In the summer of 1989, after Greg LeMond had won his second Tour de France, I received a copy of VeloNews in my mailbox, which was then the “official” publication of the United States Cycling Federation. In it there was a story about an American cyclist who went to the Junior World Championships and took off early in the race, amassing a huge lead, only to see it and him swallowed up shortly before the finish. The writer suggested that the name Lance Armstrong would be one to watch for the future.
I’ve followed Armstrong’s career since that day. I’ve written about him a fair amount, both for RKP and for other publications, and I still count my interview with him the most entertaining I’ve ever done with a professional cyclist. That said, I need to admit to you that it’s been a long time since I thought Armstrong was a clean cyclist.
Though I had read Paul Kimmage’s “Rough Ride,” I’d compartmentalized that as something true yet not terribly applicable to the pro cycling I followed and would eventually write about. As recently as 1996 I thought cycling was a pretty clean sport. Then, at a party at my home, the photographer Mike Powell, a guy who probably knows more about track and field than I know about cycling, shattered my pretty little world. He told me that doping was rife in cycling. When I doubted him, he told me how he’d learned about the doping that goes on in track and field, and how he saw all the same signs when he’d shot bike races, such as that year’s Tour. He talked about miraculous overnight recovery for riders who had been dragged from their bikes.
I began to recall stories of steroid use told to me by a friend who had been a 440 hurdler on a full ride to Alabama. He’d seen plenty of anabolic usage among denizens of the school’s athletic complex and I recalled him once saying how anabolics made athletes unnaturally lean. They had no subcutaneous fat. Sitting in my living room and listening to Mike, I suddenly flashed on my first experience being in the same room with Armstrong. It was at the opening press conference for the 1996 Tour DuPont, which I was covering for Outside. I was sitting along the middle aisle in some hotel ballroom when in walks Armstrong in cycling kit with tennis shoes. I didn’t know it was Armstrong at first, though; I was looking down at my laptop when I caught this calf out of the corner of my eye and then turned to look. It was the most perfect calf I’d ever seen. The muscles were perfectly etched. It was as if skin-colored saran wrap had been stretched across the muscle with no intervening fat to blur the muscles’ definition. At the time I’d thought there was something supernatural about his appearance; later I would amend that to unnatural.
Ah. Two plus two equals … Lance Armstrong dopes.
I wrestled with that conclusion, what it meant for me as someone who made his living writing about cycling (by this time I was working for Bicycle Guide) and how that affected my view of the sport. I figured there was only one thing I could do: No matter what I thought, if Armstrong and other riders weren’t testing positive, then they were clean enough to compete, and if they were clean enough to compete, they were clean.
To the degree that I had lingering doubts about how clean the peloton was, the 1998 Festina Scandal was Mike’s “I told ya so.” Not that he wagged a finger my way, but when the story broke, my first thought was, “Damn, he really was right. It’s everybody.” Initially, I, like many others, thought that the Festina debacle would really clean up cycling. It wouldn’t be too many years before the realists among us realized that things weren’t better, they were worse. I came to the conclusion that the UCI didn’t want clean cycling, they just wanted the appearance of clean cycling. Specifically, what the UCI needed to avoid was anything that embarrassed the sport. That meant no deaths of over-doped riders and no arrests of soigneurs ferrying portable pharmacies. Their anti-doping efforts were as vigorous as my father’s game of checkers was with me when I was a kid—he let me win a lot.
That realization—that the UCI only wanted the appearance of a clean sport—is something that I responded to in the most cynical way possible. To me, the logic was, if the UCI wasn’t really going to do the work to clean up cycling broadly, then a guy like Armstrong should find success.
I opposed the investigation into Armstrong for the simple fact that I didn’t like that one American cyclist would be torn down while so much other doping would go unpunished. Grand Tour racing remains the unlimited class and though the UCI may not have had the resources to get the job done, that’s not much of an excuse; what they have really lacked is the will, and we don’t yet know if that’s a sin the world will ever forgive.
I’ll also admit that I, like many writers, was flat-out afraid of the Armstrong machine. I’d seen the lawsuits, and while I wasn’t trying to break any stories, I didn’t want to get caught in the cross hairs.
