Identifying the precise moment when the fall from grace began for Lance Armstrong, once the world’s greatest cyclist, is not easy.
Did the fatal moment occur two years ago, when Floyd Landis — disgraced 2006 Tour de France winner and Armstrong’s former team-mate — met a special agent of the US Food and Drugs Administration, Jeff Novitzky, to describe how he had seen the seven-times Tour champion doping in his own apartment?
Or were the seeds of his downfall sown far earlier than that — in 1999, the year of Armstrong’s first Tour win, when he is said to have “bullied” a young French cyclist, Christophe Bassons, telling him “he would be better off going home” after Bassons criticized doping on the Tour, effectively ending his career?
Or was it eight years ago, when the French anti-doping laboratory decided to conduct retrospective research using its new test for the blood agent erythropoietin (EPO) on samples taken from riders during the 1999 Tour? The lab identified six positive results from a batch of 15 that the sports newspaper L’Equipe matched to blood-sample records Armstrong and the world cycling federation had agreed to supply to the newspaper.
Its subsequent article — “The Armstrong Lie” — would set in train a sequence of events that culminated on Aug. 24 with the decision by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to ban the Texan for life and recommend the stripping of all his awards, after Armstrong refused to defend himself against allegations of cheating.
The suspicion had always been there — alluded to in the French media, and made explicit by Pierre Ballester and David Walsh in their French-published book LA Confidentiel, which baldly asserted that Armstrong was a cheat.
Now Armstrong has been found guilty by virtue of a “non-analytical positive” — not a blood test, but the testimony of witnesses: the same way that former US sprint champion Marion Jones was stripped of her medals.
Now a competition that, through its long history, has been tainted with substance-abuse scandals — from the brandy and strychnine taken by early riders to the steroids and complex compounds of later times — is in the spotlight again.
Since the scandalous 2007 Tour, the UCI, cycling’s ruling body, has made stronger efforts to tackle drugs cheats. That year saw the entire Astana and Cofidis teams withdraw after pre-race favorite Alexander Vinokourov (who won gold in the London 2012 road race), was caught blood doping, and Bradley Wiggins’s Italian teammate Cristian Moreni was arrested after testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone. And despite Armstrong’s repeated claims of innocence, it was during the 1990s and 2000s — the most notorious period in cycling for doping — that he ruled the sport.
The reality — as Walsh told the BBC in an interview last week — is that many had suspected for years that something was rotten at the very heart of cycling: a rottenness in which not only cyclists and team managers were complicit, but the administrators themselves.
In the end, it appears the unraveling of the Armstrong myth, and the uncovering of what some have called the greatest doping conspiracy in sport, occurred because USADA had accumulated so much testimony — including from 10 former team-mates, some unsullied by accusations of cheating.
The extent of Armstrong’s surrender is underlined by the knowledge of what he has previously said about the “guiding principles” taught to him by his single mother Linda: that “to give up was to give in.” Armstrong reiterated that view in his first autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike, written in 2000. “Pain is temporary,” he wrote then. “If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” And quit is what Armstrong did on Friday.