Forgoing Judgement

Could it ever have been any other way, with the fall of Armstrong? It seems cycling has been on a collision course with this moment for the better part of its history. From riders dosing up with brandy in the early days, to the scourge of amphetamines, to modern day blood doping, top level racers have always pushed beyond the rules in search of an advantage.

And now we have, arguably the greatest grand tour rider of all-time stripped of his titles and banned from the sport. Looking back at the great champions of the past, each of them with their own sordid side story, can we say this outcome was inevitable?

Perhaps we can forgive the modern day rider for believing that dope is simply a part of the sport. Almost everyone is willing to acknowledge that Lance Armstrong, if guilty as charged, was only doing what everyone else was doing, was only following in a long line of champions before him who had employed the dark arts to stunning effect.

How is it that, after decades of sabre rattling and bluster, an authority finally stepped to the fore to apply the rules, for better and for worse? It should be lost on no one that the UCI was not the authority in question. Perhaps this also was inevitable.

We can ask if where we are now is better or worse than where we have been. We can take issue with Lance, Johan and their cohort of co-defendants. We can impugn the motives and methods of Travis Tygart and USADA, but all of this seems to me to be beside the point.

What has happened has happened. Cycling is a sport that has been rife with dope and cheating. It has been poorly governed. We have tried to find the middle way, managing outcomes, either by the authorities turning a blind eye or by prosecuting infractions. We have tried small penalties, medium penalties and lifetime bans. We have tried selective enforcement.

Cheaters evolve. Tests develop. The rules struggle to contain them both.

Fans are upset when the rules aren’t enforced, and we are upset when the rules are enforced in ways we don’t like or don’t think will be helpful, because we hate to see the sport we love self-immolate.

But if we believe in our rules, if we really think they will produce better cycling, then don’t we have to accept their enforcement, no matter the short or even medium term consequences? It seems, when you subscribe to a plan for the sport, you have to hold firm, even if the result isn’t exactly as you would have wished it.

To be sure, the calculus will be difficult for everyone involved. Some will be able to both accept the penalties levied against Lance and his co-defendants, and still remember his (their) victories fondly. We can know what happened, at least partially, without retroactively revising our enjoyment of that era.

Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The world does not arrange itself in neat packages. Human behavior and emotion are not digital, black/white or right/wrong. We are gray creatures. We are, of necessity, ambivalent, and we should allow ourselves the latitude of inconsistency. Neither, should we fear foolishness. This is only sport, after all.

You can say that, once a rider decides to break the rules, he knows what the consequences of his actions might be. There are sanctions printed in ink in by-laws and on contracts. But this is a short-sighted reading of the decision for there are myriad consequences beyond our knowing.

I would venture that when you first decide willfully to take the wrong path, you very quickly lose control of the narrative. In your mind, there is winning. There is glory. If you are unlucky, you sit out a suspension.

In reality, you are unable to begin to parse the threads of consequence that spin themselves in every direction. Did Lance and his team imagine Travis Tygart and the role he would play? Did they imagine the myriad judgements they were letting themselves in for? Did they imagine court cases and Pat McQuaids and Hein Verbruggens? Did they think of Greg LeMond or Le Monde or l’Equipe? Do you ever race the Tour de France wondering if a plea deal will torpedo your legacy?

All the PR and litigation money can buy will shift a narrative, but clearly, in this case, couldn’t alter the eventual outcome, and that’s true for Lance and for the UCI and for USADA. The chips always fall where they may. They’re funny like that.

Now, we are in the hand-wringing phase of this particular (cycling) life event. And just as the prime players could not have known that they would arrive here, we also can’t know how what has happened over the last week, or over the last decade, will play out in years to come. Is this a death-knell for our sport? Or a birth announcement?

The answer is quite possibly: YES.

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  1. jake

    “Almost everyone is willing to acknowledge that Lance Armstrong, if guilty as charged, was only doing what everyone else was doing, was only following in a long line of champions before him who had employed the dark arts to stunning effect.”

    Well, not me. The EPO era was a unique chapter in the history of doping. Brandy and amphetamines aren’t even in the same league. And Lance was unique among the dopers, not for the degree to which he doped, but for his position of power. Many young rides were caught up in the system. Lance was the system.

  2. armybikerider

    Hopefully this will be the last installment concerning this tragedy and we can get back to reading about the reason that we all visit RKP……riding our bikes!

  3. ervgopwr

    @jake, there must have been a system before “the lance”, where did it come from? Others have mentioned, the ’84 olympics etc.

