Elephant in the room has finally been exposed
Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his Tour De France titles (AAP)
It was late January in 2011 and the sun was just beginning to rise over the ragged peaks of the Grampians.
I had left Ballarat pre-dawn, and because of delays caused by flooding on the Western highway, had taken a secondary route towards Adelaide which had swept me to the south of the famous ranges.
I hadn’t planned on attending the Tour Down Under at all.
In fact, I hadn’t the time to spare.
But with cycling legend Lance Armstrong saddling up for one final ride, I felt that I would forever regret not seeing his last race.
I stopped for a short break in Balmoral, a quiet little town that had yet to wake up, and checked on the welfare of my bike that was lying sideways in the back of our van. I smiled.
This unexpected, last minute dash to Willunga for the penultimate stage of the TDU promised to be a beauty.
I passed through Strathalbyn just as that day’s stage was finishing and immediately my excitement began to bubble. Cameron Meyer and Thomas de Gendt shot from the main street after crossing the finishing line and almost side swipped our car as they swerved onto the busy bypass I was taking. It was impeccable timing.
Arriving in Willunga later that afternoon I scouted out my camping spot – a small park just a couple of hundred metres from the centre of town and the base of the Willunga Hill climb. I hauled my bike from the van, poured myself into my lycra, and set off to experience the slope myself.
A sharp ramp as the hill climbed out of town seemed to be the worst of it, and I spun my way to the top, passing a few other cyclists on the way (and of course being passed myself) before following the ridge top route that the pros would take on the morrow.
I lost my nerve on the descent back into McLaren Vale. The darkening hour, coupled with a twisting, unfamiliar road and a strong cross wind saw me reaching for my brakes as, at 65 kilometres per hour, the front of my bike began to weave dangerously with each gust.
By the time I arrived back at the park, its parking area had filled with motor homes. As I rolled out my swag on the lush grass for a well earned sleep, it felt as though I was at the Tour de France. The atmosphere was already building and there was a carnival feel in the air. By three in the morning though I was cursing as pop up sprinklers squirted into action, drenching me in a matter of seconds and ruining what had been a peaceful night under the stars.
I rode over to McLaren Vale the next morning and watched the riders sign in, before racing back to Willunga (against a substantial wind) in a bid to resume my position before the peloton arrived.
There were people everywhere. The finish line area was packed like sardines and the hill was lined with supporters along both sides. I only caught glimpses of Armstrong as he streaked past, tucked deep within the peloton, but it didn’t matter. While he had been my motivating reason for going, the event itself was something bigger. Besides, it was more fun watching Mark Cavendish, battered and bruised from a serious crash a couple of days earlier, sweat and curse his way up Old Willunga.
As soon as the race was over, it was back in the van and home, arriving in a comatose, but happy state, well after midnight. I’d completed a round trip of over 1300 kilometres just to catch a few fleeting glimpses of a Texan, but it was the race (and Cavendish) that won my heart. It remains one of my best cycling experiences.
While the Tour Down Under had been growing from year to year, it was Lance Armstrong who gave it the kick along it needed to become a must see spectator event. Crowds went from the thousands, to the hundred thousands – and stayed at that level even post Armstrong.
While USADA’s just published ‘Reasoned Decision’ document confirms what many suspected all along, it does not erase the influence that Armstrong has had on bringing cycling to a greater audience – especially outside of Europe.
He brought people to cycling who might otherwise not have bothered with the sport. His story, was, and still is, something of a fairytail. His battles against Pantani and Ullrich were engrossing, and remain so despite the asterix that each now carries next to his name. Unfortunately for Armstrong, cancer was not the only thing he cheated.
That USADA have published their findings is a good thing. But how do you adequately punish someone who no longer participates in the sport? Strip his titles? Yes, but will he care? Maybe a little, but it won’t bring his world crashing down. When he wakes up in the morning he’ll still be a loving father to his children, and they will still adore him because he is their Dad.
And does it really matter if Armstrong suffers minimal loss from all this? The real hope will be that the whole affair will serve as a deterrent to the next generation of riders and help to flush out the last of the old school dopers.
The real tragedy rests with those who were bullied into doping. I can forgive Armstrong his doping, but not the abuse of power that he, and partner in crime Johan Bruyneel used, in threatening their own team members with dismissal should they not follow the dastardly plans set by the evil Dr. Ferrari.
Having said that, the bans imposed on those implicated during the Armstrong years are laughable. While Hincapie and Barry have retired, Leipheimer, Vande Velde, Zabriskie and Danielson must be rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of serving the majority of their six month bans during the off season.
If, as each of them say, they were happy to come forward and provide evidence, surely they can accept the consequences of their actions and face sanctions of a greater length. Had the plea bargain not been offered, I wonder how many of them would have spoken out?
One suspects that USADA’s 1000 page dossier may have been substantially smaller.
So where to from here?
By all means, strip Armstrong of his titles, but don’t award them to anyone else.
Leave them blank as a reminder to all of the dark days past. Anyone who dopes from this point on is a fool and must be dealt with severely. Nothing less than lifetime bans will be sufficient for future transgressors.
The elephant in the room has finally been exposed. It’s time to look forward.