PARIS – There was an Armstrong who walked on the moon and another, Louis, who sang sweet jazz. But Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner?
That never happened.
“He deserves to be forgotten in cycling,” the sport’s boss, Pat McQuaid, said Monday as he erased Armstrong’s victories from the record books of the race that made him a global celebrity.
It felt – and was – truly momentous. The crash landing in a spectacular plunge from grace. The moment of impact between the truth and years of lies. Official acceptance – first from the head of cycling’s governing body, then from the boss of the Tour – that the fairytale of a cancer survivor who won the world’s most storied bicycle race was, in fact, the biggest fraud in the history of sports.
“A landmark day for cycling,” McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, said at a news conference in Geneva. “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling.”
In Paris, at another press call, Tour director Christian Prudhomme added: “Lance Armstrong is no longer the winner of the Tour de France from 1999-2005.”
Sports stars have imploded before. But no sports icon peddled a tale quite like Armstrong’s: the Texan from a broken home who became a world champion, then was struck down by testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain, but who still rolled up in 1999 at the Tour, a 3-week test so tough, it has defeated many men who didn’t endure gut-wrenching chemotherapy and carry the scars of tumor-removing surgery.
For other people affected by the disease he survived, Armstrong became the living embodiment of the idea that willpower can overcome any obstacle.
“I hope this sends out a fantastic message to all the cancer patients and survivors around the world,” Armstrong said on winning his first Tour. “We can return to what we were before – and be even better.”
The doping doubts were always there from 1999. A positive urine test for banned corticosteroids at the 1999 Tour was explained away and covered up by one of Armstrong’s doctors, a former team masseuse testified years later.
A book in 2004 where the same masseuse said she gave Armstrong makeup to hide needle marks on his arm was met with writs from Armstrong’s lawyers and furious denials from him.
In 2005, a French newspaper reported that laboratory researchers in Paris found EPO in Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour, test results that raised yet more suspicions but couldn’t be used to sanction him.
“Witch hunt,” Armstrong said.
That became one of his favored phrases, the same one he used in 2010, when federal investigator Jeff Novitzky dug into doping in cycling and Armstrong’s role.
It was the phrase Armstrong directed at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency – the organization that eventually nailed him, succeeding where everyone else and hundreds of drug tests failed.
USADA did that by getting former teammates to talk. Novitzky’s investigation, abruptly shut down by U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. with no explanation this February, at least seems to have had the merit of helping to loosen tongues.
The Feds “placed a gun and a badge on the table,” said McQuaid.
“Cycling has a future,” McQuaid said. Quoting John Kennedy, he said cycling’s biggest crisis is also “an opportunity.”
But this didn’t feel like the time or place, the frightening enormity of the past still sinking in.
Armstrong – a pariah in the sport that turned him from a nobody into a somebody and, now, back into a nobody again.
That downfall cannot, should not, be forgotten.