    Just popped in my mind, but as the phrase goes; ‘the tour is not won on the road, but in bed’…what if you could develop a, just say ‘remedy’, that allowed for perfect restful/recovery sleep, which would of course have amazing training advantages…

    Would it be ‘cheating’ to have ‘perfect recovery sleep’, if aided in any way? something biologic that everying does?

  4. Alex TC

    The rings come, the fingers remain. Better lose the saddle than the horse. The night is darkest just before the dawn. Life goes on. Etc.

    Good analysis Robot, thanks 😉

  5. vectorbug

    Doug, why would he ever have to repay advertising payments? His advertisements worked. People aren’t standing in the RETURNS line citing Armstrong as the reason they want a refund.

  6. Alex TC

    If Lance was the system, then how is the system trying to purge itself of… the system? It almost begs a philosophycal question or debate. To me he was a pawn with powers of bishop, an inteligence (evil or not, whatever) above and not just lungs and legs like the majority of riders throughout history. He clearly extrapolated the limits of cycling in all levels. His fall should only be as big as his rise and ruling.

  7. Hank

    Festina created an opportunity to build a better cleaner sport. The UCI chose to create a better environment for doping instead. Lets hope if by some miracle this brings down the current leadership of the UCI we have a chance at finally making a change for the better.

  8. randomactsofcycling

    Robot, if only you had the time to ride as well as you write, perhaps you may have won all those Tours…..

  9. Hank

    Todd, the IOC can kick cycling out of the olympics. That would be a mortal blow for the UCI both in revenue stream and prestige. The IOC might be as crooked as the UCI but they expect the governing bodies of the sport to keep up appearances. Cycling has been a public embarasement.

  10. Mike

    I think at this point the thing I’m most frustrated with, after reading countless articles this past week, is the possibility that the peloton was starting to shift toward a “clean” mentality in ’99 before the tour and that the domination by Lance and USPS had everyone run straight back to the dope so they could compete. So, we could potentially have had a (relatively) clean sport in the early 2000s. As such, we could blame Lance for the continuation of the “dark ages”.

    Regardless, I don’t completely blame Armstrong for his doping. I’d like to see Carmichael step up and accept much blame and some punishment for it’s highly likely that’s where Lance’s doping started. And how about Ochowicz, Weisel, and Stapleton while we’re at it, I suspect there’s blame to be placed on them as well. However, Armstrong definitely made his own decisions and he must carry the vast majority of the weight for them, but I think that he was a victim of his youth, his talent, and, most of all, his ego. Charmichael and others took advantage of that and steered him down the wrong road.

    Changing gears to the future of the sport. Banned substances should be clearly defined and all doping practices, whether there’s a test for them or not, should be banned and racers should have to individually acknowledge at/prior to every race all the bans. Then all podium spots should have samples taken and saved for future testing of any banned substances/methods that currently can’t be detected. When such testing methods are developed, previous samples would be tested and failures receive sanctions of title lost, monies repaid, and bans to be served at that time.

    I don’t really think this is a death toll for the sport, nor a rebirth. It’s just another chapter in the story. Cycling will go on, things will change (hopefully for the better), and next year we’ll have new controversies. With any luck, they’ll be about the UCI collapse and a new a governing body and separated testing body. No more of the fox guarding the hen house!

    1. Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for your comments. You continue to make this a space I enjoy visiting, professional responsibilities aside. Really, on behalf of everyone who contributes to RKP, I can’t thank you enough.

      Doug, Vectorbug: Advertising income isn’t a problem, but winnings are certainly going to be fought over. SCA Promotions anyone?

      Andrew: +1

      Random Acts: +1

      Joecaboose: Sure, the Top Fuel category. It’ll be fine until guys start dropping dead like Simpson and then the world will turn their backs on the sport (sponsors included) saying, “man, and I thought they learned their lesson back in 1967.” Athlete deaths leave a terrible taste in the mouths of sponsors. You could say nothing kills sponsorship like death.

      Todd: Unfortunately, until a real investigation into the coverup allegations is conducted, the UCI is safe.

      Mike: Given the numbers of guys in the top five of the Tour during the years Armstrong won who have been shown to have doped, any sense that the peloton was going clean following the Festina scandal is illusory. I think what the Festina scandal did is scare everyone into saying, “Oh shit, we need to do a better job of this.” It showed how organized Festina was and obviously if you were going to beat Festina you were going to need to do a better job of doping than they did.

    1. Author

      @bigwagon – I think you’re thinking of the other meaning, the homophone foregoing, which means “the thing that just happened.”

