This attractive drawing has been used in Le Monde to illustrate an ordinary article about the coming cycling season.
I often wonder whether many conscientious parents would be thrilled, these days, to see their children becoming enthusiastic about road cycling. At another level, when I was driven around a bit in Brittany last year, I became aware of the fact that riding a bike on rural roads has become a terribly treacherous pastime. As a young man, I made several thrilling two-day trips from Paris to Brittany (about 450 km) then back to Paris a few days later. Today, I'm sad to realize that any attempt to carry out such a pleasant trip would be totally suicidal.
Whichever way you look at the situation, and no matter what he actually says in his much-awaited coming-out on doping condemnations (recorded yesterday), there's no way in the world that Lance Armstrong can emerge from this sordid affair, in a few days' time, as a winner. The overall victory will be snatched by a veteran pedaler: Oprah Winfrey.
This all-time champion has already reached the summits of media mountains in first position on countless occasions. But this time, she has no doubt performed in a more spectacular fashion than in any of her long list of previous talk-show achievements and victories. Little Lance will look like a feeble child hiding in the folds of his mother's skirts, ruffled by gusts of icy wind blowing across the treacherous alpine slopes, where the slightest miscalculation of his trajectory could hurtle him down to his death.
French commentators have often borrowed a hackneyed theme: "This stage cannot possibly enable any particular rider to win the Tour de France... but it's a stage that could cause several riders to lose the Tour." Never has this observation been more pertinent, in Armstrong's career, than today. Oprah, encouraged by her hordes of fans, needs only to complete the course with a minimum display of natural aggressiveness in order to score maximum points, and secure the overall victory. Lance, on the other hand, could be smitten by dozens of afflictions, or even totally demolished by a grave accident, and carted away half-dead in an ambulance.
But this encounter will not in fact resemble a sporting competition. It will be more like the austere ritual of a bullfight. And don't expect Oprah Winfrey to be the bull.
Others will evoke lies, cheating and bullying. Funnily enough, we cycling enthusiasts and observers in France thought it fabulous, at the time, that a New World offspring could arrive here as a conqueror.
People are confused, particularly those of us who admired Armstrong immensely. Some of us (such as Laurent Jalabert, manager of the French team) say that Armstrong was a great champion in spite of his doping... but that argument doesn't stand up to criticism. Others evoke his cancer combat... but is cheating a valid path to survival?
Others (including myself) are concerned primarily by the survival of professional cycling in general, and the Tour de France in particular. I'm convinced that they're bigger than a stealthy guy from Texas, a Republican buddy of George W Bush.
The most surrealist aspect of this whole affair is that Lance Armstrong persists in claiming that his critics have got things wrong. The situation is binary: Either the critics are totally off-target, or Armstrong is an evil liar (with a jail cell on the horizon).
Cycling is such a fabulous sport that it's a terrible shame that our horizons have sunken to this abysmal level.
Up until the bitter end, I persisted in believing that Lance Armstrong was an extraordinary athlete and a morally upright gentleman, and that all attempts to accuse him of cheating and lying were doomed.
Alas, massive evidence—above all, from Lance's fellow-members of the US Postal team—forces me to change my mind. Abruptly, I've ceased to be a believer in The Boss.
In the context of this scandal, the most pertinent question today concerns the attitude of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) in Switzerland, which must react within 21 days to the charges against Armstrong formulated by USADA (the US anti-doping agency). Observers have often had the impression that the UCI has hoped continually, for the sake of world cycling, that Armstrong would succeed in keeping his head above water. But it will be hard for the UCI to deny the grave findings revealed in the bulky USADA report.
Meanwhile, as Armstrong continues to refuse to "come out" with any kind of mea culpa, his situation is becoming more and more isolated, if not pathetic. Does he consider that his life-saving role as a fundraiser within his Livestrong organization precludes him from stepping down into the dirty arena with former mates such as George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters?
BREAKING NEWS: In a comment attached to this blog post, I mentioned briefly the fact that members of Australia's GreenEdge team appear to be totally clean. Alas, the situation might not be as simple as that. Click here to see an article in The Sydney Morning Herald indicating the possible involvement in the Armstrong saga of Matthew White, sports director of Orica-GreenEdge. Click here to see a more recent article—which appears to have been published on Saturday, October 13, in Sydney—indicating that White has admitted his personal involvement in dope, and resigned from his professional cycling jobs.
The US Anti-Doping Agency's decision to erase the career of Lance Armstrong is a blatant case of perfectionism. I'm using this term in a pejorative sense, designating a Kafkaesque situation in which holier-than-thou bureaucrats have gone to absurdly extreme lengths in the hope of installing their lily-white conceptions of what professional cycling should be all about.
