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One man’s struggle to unmask Lance Armstrong

Vicious cycle.

Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
David Walsh
Simon & Schuster, 320pp, £18.99

My Time: an Autobiography
Bradley Wiggins
Yellow Jersey, 320pp, £20

An intensely hot July 2003 found me covering my second Tour de France. I was a political and literary journalist who hadn’t written much about sport and, until the previous year, I had never suivi le Tour on the road, as opposed to following it from afar. But an enterprising publisher had been looking for authors to match potential titles. I’d said a little breezily that I could have a crack at almost any of them – let’s say a new account of the Dreyfus affair or a life of Neville Chamberlain – but that, as someone with schoolboy memories of great names such as Charly Gaul, Federico Bahamontes and Jacques Anquetil, the one I would really love to do was a centennial history of the Tour, to be published 100 years after Maurice Garin won the first race in 1903.

And so, I covered the 2002 Tour for the Daily Mail before writing the book. Its reception and sales were gratifying: the Tour bug had bitten and I wanted to be back there for the centenary, this time for the Financial Times. If the foregoing sounds a little solipsistic or boastful, just hang on.

That centennial Tour saw the fifth consecutive victory of Lance Armstrong, leader of the US Postal team. Armstrong was the Texan who had famously recovered from advanced testicular cancer to win the great race, and whose memoir It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life had been an inspirational bestseller. One moment in 2003 captured the public imagination. In the second of two Pyrenean stages, Armstrong was wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey and leading on the final climb of the day, when his handlebars were caught by a bag carried by one of the innumerable spectators who hem the riders in on narrow mountain roads.

He fell, and the peloton went past him, until one rider signalled to the others to slow down: part of the Tour’s unwritten but elaborate chivalric code holds that there should be no attack when the maillot jaune is in trouble. The man reminding them of their duty was Tyler Hamilton, who was now with the CSC team but had ridden with Armstrong from 1995 until 2001 and had helped him win his first three Tour victories. To many watching, Hamilton was the true hero of that centennial race. On the first Sunday he had fallen badly and fractured his collarbone but, although in such acute pain that he literally ground down his teeth, he rode the race to the finish. Most of us extolled those heroes and I wrote a profile of Armstrong for the FT, which I would now like to suppress, or push down the memory hole.

But there was a ghost at the feast. David Walsh is an Irish journalist, the chief sports writer for the Sunday Times, who now tells his story in Seven Deadly Sins. He lived at one time in Paris, had covered bike racing since the early 1980s and knew more than most about its darker side. Walsh befriended Paul Kimmage, a compatriot and a professional rider, whose “despair at cycling’s doping culture was palpable” as long ago as 1986. In fact, cyclists had been using stimulants of one sort or another since the Tour began and Tom Simpson, the best English cyclist of his age, had collapsed and died on the Mont Ventoux climb of the Tour in 1967, his pockets and his body stuffed with amphetamines.

Then came a profound change, with the advent of a new generation of drugs: steroids, testosterone and, above all, erythropoietin or EPO. Unlike anything previously used by athletes, these are synthetic versions of natural metabolic products. That means that they are, on one hand, very difficult to detect and, on the other, they really do “enhance performance” – EPO in particular, which boosts red blood cells and makes cyclists quite simply stronger and faster.

In 1998 bike racing was knocked sideways when the Festina affair revealed the full extent of doping within the game. Armstrong had been making his name as a rider in Europe but, conveniently enough, did not race in that scandalous “Tour de Farce”. He returned to the 1999 Tour with the words “It’s been a long year for cycling and as far as I’m concerned it’s history”, before proceeding to dominate the field so dramatically that, as Walsh says, there were obvious reasons for wondering about his improvement. The race organisers had called this the “Tour of Renewal” and most journalists accepted the official line that the race was now clean, especially if they wanted all-important access to Armstrong.

Some French reporters did not accept it and nor did Walsh. He was convinced that Armstrong’s performance was highly suspicious and he said so, at least as far as he could. Armstrong asserted that he was the most tested athlete on earth and had never tested positive. But the logical difficulty with that was obvious. A mafia capo who uses every form of omertà, bribery and intimidation to ensure that he isn’t successfully prosecuted may say with literal truthfulness that he has never been convicted of a criminal offence but that does not mean that he has never broken the law.