  11. FortheLove

    I keep thinking of David Millar and the road he took in his career – the decisions he was faced to make. Taking the “honest” road, as he did, only gave him continued, and perhaps, even greater success in his career. I can only respect that. Sure he cheated, but he confessed, faced the music, and accepted the consequences.

    If Lance had been using performance enhancing drugs, if he managed to beat the system by way of sophisticated masking agents, then isn’t it only right that he pay the consequences like everyone else – like David Millar did years ago? What makes him exceptional?

    This publicity stunt of sorts that he has chosen to play out, the “not fighting it,” doesn’t help at all. It makes it worse. It really leaves the sport standing out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to hold on to, and this isn’t fair. Cycling deserves to be made up of clean athletes who love competition and the associated culture. Not this uncertain drama. Let’s leave that for daytime TV.

    The question that really sticks with me is why did he choose to “follow” the sickening pattern of illegal enhancement rather than spending time and money to create a system that would make the sport clean? I would’ve respected him all the more had he lost a couple of the seven while being an outspoken ambassador for clean competition rather doing whatever it took to assure a win. I mean, look at how successful he has been with Livestrong as a cancer survivor and advocate?! If Lance Armstrong had invested even a quarter of his Livestrong effort, time, and money into assuring that the sport of cycling was to be clean, I’m almost certain the sport would’ve been in a much, much better place than where we find ourselves today – especially cycling in the U.S!

  12. Les Borean

    “Todd, the IOC can kick cycling out of the olympics”
    Not gonna happen. The men’s and women’s cycling events in London each drew a million spectators, the most spectators ever for an event. The IOC will not part with that kind of ticket income regardless of the circumstance.

  13. Tominalbany

    @Mike: ” but I think that he was a victim of his youth, his talent, and, most of all, his ego”

    I don’t understand how one can be a victim of their own ego. “We are who we are” is a truism. However, as I’ve been drilling into my children: We choose our path. We choose how we react. We choose how we feel. WE CHOOSE. It’s harder than that and no simpler than that. It is nuanced yet as plain as the nose on your face.

    I feel Robot’s best point in the whole essay is that we are grey. We are inconsistent. We are, as Kirk said about Spock in his misfired eulogy, ‘Human.’

  14. Hank

    Mike, I don’t think you can blame Lance for dragging the sport back to the slime in 99. If it weren’t for the UCI, Lance would have gotten the boot for his first positive in 99. The UCi chose him as their dope fueled future. Lance couldn’t make it past his first TdF podium without the UCI’s collusion and blessing.

  15. Hank

    Les Borean, The threat by the IOC may be enough to force a change of management at the UCI while burnishing the IOC’s dope fighting credentials. I don’t know that McQuaid could survive a public claim of corruption by the IOC and WADA. The teams, the press and maybe interpol could make life unbearable for even the most arrogant corrupt bureaucrat.

  16. Les Borean

    And I would think that the Olympic’s humungous following for cycling events only enhances their influence in this regard.

  17. FortheLove

    @Mike – I agree with you regarding the way he returned to the sport in ’99. What if he returned without the drugs. What if he helped build Postal on a “clean” platform, setting an example for the Tours to follow, regardless if he won, podium’d, or not at all? Really think he was encouraged to dope from others in his posse?

    Still think if his Livestrong efforts had been aimed at a cycling “say no to drugs” system/campaign, we’d be in a much better place, at least the U.S.

    I also can’t get over how his testosterone usage, pre-’99 Tour, may have contributed to his fight with cancer. What an incredible irony that would be. So, perhaps it was just an issue of “old habits dying hard?” I remember thinking, way back, that the ’99 Lance was a whole new man – kinder, gentler athlete and person. This was almost as encouraging to me as was the return of another American Tour victory. That didn’t last long unfortunately.

  18. The_D

    International cycling’s poor governance and its doping past are obviously related. I am just not sure that USADA’s show of power really, er… moves the needle in the right direct.

    Nationalistic federations (quien?) will continue defend their champions from the perceived slights of outsiders. Meanwhile, in litigious cultures, (guess), it’s more fun to tear down old heroes than build monuments to them. What happens when the products of these different cultures want to compete, but no federation can cede authority to a credible neutral third?

    For a litany of reasons, the Armstrong saga has no precedential value and the next accused will have no more developed expectation of due process. Instead, we all know that the outcome will continue to be a function of the accuser’s power and motivation; not the facts of the case.

