x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Lance Armstrong is saddled in shame

After a damning view over doping, the former seven-time Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong's reputation is in tatters.

Illustration of Lance Armstrong. Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration of Lance Armstrong. Kagan McLeod for The National

Lance Armstrong's autobiography is called It's Not About the Bike; and so it has proved, but in a way he never would have imagined. His career and reputation have gone up in smoke over the past few weeks.

A former seven-time Tour de France winner, the 41-year-old's results were this week expunged from the record books at the behest of the international cycling union, the UCI, and the United States Anti-Doping Agency, whose 1,000-page dossier into the American's doping past brought everything he had built up in an astonishing career crashing all around him.

Armstrong was always the great cancer survivor, and will remain that, but he will foremost - except in the eyes of his staunchest backers - be the guy who cheated his way to the top with a systemic doping programme by him and his US Postal Service team.

Even with all the revelations, his story remains a remarkable one. He was raised by his mother Linda after his father, Eddie Gunderson, walked out on them when he was just a young boy.

His parents had met at the age of 16 and married the following year after she fell pregnant with a son, whom she named after the Dallas Cowboys star Lance Rentzel. After the split, mother and son became inseparable to the extent that in interviews they still talk about being best friends.

His time growing up in Plano, Texas, was not an altogether happy time. In a state where American football was king, he struggled to make his sporting mark, even getting into a fight on his first day at a new school in fifth grade.

His first sporting success came at swimming before he became hooked on triathlons. At the age of 18, he left home to join the United States cycling team. "It was like my right arm was lost," his mother had said later.

His first coach, Chris Carmichael, had seen a natural talent, but he also found a stubbornness and desire not to lose that would eventually become Armstrong's downfall.

"We had this amazing athlete with incredible courage inside him," recalls Carmichael of his early meetings with the then teenager, and tells of watching his first race in which Armstrong went for broke from the outset before running out of steam and finishing 11th.

It was Carmichael who effectively moulded a racing brain for the Texan that enabled him to sign with the Motorola Cycling Team in 1992. In his first life, as it were, as a cyclist, he was good if not great. There would be two Tour de France stage victories in Limoges and a best-finish of just 36th, along with other European race victories. But there was little to suggest he would become one of the greats.

In his damning assessment of Armstrong this week, UCI president Pat McQuaid called the doping that Armstrong underwent "a win-at-all-costs programme" and former teammates have talked about the Texan being angered losing to lesser riders who he knew were doping.

There have been suggestions that the drugs he was taking played a part in the testicular cancer that followed, although that is mere conjecture. But it was in July 1996 at the Tour de France - appropriate for a race that would eventually shape him - that Armstrong started having trouble breathing and was forced to pull out after just five days of racing.

Two weeks after his 25th birthday, he was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, which had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. He had his cancerous testicle removed and, despite successful surgery, was given less than a 40 per cent chance of survival.

Three weeks after he was diagnosed, he then underwent brain surgery and three more rounds of chemotherapy. It was while in hospital that the first indicators of possible doping were revealed.

According to his then teammate, Frankie Andreu, who was with his wife Betsy in Armstrong's hospital room, Armstrong admitted to doctors that he had doped. The Andreus have steadfastly stuck to their story despite threats from the Armstrong camp and the denials of wrongdoing, with Armstrong claiming under oath that Betsy had merely made the claims because "she hates my guts".

His chemotherapy ended in December that year and, by February, he was declared clear of the disease. After his battle with cancer, he created the Lance Armstrong Foundation, or Livestrong as it has become better known, to help raise funds for cancer research. The charity raised money in part by selling yellow bracelets, which became a symbol not only for the foundation but for Armstrong's determination.

Keen to get back to cycling, he was signed by US Postal for 1998 after Cofidis, the team he had moved to from Motorola, dropped him.

Armstrong was now on the fast track to acclaim but he had made sure his success would be via the aforementioned win-at-all-costs approach. Tellingly at the time, Armstrong had said: "Through my illness, I learned rejection. I was written off. That was the moment I thought, OK, game on. No prisoners. Everybody's going down."