Lance Armstrong, August 20, 2009 – photo Stefan Wermuth, Reuters
In punishing an outstanding sportsman for alleged faults committed long ago (if indeed they were truly committed), USADA is harming gravely the sport of cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular. For countless admirers in the USA and Europe, Armstrong will remain a hero because of the amazing story of his combat against cancer, and the way in which he happened to pick up no less than 7 yellow jerseys in the wake of that combat. The world of professional cycling has been making enormous efforts to wipe out the use of illicit pharmaceutical products and doping strategies. And the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) will be shooting itself in the foot if it accepts the conclusions (as it is more-or-less obliged to do) of the US anti-doping organization. Hoping to clean up cycling by punishing Armstrong retrospectively is an idiotic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
This afternoon, as I watched (on TV) the final ceremonial stage of the fabulous Tour de France parade on the Champs Elysées, I thought back to 1981 when I met up with Phil Anderson, who was the first Australian to wear the famous yellow jersey. At that time, I had the privilege of interviewing Phil and his mother Pamela, and my article was published in the Australian magazine People.
"When I ride the next Tour de France," Phil told me, "I plan to be the winner." This would not be the case. And Australia would have to wait three decades until victory, this afternoon.
Today, it would be good if my native land (Australia) could share with my adoptive land (France) the fabulous impact of this mythical sporting event, which is in fact a planetary cultural happening. For us, living in France, it's by far the greatest celebration of the summer season. It's a cycling championship, of course, but it's also, and above all, an active real-time celebration of the many marvels of a mystical Mediterranean (middle of the world) nation: France.
Cadel Evans is a quiet but great Australian sporting hero, who has always been in total control of his wonderful career.
The city of Grenoble (half an hour away from where I live) was the birthplace of the French novelist Stendhal [1783-1842], whose most celebrated title was The Red and the Black. And red and black were the colors, during this Tour de France, of the jersey of Cadel Evans.
After this afternoon's time trial at Grenoble, Cadel changed his colors from red and black to yellow. Normally, tomorrow on the Champs Elysées in Paris, Cadel Evans will be the first Australian cyclist to win the Tour de France.
When I was a teenager in Grafton, I would hear about this fabulous race through French cycling magazines that my uncle Charles Walker used to receive, in his capacity as the president of the Coffs Harbour cycling club. Not yet capable of reading French, I nevertheless admired the photos of champions named Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Raphaël Géminiani… Much later, on 8 July 1963, I happened to be hitchhiking through Grenoble when the 15th stage of the Tour de France arrived there, won by the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes.
Watching the time trial on TV this afternoon, and seeing Evans obtain the yellow jersey, I had the impression that I was witnessing a momentous event in Australian cycling history.
Since Floyd Landis lied resolutely for four years about his involvement in dope, should we suddenly believe him today when he alleges that other cyclists were fueled by chemical products? When asked this obvious rhetorical question, Landis himself says, somewhat curiously, that he no longer really cares whether people believe him or not.
After seeing a revealing interview on French TV yesterday, I would say that, in my opinion, there's maybe a 20% chance that he's providing the sporting world with explosive facts, and four chances out of five that he's a sick nut case. But, whatever the likelihood of their turning out to be fables (which might never be proved or disproved), his allegations are so enormous that it's hardly surprising that they're being followed up earnestly, particularly in the context of Lance Armstrong, by US dope authorities.
Some of the tales told by Landis have a surrealist flavor, like events in a poorly-conceived script for a crime movie. For example, he explained that blood for later transfusions was collected from riders before the start of the Tour de France, and then stored in Floyd's refrigerator at his country house in Spain. He claimed that the only danger was, not so much the possibility of an intruder discovering all this blood in the kitchen, but rather an electricity outage. Then there's his description of what would happen in the team's bus prior to the start of a race.
Now, I've often observed at close range the huge buses used by professional cycling teams, parked in an enclosure near the starting line of a stage. It's a fact that such a vehicle—with smoked-glass windows and drawn curtains—looks like an opaque impenetrable fortress: the mobile out-of-bounds territory of a foreign embassy, with guards at the door. The scene described by Landis, evoking a military hospital, is truly grotesque. All nine members of the team would sit down and receive a transfusion, lasting a quarter of an hour, of their own blood. This vision of nine athletes, lounging simultaneously on reclining chairs while blood is dripping into their bodies from suspended plastic bags, is quite nightmarish. Landis, retrospectively, considers that this was business as usual. "It was routine, there was no debate to be made, we all knew we would do it. It was part of the job, it was a trivial thing." Frankly, I'm less inclined than ever to imagine that scene as real.
