If you were new to cycling in 2012 and all you knew of Lance Armstrong was that he was a cheat, a doper and a bully you’d have been highly incensed by comparisons between US Postal and Team Sky. The coining of the #UKPostal hastag was mean and yet entirely apposite.
To explain: in 2004, despite the dodgy 99 cortisone tests and the backdated TUE, despite the Actovegin scandal of 2000, US Postal still enjoyed the reputation – at least in the media – of being a ‘clean’ team and their performances were viewed as such. Jean-Pierre Bidet, writing in l’Equipe on 26 July, 2004, explained the superiority of the team:
“They’re a unit, an indestructible mass, an invincible squadron. 8 riders with the same goal, made in the same mould, 8 riders who have put their own egos aside for one thing. ‘Recruiting excellent riders who I’m not sure will commit 100% to sacrifice themselves doesn’t interest me’ states Johan Bruyneel, the directeur sportif at US Postal, baldly. ‘They must erase all personal ambition. If that’s not the case they’ll do nothing.’ The message is clear. If Lance Armstrong has won his sixth Tour, it was his team that earned it for him. He is quick to compliment them: ‘I have the best team in the Tour, the best team in the world. I owe them a lot and I’m very proud of them.’
‘Our strong point is having a real team for the Tour,’ explains Bruyneel. ‘We don’t just pick 9 riders in June and expect them to ride for 3 weeks together in July. With us, we’re already planning for the Tour in December. And from that moment the riders assume the role of teammates. They start the race knowing they’re going to suffer for someone who has shown them supremem confidence. It gives them tremendous morale.’
How could it be otherwise when they ride every day for a man who has pushed hard work and professionalism to the ultimate?
The secret of US Postal is to have achieved, little by little, an alchemy between obscure riders, ready to break themselves on the bike for their leader, and more popular riders who forget who they are for 3 weeks. In this quasi military set up, everyone knows exactly what his job is. Ekimov and Padrnos rosk solid on the flat, Then, when the road starts to gently rise, Noval and Beltran enter the scene. When the gradient gets harder, it’s the turn of Hincapie, Rubiera and Landis to ride tempo. Finally, when it kicks up, there’s Azavedo to take their leader as far as possible. The Posties do everything for Armstrong and he does the rest.
One must understand that, in this system, there’s no place for risk taking and individual ambition. ‘When I ride the Classics I think only of myself’ says Hincapie, ‘when I ride the Tour I think only of the team’. As well as a generous financial donation to each of them from their patron, those happy to be elected for the Tour team have to be prepared to make sacrifices: ‘Lance knows how to motivate them,’ states Bruyneel. ‘He knows the right words so that everyone knows that their role is absolutely essential. To work for someone is to suffer for someone.’ It’s forbidden to free yourself, on pain of attracting your employers wrath. It’s something that Tyler Hamilton, Kevin Livingston, Christian Vandevelde or Roberto Heras know to their cost, who have chosen to depart in order to live their own lives.
For those who choose to remain, the reward is the absolute support of their boss…and then, sometimes, when the race allows, the Texan can play Father Christmas. Last year Pena inherited the Maillot Jaune after the Posties success in the team time trial. This year, on the road to Villard-de-Lans, the Texan did all he could to help Landis win the stage. These gifts never diminish his superiority. On the contrary, they reinforce it.”
US Postal defined the blue print for the rise of the current Superteams. They took what had worked in the past: the attention to detail, nutrition, training methods, common goals and shared ambitions. Telekom were part way there, Festina pushed it as far as possible – and then came US Postal. There have been other Superteams in the history of the race – leaders have long had their faithful lieutenants in the mountains – but the sight of a full blown mountain train, ascending so quickly and easily on even the toughest mountain terrain that they have to brake uphill, that’s uniquely a US Postal invention.
Sir Dave Brailsford has taken that US Postal blueprint, wedded it to a geek’s obsession with ‘the numbers’ and welded the Superteam to beat all Superteams. It’s popular because it works, it delivers results – primarily in stage racing (there are too many ‘unknowns’, too many factors it’s impossible to control in the Classics). It’s boring as hell – though you have to admire the discipline – and, unfortunately, because of its associations with doping, it looks suspicious as hell, too. But if we strip doping out of the equation and focus only on what happens on the road, it would be more surprising if a team setting out to achieve stage race domination didn’t utilise the Postal plan – it is utterly, deadly effective and incredibly difficult to solve. If cycling is ‘chess on wheels’ then the Postal Plan puts the other teams in a perpetual state of check. The sport, the fans, the UCI, the stakeholders deperately needs Sky to be doing the Postal Plan clean – and what a kick in the teeth for the Boss and the Hog (nicknamed for his ability to ingest industrial quantities of performance enhancers, or so the story goes) were it to be so – but the presumption of innocence shouldn’t preclude a team from scrutiny. Just my two penn’orth.
