Friday, August 24, 2012

Enter Robespierre

If Lance Armstrong was the King, then Travis Tygart is his Robespierre.

The thunderbolt that struck the cycling community yesterday was the news that Lance Armstrong was, for possibly the first time in his life, giving up. He would not take the USADA's case against him to arbitration. He still maintains his innocence, but no longer wishes to contest the matter.

The evidence will come out, sooner or later. There are other tightly coupled cases coming forward. For example, Armstrong's long-time team director, Johan Bruyneel, will be taking his defense forward. In this matter, the two are practically joined at the hip. But...

But in the back of our minds, many of us always knew. Or at least suspected.

For over a decade, from 1996 to 2007, every winner of the Tour de France was either found guilty of doping offenses, or admitted to doping offenses. Bjarne Riis admitted to taking EPO during his 1996 Tour victory. Jan Ullrich's career ended in disgrace after Operacion Puerto. Marco Pantani was expelled from the 1999 Giro d'Italia, ostensibly for "health reasons". In 2006, Floyd Landis' title was stripped after he tested positive for testosterone, and the 2007 winner Alberto Contador has just finished serving a two-year ban. What were the odds that Lance Armstrong would be the only clean one?

But even so, his achievements were singular. No one disputes the fact that he contracted near-fatal cancer. And no one disputes that he clawed his way back to the top of his chosen profession. In a strange way, this may have been his key advantage. From the wastage of chemotherapy, he was able to forge for himself the ideal cyclist's physique. For most of a decade, he prepared himself monomanaically for those three weeks each summer. No one worked harder, or longer, or suffered more deeply. Whatever other pro cyclists were doing, Armstrong turned it up to eleven: training, diet, equipment, he was an innovator in all these areas. It stands to reason that if he was using performance-enhancing drugs, he'd be using the very latest and the very best.

And that's the last bit I'm still curious about. How did they manage to hide it for so long? How did they skirt the testing protocols? It's telling that so many of his former colleagues fell afoul of the tests after leaving his team. They tried to repeat the doping program, but failed to keep the parts that helped them evade detection.

That's why the case is still important. We need to know how. We need to know how, so that the testing protocols can be updated to account for it.

There's reason to think that some of the "how" has already been discovered. The new "biological passport" program has made large-scale cheating much harder to accomplish. And if you've watched the races year by year, you can tell that the riders are having a much harder time on the climbs now than six or eight years ago. It's a much cleaner sport now than it was then.

There are no winners here. The closest anyone comes to having "won" here is Greg LeMond. LeMond was one of the first to raise the flag of suspicion, and he was a virtual pariah for years as a consequence. But he was right. He was right, all along. So far as I know, he's said nothing in public. He probably isn't overjoyed at having been found to be correct.

The King, after all, has been found guilty of treason.

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