Cycling has long been mired in doping controversy but there had been signs that authorities were winning their fight against drugs before Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace reopened all the old wounds.
The United States Anti-Doping Agency’s decision on Friday to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life is a hammer blow to a sport which had often relied on the exploits of the cancer survivor for good publicity.
Stemming the flow of a stream of tales about cheats at the top, Armstrong’s story of overcoming the biggest odds to become the greatest rider the world has ever seen transcended cycling and made the sport much more popular in the United States.
The suspicions were always there that the American, like so many other cyclists of his era, had dabbled in doping as he won every Tour from 1999 to 2005 but until Friday most fans hoped he would end up clean.
Armstrong denies wrongdoing but has been sanctioned after ending his fight against what he believes is an unfair witch-hunt, one which has hurt cycling just as much as the man himself just when the sport appeared to be shedding the drugs tag.
“It just adds to the negative image of our sport,” British rider Chris Froome told reporters at the Tour of Spain.
Froome finished second behind compatriot Bradley Wiggins in July’s Tour de France, a race that for once gained headlines for superb displays of racing and endurance rather than the scourge of doping which had all too often marred the event.
Yes, twice winner Alberto Contador was missing because of a doping ban and top rider Frank Schleck failed a test for a banned diuretic on this year’s Tour but the International Cycling Union (UCI) hailed the event a huge success for its anti-doping drive.
Just last week the UCI proudly stated there had been no positive tests from the final batch of samples from the Tour but now the organisation is trapped in an uncomfortable dilemma.
Either it accepts USADA’s decision and the inevitable loss of credibility for cycling or it fights the charges because it believes the letter of the law has not been followed by USADA given Armstrong has never failed a doping test.
USADA is relying on testimony from other riders and the UCI wants the Court of Arbitration for Sport to have a final say on Armstrong’s guilt or innocence but going against an anti-doping agency never looks good for a governing body, even if it has long fought against drugs itself.
A rider cannot avoid the drug testers these days whatever he does. As soon as they crossed the line on this year’s Tour, UCI “chaperones” were hovering ready to pounce and drag random names off to a doping control.
Testers now often appear at ungodly hours of the morning to surprise any would-be dopers.
Wiggins, Britain’s first Tour champion and the London Olympic time trial winner, was asked what he thought about people who said only dopers could win the world’s greatest stage race.
“I can’t be doing with people like that,” he replied after a few trademark expletives.
“It justifies their own bone idleness because they can’t ever imagine applying themselves to anything in their lives.”
Cycling has begun to change, riders want to be recognised for their veritable endeavour and doping could soon be confined to only the desperate.
The sport has survived decades of previous bad press but as long as the sport’s greatest hero is officially branded a cheat, cyclists will always risk being tarred with the same brush.