But is it really any surprise that the rise of Telekom, Festina, US Postal occurred in the super doping era? Put simply – and believe me this stuff has to be put simply so my brain can take it – blood doping (EPO, blood transfusions) increases a rider’s red blood cell (RBC) count. RBCs carry oxygen to the muscles – the higher a rider’s RBC count the better their aerobic capacity and ability to resist fatigue.
In 2007, a study was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology which showed that EPO use by a groupof fit amateur cyclists improved time to exhaustion by a massive 54% after 4 weeks. Now imagine the implications for an elite cyclist training for an endurance event like a Grand Tour or for a 200km + stage with a mountain top finish. Coupled with a rise in peak power output over the same period of 13% you can begin to see how Riis powered away so effortlessly to Lourde-Hautacam, or how Pantani virtually sprinted up the Alpe or how Armstrong motored to Sestriere and why EPO, and then blood transfusions and microdosing post the EPO test became the dope du jour in the professional peloton.
Now factor in Human Growth Hormone (HGH) that replaces fat with muscle and helps optimise body fat ratios, improves muscle recovery which impacts on training efforts and may improve the connectivity between muscles thus helping to prevent injury; steroids like testosterone that stimulate the body’s own production of EPO and aid muscle recovery and cortisone that dramatically reduce swelling and inflammation to aid recovery – a cocktail of performance enhancing drugs that were a key part of the US Postal recipe for success. Armstrong wasn’t lying when he said he trained harder, he was simply economical with the truth about how he enhanced the ability to do so.
The real shock of the USADA Reasoned Decision was not that US Postal were doping – but that there was no ‘wonder dope’, no new product that only US Postal had access to, just the same old, same old. The ‘mystery ingredient’ seemed to be the alchemical combination of Dr Ferrari and a compliant UCI.
2005 THE LAST OF ARMSTRONG
Lance Armstrong stood on the podium for the final time in his career on the Champs Elysees in 2005 and was allowed, for the first time, to deliver a speech. And what a speech it was:
“Sorry, I’m going to have to say this in English, because obviously my French is not good enough. The first thing I’d like to say is that obviously to end my career with this podium is really a dream podium (Basso and Ullrich came second and third respectively – Ullrich’s 5 second places equalling those of Zootemelk and earning him the right to be identified as this era’s ‘eternal second’).
This is a guy (Ullrich) who has challenged me and our my team in the race – I’m going to get to Basso just hang on – but he has challenged us on all levels for a long time and he is a special rider and a special person.
Ivan is, I don’t know, it is tough to race with Ivan he is too good of a friend and he is perhaps the future of the Tour de France. So Ivan, this next year maybe this is your step, or Jan maybe yours, I’m out of it so it’s up to you guys.
I could not have done this without an excellent team and an excellent sponsor in the Discovery Channel – we have absolutely the best programme in the world, the best trainers, the best soigneurs and the best mechanics and I owe them everything, a lot of great people and a lot of great years have gone into this.
But finally the last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics. I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe it. You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people. I’ll be a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live. And there are no secrets – this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it.
“So Vive le Tour for ever. Thank you!”
How they must have laughed at the after Tour party: ‘best programme in the world’ (snicker) ‘I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles’ (guffaw) ‘You should believe in these athletes’ (rolls on floor in hysterics). The ‘cynics and the sceptics’ like myself and a growing number of others continued to refuse to believe in fairytales, pots of gold at the end of rainbows, Creationism or any other form of myth. We knew he was doping even though we had no ‘proof’ – though for some it seemed that not even a hastily grabbed Instagram of Armstrong with the syringe in his arm would be enough.
Certainly not the news that Armstrong’s 1999 samples had tested positive for EPO – l’Equipe devoted a four page spread to what it called ‘the Armstrong Lie’. The tests were done in order to refine the existing EPO test but could not be used to sanction any rider. Interestingly, the story became about how l’Equipe had managed to match Armstrong’s sample numbers with the ‘anonymous’ samples – what got lost in the noise was the fact that nobody was actually denying that the numbers matched in the first place.
Armstrong predictably called it a witch hunt and reiterated that he’d never tested positive. A new doping narrative started to emerge – the noble ‘clean’ Anglo Saxon versus doped up ‘n’ dirty Johnny Foreigner. Speaking in 2007, Pat McQuaid, now President of the UCI, stated: “There is a clash going on at the moment between two cultures. The Anglo-Saxon culture and what I might call the ‘Mafia’ Western European culture. The Western European culture has to some extent, I won’t say condoned doping, but because of their culture in life, the way they deal with everything else in life, they accept certain practices. The Anglo-Saxon cultures, which would be the Netherlands, Germany, England, Denmark, are the complete opposite. They have a completely different approach to the doping problem. I feel that it’s very important that at the end of the day, the Anglo-Saxon approach wins out. If it doesn’t, then the sport is doomed” (the President of the Italian Federation, Renato di Rocco, wrly remarked ” I would like to say that I find the French progress against doping very profound and valid. We will look to follow that example. As to the Anglo-Saxon model cited by McQuaid, we will try to stay away as much as we can from the Australian or the Canadian models – they, too, are Anglo-Saxon.”)