In the absence of any rock-hard evidence, Walsh could only write that he was keeping his arms by his side when others clapped Armstrong, while hinting strongly about what he really thought. Walsh confronted Armstrong at press conferences and was brushed away, though not silenced, with icy sarcasm. Armstrong ruthlessly bullied and threatened other riders who crossed him, and sneered at sceptical journalists: “Mr Le Monde, are you calling me a doper or a liar?”

He was, of course, both. What now seems quite breathtaking is Armstrong’s nerve, his chutzpah, his sheer brazen imposture. He shrugged off questions even when it was admitted by him that he was working with the Italian Michele Ferrari, one of the “sports doctors”, who are perhaps the most disgusting characters in the story, supplying riders with all the dope they could want.

As Hamilton has described in his confessional The Secret Race (reviewed in the New Statesmanby Gary Imlach earlier this year), the “Posties” were all along doping with testosterone and EPO. They relied on Armstrong’s heroic aura and the unheroic posture of the cycling authorities, not to say most of us in the media. Walsh did find one or two allies and soulmates, Italians such as Sandro Donati who gave their lives to the campaign against doping, and the Frenchman Pierre Ballester, a journalist on the sports newspaper L’Équipe, until he was sacked because he thought, quite rightly, that doping was the central sports story of the age.

Sport by now was “like theatre,” Ballester said, “but I prefer theatre because the relationship between actor and spectator is clear. In sport’s theatre both are still pretending it’s real.” He and Walsh collaborated on a book, LA Confidentiel, which used an array of evidence from witnesses such as Emma O’Reilly, a former masseuse with the US Postal team, to indict Armstrong.

But LA Confidentiel was only published in French: dozens of London publishers turned it down, having been threatened by Schillings. This peculiarly aggressive firm of solicitors boasts that “We use the laws of defamation, privacy and copyright to protect the reputations, privacy and confidentiality of our clients, helping them and their advisers to manage what is published and broadcast about them.” Indeed so. And when the Sunday Times published a lengthy account of Armstrong’s activities, the cyclist joined the illustrious line of those – including the late Robert Maxwell, the Bank of Commerce and Credit International and Jeffrey Archer –who have used the London courts and our libel laws to “manage what is published about them”. Schillings eventually took £300,000 off the Sunday Times, which had to pay as much again for its own legal costs.

Like other good journalists released from the constraints of deadlines and column inches, Walsh has let his fancy run a little too freely in this book. It is unnecessarily long, here rather flowery, there somewhat digressive, and highly personal (the description of the death of Walsh’s 12-year-old son in a cycling accident is deeply affecting). The narrative is by no means always easy to follow, crucially important episodes that should be in the main text pop up at random as footnotes, and some turns of phrase are bizarre: “LA Confidentiel had made Pierre and me into the Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin of cycling journalism.” I should hope not! Or not if one’s old enough to remember that duo’s hard-panting number “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus”.

Having made those pedantic points, I should say that this is not so much a valuable as an essential book for anyone interest in Armstrong, bike racing or doping, and Walsh is the true hero of the dismal story. Very few others come out of it well, certainly not myself, whose despatches from those days should be expunged and the last chapters of whose book need to be entirely rewritten. Still less do the eminent personages who ran the sport, notably Hein Verbruggen, who was head of the Union Cycliste Internationale, bike racing’s governing body, from 1991 to 2005; or Pat McQuaid, who succeeded him.

Just as the world once knew that Lance Armstrong was the hero who had made a journey back to life and broken every record, the world now knows him as the greatest cheat and fraud in the history of organised sport. The enormous report from the United States Anti-Doping Agency, published two months ago, left no doubt at all about that, and Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour titles.

This year’s Tour was won by an Englishman for the first time, and Bradley Wiggins then came home to win another Olympic gold medal. His memoir My Time, written with or by William Fotheringham, conveys the most engaging personality of this almost comically unpretentious bloke, who never thought that Tour winners came from Kilburn, and whose excellent wife Cath thinks he’s “a bit of a twat”.

When the news about Armstrong finally broke “it was like when you’re a kid and you find out Father Christmas doesn’t exist,” Wiggins says. He adds that “I’ve never doped”, although a few years ago, when asked if he had ever in his life touched performance-enhancing drugs, he gave what might be called a somewhat oracular answer. And while he says he knows “the pressure is on me to answer all the questions about doping”, he exploded into a torrent of expletives on this year’s Tour when asked just such questions.

For what it’s worth, I hope, I believe and I think that Brad and his team are clean. All the same, the story of bike racing over the past generation is a most sobering lesson in human dishonesty, denial and delusion.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of “Le Tour: a History of the Tour de France” (Pocket Books, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit