If you followed the Tour de France back in the early to mid 90's then you knew who Lance Armstrong was before he became famous. He was a typical tour racer. He would win a stage here and there but he was never in the fight for the overall lead. You may even remember the image of him in the last tour he rode before being struck with cancer. He had to abandon the race as he was worn out and couldn't go any further. The last shot of him was pedaling away from the race on a dreary, rainy day.
Then came the cancer saga and a new Lance Armstrong was born. He was forced to start from scratch and adopted new training technique and methods. And then in the summer of 1999, Lancemania exploded on the scene as everyone who had no idea what tour racing was all about got hooked as Armstrong won the first of his seven consecutive yellow jerseys.
But rumors followed him throughout his seven victories. Whether it was allegations of steroids, EPO, medications or blood transfusions, the smoke was all around him. No, he never did test positive for any banned substance while riding in Le Tour, but then Barry Bonds has never tested positive either, has he?
The tests are designed to detect banned substances, masking agents and metabolites of both. As we know from baseball, the cheaters are always one step ahead. There is so much money involved in the sport that the medical directors of the teams spend their time conducting Frankenstein-type experiments to determine how to increase the number and size of red blood cells without tipping off the testers.
It's not about the steroids. Steroids might be used during training to aid the cyclists in recovering from the effects of their workouts and rides, but the game during the race has always been to get more oxygen into the riders' bodies. And the oxygen comes in via the red blood cells.
EPO was the drug of choice in the 80's and 90's. The tests couldn't detect the drug but the authorities decided that if a rider's hematocrit level (percentage of red blood cells) was over 55% (or so), then the rider was doping and he was disqualified. That's when the cheating went all high-tech.
Riders would sleep in portable hyperbaric chambers prior to mountain stages. The oxygen in the chambers would ramp up the body's production of red blood cells which would increase the amount of oxygen going to the muscles. Riders also used blood transfusions to pump up their performance. A rider would have a pint of blood withdrawn here and there during the offseason and it would be stored in an oxygen-rich environment - or it would be treated with a cocktail of various drugs. Prior to the Tour de France the blood would be placed back into the rider's system.
The tests now are more sophisticated but they are still playing catch up (it's much like the government is always fighting the last war or the last terrorist attack instead of looking ahead).
For years Lance Armstrong fought the allegations with as much vigor as he attacked a mountain pass. But the United States Anti-Doping Agency wouldn't go away. They had lined up a bevy of his former teammates and competitors who were willing to throw Armstrong under the bus. But let's face it, all of the well-known riders have either been caught doping or are dodging allegations themselves. The sport is anything but clean.
But now, instead of going before an arbitrator to fight the allegations, Mr. Armstrong has raised the white flag. The USADA said that his refusal to go to arbitration in the matter is an admission of guilt. And with that tacit admission of guilt, his record seven consecutive Tour de France wins disappear - at least according to the USADA.
Maybe Lance played it right. Without an arbitration hearing the public doesn't see or hear the evidence against him. There is no smoking gun. Mr. Armstrong can claim he was the victim of a witch hunt and walk away knowing that he never failed a drugs test during his riding career. The USADA can posture all they want about stripping him of his Tour de France titles, but the public will remember who crossed the finish line on the Champs-Elysees those seven years running.
My wife thinks it's all a bunch of crap. She refuses to believe that Armstrong cheated. She has bought into the deification of Lance Armstrong. Anything short of an admission that he cheated won't be enough to convince her otherwise. And she's just one of many who feel the same way.
By bowing out of the fight, Mr. Armstrong lives to fight another day. He can still claim he's never failed a test and that there is no proof that he ever cheated. There will always be just enough doubt for him to maintain his claims of innocence.
I don't know the truth, but I have long suspected that Lance Armstrong walked a very fine line after coming back from his bout with cancer. I do believe he cheated and bent the rules. I don't think he's the only one. But I can't prove it.