Later on in the interview, Landis makes huge accusations concerning specific individuals. "In the peloton, everyone knows that Pat McQuaid, Hein Verbruggen and other leaders of the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale] protected some riders and not others during the past 20 years. It was their way of manipulating and creating stars."
We used to see photos of Floyd Landis in the context of his Pennsylvania village of Farmersville, comprised of 200 God-fearing souls who practised the archaic Mennonite religion.
Many observers would say that the religious upbringing of Floyd Landis could not possibly have anything to do with his subsequent behavior in the world of professional cycling.
Others would claim that this upbringing would have normally instilled in him a respect for moral principles and righteousness. My own opinions on communities of this kind (about which I know little) are that there are loose screws somewhere along the line, and that you never know what might happen.
For example, there's a custom known as Rumspringa, concerning Amish and Mennonite youths, which might be described roughly as "fucking around for a few years while you're deciding what to do next, prior to making up your mind about whether you should calm down and enter the fold". In theory, it's not a bad idea… but the effectiveness of this technique depends on how far you run amok, for how long, and with what possibly disastrous consequences. I've often wondered whether Floyd Landis might have descended into a protracted state of Rumspringa, from which he doesn't know how to emerge.
A month or so ago, I was thrilled, as usual, by the brilliant analyses of Laurent Fignon in his role as a TV journalist covering the Tour de France. He knew what he was talking about, for he had won the great race twice, in 1983 and 1984. Today, I'm stunned to hear that cancer has taken him away. Death is a weird phenomenon when it strikes a great sporting hero. Not so long ago, his body was a biological engine of perfection. Today, it's an empty shell. But the world remains filled with memory waves that evoke the dead champion.
Many Tour de France cyclists (who provide France with a welcome breath of fresh air after the disastrous soccer events) deserve to be thought of as fabulous. I might have applied this term to Mark Cavendish (what an emotional "bad boy" in tears), to Sylvain Chavanel (the French rider who has just won a second stage, after recuperating from an accident), or to Cadel Evans (whom we're all admiring and inspecting closely). The cyclists of the Tour de France are participating in a unique sporting event. The landscapes and architectural heritage of France, displayed constantly by the helicopter cameras, are equally fabulous.
In this context, Lance Armstrong has just flashed the following moving image on Twitter:
Always, Lance gets to the essential...
BREAKING NEWS: After Sunday's stage, disastrous for Lance (he hit the macadam three times), he sent out a despondent twitter:
When it rains it pours I guess.. Today was not my day needless to say. Quite banged but gonna hang in here and enjoy my last 2 weeks.
In a way, I find it preferable to see him knocked out by sheer bad luck rather than succumbing to a duel with Contador. As for Evans, the French press is talking of a feeling of déjà vu.
I'm applying the word "tragedy" to the personal case of Floyd Landis. After getting over the initial shock of his turnabout, I'm left with a puzzling query: What has caused Landis to make his confession, nearly four years after his personal eviction from the Tour? Although I don't claim to have any firm answers to this question, I believe that we're confronted with an individual who's probably in a dark state of both anguish and anger.
I've heard (without being able to verify such things) that Landis has lost his fortune, his home and his family while trying to prove that he was unjustly deprived of his Tour title. Meanwhile, last year, he saw the organizers of the Tour de France invite his old teammate Lance Armstrong back into the legendary race. Not only is Armstrong present as a welcome guest, but he's surrounded by an aura of veneration through his sporting determination and longevity, and through his work in the domain of cancer care. To say the least, Landis is surely bitter, and an observer might well imagine that yesterday's sensational turnabout was inspired by rage and revenge.
Up until the last moment, the organizers of the Tour de France will retain the right to exclude certain riders, or even an entire team, from the event that starts on 3 July 2010. Decisions at that level will surely represent the moment of verity of this whole affair, because the organizers probably have a pretty good idea, by now, of where the truth lies… and where the future interests of the Tour de France lie. If the Tour organizers say it's OK for Armstrong to participate, then the Texan will be permanently vindicated, and Landis will be cast more deeply than ever into outer darkness.
Maybe, though, I should not have included the word "permanently" in that last sentence. The evolution of technical knowledge and experience about doping and relevant testing is advancing in ways that remind me (metaphorically) of the progress of DNA tests in forensic medicine. If physiologists have the impression that certain situations still remain suspicious, they'll certainly retain the urine and blood samples while science and technology strive to catch up with the breakaway bunch.