I was critical of Greg LeMond in an open letter I wrote, not because I didn’t think he was telling the truth, but because I thought hijacking a press conference to try to grill Armstrong publicly was unseemly and beneath one of the greatest cyclists of all time. It was an event that was just a few ounces of hair gel short of becoming a Jersey Shore-style brawl. I pointed out that LeMond wasn’t part of the enforcement apparatus and then—naively—suggested he should take his conclusions to the UCI or WADA.
I’ve been critical of the USADA investigation, noting on several occasions that they were investigating doping ten years done when doping is happening right now, today. It has always struck me as a ginormous expense for an organization of limited means, Champagne on a water-fountain budget. My fear was less what would happen to Armstrong, it was how the investigation could harm cycling as a whole—for years to come. It’s safe to say we won’t see Nike in cycling again before my son is old enough to turn pro. Plenty of other companies will need even longer to come around again. I had plenty of doubts that the investigation could reveal anything that might surprise me, anything I hadn’t already guessed. There were plenty of surprises in Tyler Hamilton’s story alone.
In short, I lacked the faith necessary to see that the USADA investigation could reach beyond the Atlantic, that it could serve as the catalyst for sweeping, permanent change. On this score, I’m pleased to say I was evolution-denier wrong.
Travis Tygart, I owe you an apology. Your work has proven to be the indictment of the UCI for which I’ve been waiting a good 15 years. I was unwilling to believe that this investigation could illustrate the corruption within the UCI as clearly as it has, that we would ever see the full body of evidence collected by the federal investigation and USADA, that a “true” picture would emerge of how cycling at the top level functioned.
The USADA investigation and some of the subsequent events (such as Rabobank’s indictment of the UCI and Skins’ CEO Jaimie Fuller’s open letter to the UCI) ultimately are unlikely to lead, on their own, to the overhaul at the UCI that is necessary to restore our faith in the institution. Pat McQuaid has signaled that he will commission an independent investigation. I am suspicious of this the way I am suspicious of my son when he says he hasn’t pooped—then why does your diaper droop and the room smell? Apparently, I’m not the only one who views this with a crooked eyebrow. Brian Cookson, the president of the British Cycling Federation, has said that unless the UCI impanels a truly independent investigator, then it will lose what he called its’ “last chance to re-establish itself as a credible organization.”
I have my doubts McQuaid and company understand just how dire the situation is.
Paul Kimmage has hinted that he may file suit against the UCI, even though they have shelved their suit against him. While the UCI’s decision to back off what would almost certainly have been ruled a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) here in the U.S., backing down in the face of $85,800 in contributions (so far) to Kimmage’s defense fund suggests maybe McQuaid and Verbruggen aren’t entirely blind. The fund set up in his name must be used for legal bills, so it stands to reason that he’d go ahead and engage the fight against the UCI. This is civilized society’s version of meeting behind the gym for a bare-knuckle fight. Just because the UCI got the first lick in doesn’t mean the fight is over.
Right now the best opportunity we have to see just how corrupt the UCI has been is a lawsuit by Kimmage. Twenty years ago, had anyone suggested to me that the only way to clean up cycling right to its roots would be a lawsuit by a journalist against the sport’s governing body, I’d have laughed. I’d have said it was as unlikely as the polar ice caps melting.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Admit it, even with the Vuelta a Espana just around the corner, and whether or not Bradley Wiggins was your choice for the yellow jersey, the end of the Tour brings with it a state of dissatisfaction. There’s an ennui that no other race can fill, even with the epic showdown of this year’s Vuelta looming.
Well, there’s a cream for that itch. It’s called “The Greatest Race” and if it’s not the finest photo book on the Tour de France ever assembled, it’s certainly on the podium. The Greatest Race is the result of a two-year project by photographer Mike Powell. We did a post roughly a year ago about the book as it was being prepared for publication. It was published last year but for reasons that are anything but clear, the publisher chose not to distribute it in the U.S.
My heart sank on that piece of news.
