally beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Did Armstrong let him win up the final, impossibly steep peak to the weather station? I like to hope not.
Pantani leaving Ulrich for dead on the Galibier in atrocious conditions, driving rain and no more than 4C, is for me the best single ride I’ve ever seen. He blew him and the remainder of the peleton into dust. It was a visceral attack, violent and yet joyful to behold. With 11km’s to the top of the Galibier and a further 40 odd kilometres to go before the finish at the summit of Les Deux Alpes, Pantani put the hammer down, physically and mentally destroying the field. Pantani plus a lot of broken shells of men finished the race that day.
Why do I loathe Armstrong so, and yet adore another doper? Answers on a postcard please.