For Armstrong, yesterday was an eventful day, in more ways than one:
The latest news is that he didn't break any bones in this crash in California.
This morning, I came upon a interesting American viewpoint on the Landis revelations: an article by Michael Rosenberg entitled Latest accusation makes it hard not to believe Lance Armstrong doped up[display]. The journalist concludes: The American people seem to believe Lance Armstrong is a cancer-fighting activist instead of another athlete who used performance-enhancing drugs. But you know what? He might be both.
On the eve of the Tour de France in 2006, there was a vast dope-oriented cleanup. The organizers published a short list of undesirable riders: the Italian Ivan Basso, the Spaniards Francesco Mancebo and Oscar Sevilla, and the German Jan Ullrich. Finally, the Tour was won by an American, Floyd Landis, who seemed to be as clean as they come. Wasn't he brought up in a pious Mennonite environment in a rural village named Farmersville in Pennsylvania?
The champagne had a bitter aftertaste. Tests revealed that Landis had been doped with EPO, and he was stripped of his victory in the Tour.
A report in The Wall Street Journal has just revealed that Landis has finally admitted that he used dope. He also made accusations concerning former teammates Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie. This long-overdue mea culpa is surely going to stir up a lot of shit during the weeks leading up to the forthcoming Tour de France.
People interested in the case of Armstrong should consult a lengthy in-depth interview (that dates from 2009) with the Australian EPO specialist Michael Ashenden, who gives me the impression that he knows what he's talking about. [Click the photo to access this interview.]
French journalists have had fun with the surname of the Schleck brothers, Fränk and Andy, from Luxembourg, who were the most prominent opponents of Lance Armstrong. We got treated to puns about blank Schlecks, bad Schlecks, rubber Schlecks, Schleck-mate, etc.
This afternoon, on the moonscape slopes of the terrifying Bald Mountain in Provence, it was touching to see young Andy doing his utmost to get his brother Fränk in front of Armstrong. The brothers ride together in synergy; as if they were identical twins. But Lance was too smart to be trapped.
There was a rumor, this morning, that Armstrong might have made a proposal to the Schleck brothers to join his forthcoming US team, sponsored by Radio Shack. If this were to eventuate, let me be the first observer to coin a nickname for the new team: Radio Schleck.
There was an intriguing moment just before the riders started today's climb. French TV journalists noticed that Armstrong, while pedaling hard, was conversing briefly with one of the Schleck brothers. First journalist: "What on earth could Armstrong be talking about with a Schleck brother?" Second journalist: "He's probably supplying them with last-minute financial details of a contract with Radio Shack."
At the end of the stage, Armstrong was most pleased with the way that things had turned out on the Ventoux. He was stunned by the record-breaking crowds of spectators, including a large proportion of Americans. At times, the density of onlookers was such that the effects of the notorious Ventoux winds appeared to be attenuated by the human walls.I noticed, too, judging by the flags, that crowds of Australians are following the Tour, which has become a truly international sporting event.
Cycling is a subtle sport. There has always been only one way of winning: a brilliant performance, combining power and speed, strategy and imagination, along with some help from your friends and a bit of luck. A rider who wins is often the kind of competitor described in French as an attaquant (attacker). But, in cycling, there are two ways of losing: either you do little and don't make progress, or you run into big problems and descend in the results. Once again, the Australian Cadel Evans is settling in to his familiar status quo category, whereas the Russian Denis Menchov has spent the first week of the current Tour moving backwards in a spectacular manner.
So far, Lance Armstrong has impressed us greatly, whereas his team mate (?) Alberto Contador has played a waiting game. A French website says that the Astana team is sitting on a volcano... which might well go into eruption this afternoon, when the riders encounter the first mountain stage.
Once again, it's a huge pleasure to watch the world's third-greatest sporting event (after the Olympic Games and soccer's World Cup) on TV. Commentators on the France 2 channel like to make a subtle verbal distinction between the Tour de France and the Tour de la France. The first expression designates, of course, the cycling race. The second refers to the fabulous helicopter images of French landscapes, villages, castles, etc... not to mention the hordes of spectators lining the roads. It is a popular event, in the etymological sense of this Latin adjective, meaning "of/for the people". But it provides us, above all, with a bird's-eye vision of the beauty of France.
Observing these magnificent visions of the landscape and heritage in France, I'm not all that surprised when I hear that the French are considered (in a well-known poll) as the world's worst tourists. They never stop grumbling. They're perpetually disappointed, unhappy. Wherever they go, they'll always be tempted, inevitably, to compare what they encounter with their homeland.
