It is almost ten years now, since the retirement of one of cycling’s most iconic figures, amid great controversy. The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) took a standard collection of blood samples from this cyclist, which would lead to the downfall of the greatest hero in the history of the sport – Lance Armstrong. A seven-time Tour de France winner, Armstrong overcame testicular cancer and almost certain death to return to the sport he loved. When diagnosed by his urologist, he was told he had a twenty to fifty percent chance of survival, but the medic later admitted that this was merely to give him some form of hope and a little comfort. The reality was that, as the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, lungs, brain and abdomen, his survival chances were almost zero.
That was in 1996. For two years he rode out this unjust punishment, committing to the chemotherapy and undergoing brain surgery to remove the necrosis that had formed there. Many called his recovery miraculous, but Armstrong was simply happy to be out of a hospital gown and back in lycra. In 1998 he joined up with the US Postal Service team and embarked on his unbelievable run of seven consecutive Tour de France wins, a feat never achieved before or since, before retiring for the first time in 2005. He was an icon of the sport and a shining example of hope and recovery – the classic American comeback story.
Over those seven years, from ‘98 to ’05, the US Postal Service team, with Armstrong at its heart, dominated the Tour de France, winning it every year. This was a phenomenal recovery by a man who had been inches from death only a few years before. Almost too phenomenal, as many people began to suspect. Cycling isn’t like football or rugby, where you play for an allotted amount of time, with a higher focus on skill and tactical trickery. There are tactics in a cycling race, of course, but at the core of a cyclist’s success, what is absolutely vital, is cardio. These races are gruelling, unlike any other endurance test in the world, so it will come as no surprise to you that when he popped, he popped big-time.
Erythropoietin (EPO) is a blood booster, which stimulates red blood cell production and increases cardiovascular ability. If you need to go further for longer, EPO would be the first port of call for a cheat. Armstrong was also found guilty of steroid usage and of taking blood transfusions throughout his career. As a matter of fact, the entire US Postal Service team popped, and it became known that they had been operating a sophisticated and ingrained doping program since the late nineties.
In January 2013, Armstrong admitted to the validity of the accusations on the Oprah Winfrey show. He said that the “mythic, perfect story” of his career and life up to that point had been “one big lie.” He excused this with his need for competition and his obsession with victory and control. Armstrong later described doping as an “endemic” part of professional cycling culture (they should try some Veloflow instead!). He wanted to confess on his own terms. Without question, doping is a stain that still remains at the top of the sport today. Armstrong was the most prominent casualty, not necessarily of the media or even of the cancer that almost killed him. Ironically, what defeated him in the end was his desperate need to win.