Just 16 months after being discharged from hospital, he entered the 1999 Tour de France and won in the quickest time in the event's rich history, a full seven minutes and 37 seconds ahead of his closest challenger, Alex Zülle. The race was not without controversy, however. During the race, Armstrong rode up alongside Christophe Bassons, a French rider who had spoken out against doping, and admonished the Frenchman. When Bassons argued: "I told him that I'm thinking of the next generation, then he said 'why don't you leave then?'"

A urine sample that year showed signs of corticosteroid and his then masseuse, Emma O'Reilly - one of the first whistleblowers in the whole saga - explained it away by saying a prescription for saddle sores was backdated. Her role with the US Postal team, it later came out, also stretched to transporting doping materials and disposing of any drugs or syringes.

Finally back full-time to cycling, he was now also a married man, having met Kristin Richard in June 1997, the couple marrying less than a year later.

On the bike, future challengers followed, namely Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki and Andreas Klöden among others, but Armstrong made the Tour his sole purpose, building his entire winter training programme around the Tour and nothing else.

It was a decision that paid off as he eclipsed the Tour's famous five-time winners in Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain, and then surpassed them, winning seven consecutive Tours as the prestigious event became known as the Tour de Lance. As he stood on the top of the podium in 2005, he was joined by his son Luke and his twin daughters Isabelle and Grace. The then US President, George W Bush, called to congratulate him in Paris.

By then, his relationship with his wife was already over, the couple having divorced in 2003, after which Armstrong began a high-profile relationship with the singer Sheryl Crow. They got engaged but then split up in February 2006. Armstrong has since had two more children with girlfriend Anna Hansen, Max and Olivia.

After that seventh Tour win, he announced his retirement from professional cycling and seemed content with life from the outside looking in.

But allegations about a doping past never went away. The Sunday Times journalist David Walsh published a book, LA Confidentiel, with L'Equipe writer Pierre Ballester to echo O'Reilly's claims, among others.

O'Reilly, who first went public about the team's drug use in 2003 and was later part of the USADA investigation to reveal systemic doping, was demonised by Armstrong as a prostitute with a drinking problem, and he had her taken to court, a case which ended in an out-of-court settlement.

In June 2006, French newspaper Le Monde reported the earlier claims of the Andreus. SCA Promotions, which had withheld a bonus owed to Armstrong of US$5 million (Dh18.3m) said they would not pay it because of the doping allegations.

Undeterred, the Texan returned in 2009 with the Astana team for another crack at the Tour de France. By then, it was clear he was no longer the rider he once was, but he still finished on the podium in third place.

The whispers got louder but Armstrong continued to deny any wrongdoing. Former teammate Floyd Landis made claims in May 2010 of wide-ranging doping by Armstrong and the US Postal riders. Another ex-teammate, Tyler Hamilton, said on 60 Minutes that he and Armstrong had taken EPO together before the 1999, 2000 and 2001 Tours.

To a certain effect, Armstrong had deflected negative attention by pointing out the global charity work he had undertaken, which he insists will still go on despite stepping down as chairman of Livestrong earlier this month. According to Armstrong, the charity has raised almost $500 million since its inception.

Still, Armstrong remained undeterred and defiant, even as a federal investigation was launched and later terminated in February this year with no charges filed.

"Extraordinary allegations require extraordinary evidence," said Armstrong, and that's exactly what followed with the ensuing United States Anti-Doping Agency report, revealing "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that the sport has ever seen".

It regaled stories of wholesale doping and riders being bullied to get in line with the programme or face the sack. Among those riders was David Zabriskie, who had got into cycling to avoid a life in drugs - his father had been a drug addict.

The revelations were far more damning than Armstrong could ever had imagined. Amazingly, he has never failed a drugs test or served a doping ban. Now, his ban is for life and his legacy in the sport he found so much success in is gone entirely.