In the wonders-never-cease department the book is now available through Amazon. Which is all the occasion I needed to revisit Powell’s work. We spoke earlier this summer about what makes the work in this book so different from what you generally see from other photographers. Credit where due, James Startt is an exceedingly brave shooter and one who won’t settle for formula. A quick look at my bookcases will reveal no less than four coffee-table books by Graham Watson. He’s captured thousands of images that helped define the sport for me.
As we talked, Powell said what set this project apart from other assignments he’s had at the Tour de France was that he wasn’t on assignment as a journalist. There were no requirements that each day he capture the breakaway, that he find some scenic shot of fans enjoying a lazy day, that he be in the photographer’s scrum at the finish. He was free to pursue the shots that he found the most compelling. What can be difficult for the average fan to understand is that when you’re a brand-name photographer there’s a need to deliver each and every day. Experimentation isn’t something that plays well with a need to have something for an online report or a magazine feature. By necessity most photographers end up shooting nearly the same formula each and every year.
Powell explained how in working on this book he had the freedom to spend a whole day pursuing a particular image. Not many photographers get the opportunity to chase such windmills. Of course, not many photographers have the credentials Powell does. As the former head photographer of AllSport (later purchased by Getty Images), Powell can be credited with a great many truly iconic sports shots. He is arguably one of the greatest track and field shooters, ever. If a moment can be captured, he’ll get it, tack-sharp, and from the perfect perspective.
I don’t mind saying that this is less a book review than an explicit endorsement. Flipping through the book makes the Tour fresh and intimate, reminding me of the occasions I’ve been there and giving me a window into events I didn’t have the chance to enjoy. It does more to capture the totality of the race than any other photo book I’ve ever seen.
Enjoy the shots. And if you don’t pick the book up yourself, you might consider sending this link to your sweet one before Christmas rolls around: The Greatest Race.
Images: Mike Powell
There are a number of truly talented photographers who devote their considerable abilities to cycling. Some full-time, some less-so. Mike Powell cut his teeth as a shooter for what is now Getty Images. When he got started, the agency, founded by one of his brothers, was known as Allsport and it was the premiere sports photography agency. They employed only the best of the best. To see a raw take from one of their shooters was to see 36 images, 34 of which would be tack sharp, the industry’s term for images so perfectly in focus you could blow them up into posters.
Mike is best known for his work in track and field. You’ve seen his work in Sports Illustrated, in Kodak ads and anywhere an evocative image of an American track and field athlete was required. But he’s got a serious soft spot for cycling in general and the Tour de France in specific. He is the author of “A Game to Love” (PQ Blackwell), a celebration of the sport of tennis.
“The Greatest Race” is Mike’s take on the Tour de France. With text written by friend and collaborator Lewis Blackwell (no relation to the publisher), Mike describes the gift book as “an indulgence.”
“We both love bike racing. I wanted to go back to the Tour, but with a different (mission). (It was) the opportunity to get to the Tour and work on it less as a sports event and more as an art book and look at what the Tour means to us all, and less who won and lost.”
“When you have pressures on you to produce a daily accounting of what happened on the road, you tend to fall back on what you’re best at. It’s also dictated by what happened and who your business is.
“I’ve been put in a position … working with Sports Illustrated and this book. They don’t need me to do what the agencies do. Technically I could put my mom on the side of the road and she could get a usable shot (with the cameras that are out there). I’m more interested in, ‘How does this picture tell the story of the Tour de France?’”
Mike says he’s been given the freedom to explore and let go.
“The more I let go of my expectations, the more I surprise myself and take picture that please me. I’m not trying to tell the story of that day, I’m telling the story of the Tour de France.
“The question I keep asking myself is, ‘Is this bigger than that day?’”
What I find remarkable in this brief sampling of his work is the way he reinvents the cycling photograph with each new shot. It’s no small feat. But Mike is a man hungry still to do his best work.
“It’s the pinnacle of their career, why shouldn’t it be the pinnacle of my photography?”
Expect to see “The Greatest Race” from PQ Blackwell in bookstores near you late this winter or early next spring. You might suggest gift cards to your favorite bookstore at Christmas. In the meantime, you can check out the Facebook page featuring Mike’s updates.