  19. FortheLove

    Here’s what I wrote in another blog:

    The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t look good for the man. He has continued to paint a discouraging and frankly embarrassing picture for us to view – based solely on his actions or re-actions, if you will? Despite his accosting personality or his behavior in the peloton, Lance has worked hard to establish an arsenal of supporters and attorneys hired (paid with money) to protect him – using any and all methods that seem legit, but in reality are “tricky,” well-worded defenses. Regardless, it just wreaks of mafia-esque, if you ask me. Is Lance some sort of Godfather? Are we truly cognizant of even the half of it – we read articles, we watch YouTube videos of Phil Ligget, we look to the work of LiveStrong, etc. The way I see it, yes, USADA is making a BALLSY move here, BUT why or how would they do something so risky based on unsubstantiated stuff?!? I challenge anyone that says they are playing with “power” or blindly pointing fingers. This isn’t ONE person here. And with that, what would the USADA’s ulterior motives be?! They don’t like him as a person? Nope. They “think” he cheated? Nope. Someone else on his team “thinks” he saw Lance dope? Nope. Come on, cycling fans! Wise up and face the music! It’s not completely idiotic to think Lance cheated! There is so much we don’t know about, including the testimonies (under oath) of quite a few people that were there – in person – at the time.

    I don’ t know. I then sit back, after spending way too much time reading and clicking, and think of other greats – greats like Miguel Indurain. Why didn’t the world come after him?! I mean, 5 Tour victories in a row!?! Unbelievable! Yet, why didn’t USADA come after him? Why didn’t teammates once close to him rat him out? Because he truly did not dope. I feel that if Lance truly did not do something illegal during his career, then we wouldn’t be here, insulting each other and blindly defending something of which we are not completely aware.

    Now, back to the Vuelta…

  20. Robbie Canuck

    It is mind-boggling the UCI abdicated its responsibility to pursue the Armstrong doping conspiracy. This may be the death knell of an organization that is unresponsive to cyclists and fans both. Its rules and regulations over doping need a huge overhaul, clearer requirements, a clearer provision for riders to establish their innocence and removal of the arbitrariness and opaquness of its decisions. As a former lawyer I am aghast at the poor quality of their text.

    The riders also need a Union. Every other major sport has one. It is the riders and not the UCI that supplies the product. It may be cycling should move towards a World Cup type circuit a la skiing.

    The IOC should seriously consider de-certifying the current incarnation of the UCI as cycling’s governing body in exchange for a new and improved version.

    1. Padraig

      Robbie Canuck: I’m sorry to have to say that the riders actually have a union. That you don’t know about it is a powerful statement about just how ineffectual it is. It’s got all the solidarity of a sand dune.

  21. Robbie Canuck


    It is my understanding the riders have an association created by the UCI, a “union” if you like. I understand however that it falls within the general mandate of the UCI. If I am wrong in that regard please advise. If I am correct then as you say it is clearly ineffectual.

    What I have in mind is a real Union. One where professional riders worldwide simply say we have a Union. I agree I will not compete until after I join the Union. Joining the Union is a concomminant requirement of securing a cycling license. I belong to the Union and I will not compete in any event unless the Union sanctions the event. I will not compete in an event unless all competitors are members of the Union, subject to such exceptions or exemptions as approved by the Union. It would be a condition of union membership that all Union members adhere to WADA.

    The Union could then negotiate real money for riders, not just humungus money for winners of Grand Tours and Classics but graded money like the PGA golf tour or some similar system. If the lesser able riders know they can earn decent money one of the primary motivations to dope is substantially reduced.

  22. Robbie Canuck

    @ Padraig What I had in mind is a real Union. I understand the riders have an association or “union” if you like created by the UCI. I understand if falls under the general mandate of the UCI and is therefore ineffectual. My proposal would be a Union whereby every professional rider must belong. The Union can then negotiate money on a graded basis for every race. This would reduce the money motive to cheat. The Union would also agree to abide by WADA.

  23. lfx

    A pertinent article to the union discussion

    Personally I think cycling is in a better position to do this (form a union and take on the powerbrokers) than other sports where the team owners were pocketing all of the money, either in cahoots with or parallel to the sport governing body. The teams and owners may well support a riders’ union against the UCIs and ASOs of this world. It is the TV revenue/advertising revenue that is not being shared, and the teams aren’t getting any love either….

  24. TWM

    Does anyone know with certainty what obligation, if any, USADA has to release the evidence it gathered against Armstrong? If they must or are allowed to, what is the timeline?

