On July 17th 2004, an estimated one million people (including your correspondent) made a homage to Tour de France Mecca: Alpe d’Huez. It’s a beast of a climb in a car, yet alone on a bike. Its 21 hairpin bends, each named after famous cycling climbers, guide all comers from Bourg d’Oisans in the valley 14km up to the ski station in the thin air of Alpe d’Huez. 2004 was different however, as on this occasion, the riders would climb individually in a time trial (the race of truth the French call it). Unable to pace or support each other, it was simply rider versus mountain. I positioned myself near hairpin 21, at the bottom of the climb and waited with the masses as, every 2 minutes, another rider passed by, some already grimacing and out of the saddle, dancing on the pedals in a desperate attempt to arrive at the summit without losing too much time. Most of us were there to see one cyclist in particular power his way to what would be his 6th Tour de France win. That day Lance Armstrong started and finished in yellow, setting the second fastest ever time for the ascent (37minutes and 36 seconds). My fellow supporters and I pushed him up with tumultous cheers as he passed: there had surely never been a more popular, charismatic, iconic and inspirational rider than Armstrong and his performance that day effectively sealed Tour de France victory for the sixth successive time.
Two years later as a newly qualified primary school teacher, my Year 4 class and I were discussing our heroes and what it was that made them heroes. Armstrong’s fight back and survival from testicular, lung and brain cancer, his incredible journey back to cycling fitness, his even more amazing feat of winning the gruelling Tour de France (incidentally a race he would never have won had it not been for his cancer which changed his body physiology allowing him to be a contender in the grand tours rather than the one day classic races) and then winning it a further six times made him an excellent example for modelling to my class.
Yes, the French press had made continued allegations about whether performance enhancing drugs had been involved in his comeback but I, like most, simply felt this was sour grapes because an American had had the audacity to win a French race not once, but seven times in a row. However, the allegations never abated and when, in the summer, Armstrong announced that he “no longer had the fight in him” to contest the US Anti Doping Agency’s case against him, I knew I had been duped. A man given a 40% chance of survival from cancer and making it, possesses the most fight of anyone.
Cycling’s governing body yesterday stripped him of all his professional victories, including his seven Tour de France titles, but as yet there has been no admission or contrition from Armstrong himself and the longer this silence remains, perhaps the less likely it becomes. His Livestrong cancer awareness charity has, for several years now, been his raison d’etre (his emergence from retirement in 2009 was only to provide Livestrong publicity) and may indeed be his atonement. The sad truth is that for many non cycling fans, the whole sport is tainted by such a high profile case, which is already affecting funding of professional teams, both in the UK and on the continent. It will be interesting to see how the UK public balance our fantastic Olympic multi-gold-medal-winning cycling performances and Bradley Wiggins’ incredible Tour de France victory against the sad and sordid tale of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.