It’s extraordinary how recently doping has become the narrative of the Tour de France. That’s not to say it hasn’t always woven its tendrils through the history of the race – it would be foolish and unrealistic to think otherwise. But the Armstrong years brought about a seismic shift that not even the Telekom/Festina battles could reproduce – allowing Armstrong to become the story of the race allowed doping to become the story of the race. Armstrong more than any other Grand Tour rider has been a lightning rod for doping allegations.
I started writing about cycling in the 90s, running my own websites on Geocities (remember that?) and sending updates from the French scene to what turned out to be Cyclingnews. The first Tour I really followed online was 1996. The point is that for the first time I and others like me were able to connect with each other through the power of the Internet. It was wonderful, sometimes disturbing, often combative. But we could connect to each other and, more importantly, share our suspicions at those ‘what the fuck’ moments. So I blame us bone idle fucking wankers (TM Bradley Wiggins) for voicing our concerns. We let the genie out of the bottle. We made it all about doping.
The internet is riddled with confirmation bias – like dodgy geezers seeking out those we similar proclivities, we normalised each other’s dirty thoughts, we could gather in our dingy corners of the web and whisper ‘they’re all at it’ knowing that we all agreed they were.
We wanted transparency, honesty – we demanded that the UCI stop protecting certain riders and persecuting others, we weren’t prpepared to accept that the riders who got caught were simply ‘bad apples’ when we knew the whole damned barrel was rotten. We wanted to ‘burn it down’ but not because we hated the sport or wanted to ruin it. Rather because we wanted back the sport we loved and felt we’d lost – to commercialisation, globalisation, corruption and rampant self interest. We fought what we thought was the good fight precisely because we loved the sport. Because we wanted the sport to once again be the story.
But we reckoned without the Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body. Federation Francaise Cyclisme president Jean Pitallier was pretty certain Hein Verbruggen was still pulling the strings when the UCI launched its ProTour initiative in 2005. Alleging corrupt and fraudulent practices at the UCI he told cyclingnews in 2007: “If doping is a real threat to our sport, I think that there are even more dangerous issues threatening us. I want to speak about money-making and corruption, which are actually not without link to doping. I personally have the greatest concerns about the way in which the ProTour has been created and organised by the UCI.” Pat McQuaid’s tenure as top dog at the UCI has seen it climb the unofficial league table of corrupt governing bodies – it currently stands third behind the IOC and FIFA.
I knew Armstrong was a doper in 1999. I started posting my views – my unsubstantiated, unevidenced opinions – on every cycling forum going. I’ve watched the defence of Armstrong change from ‘he would never take dope’ to ‘he never tested positive’ to ‘everyone was doing it’, ‘it was a level playing field’ and finally ‘but he did so much for cancer’. And slowly the evidence began to emerge. I stopped being one of the lone, crazy internet voices because there were more and more of us convinced of the same truths – Armstrong had doped, his team had doped, the systematic doping exposed by the Festina scandal had never gone away. But the time it really hit me, when I realised my gut feeling had been right all along, was during a DM conversation with Bill Strickland after his ‘Lance Armstrong’s Endgame’ piece. I remember feeling – what? Triumphant? Not really. Vindicated? Certainly. Pleased? Not really. What I felt was right. I’d been right all along based on nothing more than my visceral reaction to watching Armstrong ride his bike. Always trust a woman’s intuition…
So watching Lance Armstrong’s carefully controlled ‘confession’ to Oprah Winfrey offered nothing new – not even the opening declaration of doping. Old news, Lance. What I wasn’t prepared for was the absolute lack of empathy, the smirking sociopath who giggled when he couldn’t remember whether he’d sued Emma O’Reilly because he’d lost track of all those lawsuits, who grinned when he declared that, whatever he did call Betsy Andreu he never called her fat. Who teared up only when his own reputation, his loss of sponsorship was impugned. Who knew that Lance Armstrong – the man who ruled his team with a rod of iron, who bullied and cajoled teammates into doping for his self interest, who attempted to destroy the lives and reputations of those who spoke out against him, was such a self pitying little choad? As @ny_velocity so beautifully put it, you could see him parsing each statement through the forumula ‘what would a real person say?’ That this man had been allowed to get away with it for so long – by the UCI and sports organisers who were desperate to crack the American market, by journalists desperate for access, by fans desperate to buy into the cancer jesus myth, by everyone who declared he was intimidating and charismatic and not to be messed with – was the truly shocking revelation of the Oprah interview. That he wove half truths and obfuscation and downright lies into the narrative of his much trailed ‘confession’ was only to be expected from a man desperate to reframe his own myth. That the monster turned out to be the very thing he so despises – a fucking little troll – was the only pleasant surprise.