  25. Khal Spencer

    “…From riders dosing up with brandy in the early days, to the scourge of amphetamines, to modern day blood doping, top level racers have always pushed beyond the rules in search of an advantage…”

    To be sure, the era of EPO, blood boosting, steroids, and microdosing is an evolution of seeking advantage by whatever means necessary. What changed is the technology of doping has rapidly evolved and gotten both more scientific and more nuanced. The strain of hyperendurance athleticism has not, nor has the pressure to win races.

    Having said that, no one could say with any credibility that these guys didn’t know what they were doing and the potential consequences thereof. Doping, over the last couple decades, and as highlighted by the Festina affair, has become a high stakes game of cat vs. mouse. Sadly, its also obvious that like Captain Renault in Casablanca, the governing bodies and team owners always seemed to be “shocked, shocked, to find out that doping was going on here”. Strains their credibility, doesn’t it?

    Sure, one can speed on the road to work for three months straight and get away with it. The one day that the cops have the new laser speed gun and its aimed at you, you get caught. You might be surprised and miffed, claim the unfairness of it all, and call a lawyer, but you can’t say that you were not speeding. Likewise, its sad to me that Lance will get stripped of glory for doing what everyone else was doing from the time of the Six Day races. That doesn’t mean he was innocent. Its just that like the one guy in a line of cars that gets the ticket, Lance finally got his. Not to mention, I am sure the arrogance he transmits has more than miffed the regulators.

    I think this does open a Pandora’s Box. Shall we go back and strip all previous winners who are tainted of their jerseys, just to be fair? It sure would be galling to see someone like Ulrich awarded Lance’s jerseys. Its quite possible to completely change the rules (ex post facto) and investigate Coppi, Bartali, Merckx, and all the rest. Shall we go there?

  26. Khal Spencer

    Padraig, you say the pro cycling union has all the solidarity of a sand dune. Has the union ever actually authorized a strike against the owners? Do the riders even agree on what the major issues are that they are willing to fight for? Would they butt heads with powerful riders like Lance Armstrong as well as owners in order to clean up the sport, or are they holding on for dear life?

    I was a board member of my labor union back a decade ago. It was tough to get the members to even agree on what the priorities were, in part, because different parts of the unit had different priorities. The elite research faculty had a very different agenda than the workhorse teaching faculty.

    We did have one knock down, drag-out strike while I was on the Board, and we did accomplish some of our goals. I even got to go airborne over a pickup truck running a picket line (that was where it helped to be in extremely good physical shape). But I’ll tell you one thing: when you are a Board member and you go ahead and authorize a strike after an affirmative strike vote, you suddenly realize you have the lives and careers of several thousand people depending on you and to borrow a phrase from Clausewitz, a strike is the continuation of labor politics “by other means”. Its a hairy experience–but its the ONLY way I know for employees to exercise their right to make profound changes in the workplace. Other then voting with their feet, that is.

  27. Jesus from Cancun

    Khal, I agree with all you wrote. However, this time it was USADA’ Travis Tygart who went after Armstrong.
    I don’t believe USADA would have the authority to go after Belgian or Italian retired riders even if they wanted to. And I don’t think that the Belgian or Italian doping agencies are interested in doing so…

    But if Tygart really wanted to do as he preaches, he could go on and bust Eddy Borysewicz and Ed Burke for the ’84 Olympic blood doping scandal. He could try to remove some of the 9 medals won by the US Cycling team. Maybe he could make Alexi Grewal return the earnings he generated because of his gold medal…

    But we know that ain’t gonna happen.

  28. Phil Martin

    Great article – a lot of exceptional good sense and commentary in there. As i watch a Vuelta with 3 of the top 4 previously implicated in doping and 2 of those actually having been banned, I still feel disappointed that the playing field still doesn’t seem level across the sport i love. Valverde’s sudden prominence this year in this stage race only makes me wonder what new doping practice he is engaged in – Contador i can still sit on the fence over & Rodriguez still has the benefit of my doubt, but with only 1 rider i feel in my bones to be definitely clean, it still is concerning. Happily in contrast i trusted this year’s Tour de France & Giro as being much cleaner. This uncertainty hasn’t turned me off completely yet, but it does cast a pallor over these events that i so love to engage in. However, maybe as one moves into middle-age and one realises that life is all about compromise & grey is indeed the colour of the human condition, it is possible to enjoy the sport and yet recognise its darker side. I’m sad it has to be that way and i applaud the efforts of many to clean it up and commend many riders for their stance against doping, but i’ll keep watching. I just hope this list stops being added to in years to come –

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