The latest news is that Lance Armstrong, after his comeback in the Down Under Tour in January, will be riding in next year's Giro d'Italia, giving him a crucial test before his attempt to win an eighth Tour de France title.
"I'm so excited to be coming to the 2009 Giro. I raced a long time professionally and never did the Giro. It was one of my biggest regrets. I'm going to be able to erase that regret. Who knows, maybe with a good result."
Armstrong's comeback will focus attention upon his global campaign to fight cancer: a disease he survived before his seven straight victories in the Tour de France. That dimension of his mission, at least, will be surely accomplished. As for the rest: Does it matter? Yes, it does... but in ways that transcend everyday sport. Lance Armstrong has become a symbol, and the world is looking henceforth at the human being, in all his profundity, not merely at the way he pedals on the slopes. This change of outlook indicates—if it weren't already obvious—that we're in the presence of an extraordinary individual.
French stand-up comedians are intrigued by this familiar surname. "Not only did he win the Tour de France seven times. He set foot on the Moon, and he plays a fabulous jazz trumpet."
Lance Armstrong exerts the same kind of New World fascination upon ordinary French people as the powerful US saviors of Normandy in 1944. When SuperMan moves in to your rural towns and villages, you simply sit down by the roadside, in awe, and watch the action.
In France, cycling enthusiasts are stunned by the announcement of Armstrong's daring comeback. But you might say that the role of a SuperMan is to be amazing. From now on, let's turn our attention above all to Armstrong's marvelous militancy in the fight against cancer, and to his encouragement of clean dope-free cycling. He is an exceptional sporting personality and an impressive human being who demands our respect and attention.
As a former adolescent cyclist of sorts in my home town of Grafton (back in the days when bicycles had only recently been invented), I've always been interested in the Australian cycling world. A few days ago, I received an email circular from the organizers of Australia's Tour Down Under, and I promptly dropped in on their website.
Next January's scheduled event in Adelaide is part of the so-called ProTour circuit, under the auspices of the world-level body that governs professional cycling: the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale]. The Tour de France, on the other hand, is organized by the Amaury group, owners of the newspaper L'Equipe (which angered the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe not so long ago).
The director of the 2009 Tour Down Under assures us that everything "is on track and on schedule". He explains that the UCI has confirmed that the South Australian event "will remain in the top echelon of world cycling. We have also spoken to the elite teams who rate the event highly and plan to be in Adelaide in January 2009."
These reassuring words surprised me somewhat, because the news from France, just after Bastille Day, was that 17 ProTour teams competing in the Tour de France had decided to refrain from taking out ProTour licences for 2009. The Australian website includes a menu concerning teams for the Tour Down Under, but the data is obsolete. The 19 teams that are listed are those that competed in last January's event, rather than those that will be turning up in Adelaide in 2009. So, what gives? Would the organizers of the Tour Down Under be jumping the start in persisting in talking as if it's business as usual?
Today, speaking from Beijing, UCI president Pat McQuaid revealed a plan that his body intends to submit to the Amaury people in France, in the hope of resolving the conflicts that have existed over the last few years. I have the impression that today's UCI press release is full of good intentions, but we know nothing, for the moment, concerning possible reactions of the Tour de France organizers. I feel that South Australia is excessively optimistic in suggesting that they can calmly and confidently begin the countdown to the 2009 Tour Down Under. It would be more realistic if they were to inform potential spectators explicitly that international road cycling is still in a global mess.
No, I'm not talking about dope, but rather about their skin color. In an interesting article in the newspaper Le Monde, a journalist has drawn attention to the fact that the colorful peloton of Tour de France riders includes not a single Black, Arab or Asian. How can this be explained? In France, it's mainly a rural sport, rather than a suburban activity. Becoming a competitive cyclist requires a significant financial investment, and you need room to store your bike and associated tools and equipment. By comparison, it's cheaper for a youth to spend his spare time kicking a soccer ball. Consequently, boys of immigrant background who grow up in a low-income suburban environment of high-rise flats are unlikely to get involved in cycling. But I would imagine that the phenomenon of a lily-white peloton is likely to evolve considerably in forthcoming years.
Another journalist was intrigued by the fact that this year's winner, the 33-year-old Spaniard Carlos Sastre, appears to be such an unobtrusive fellow, whom people would probably not recognize if they bumped into him on the street. This is a reflection of the ingrained idea that Tour de France champions are necessarily forceful characters: attackers who exude power and authority, like Bernard Hinault or Lance Armstrong. This attitude is no doubt a remnant of the epoch when Tour champions such as Fausto Coppi [1919-1960] and Jacques Anquetil [1934-1987] generated a mythical and almost divine aura.