Lance Armstrong: EPO, blood transfusions, subcultures and the line

I suppose a website with ‘Tour de France’ in its title should at least acknowledge the fact that the guy who won the race a record number of times is being ripped a new one as a result of an insanely lengthy report on doping practices being released into the public domain.

For my part, I feel no differently about the guy. This is largely because it was hard to envision a scenario where he and his team WEREN’T using a sophisticated doping programme to achieve success. Read Daniel Coyle’s really rather excellent book Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force and you gain a pretty decent perspective on the way he operates. He is a man who will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of victory.

The line

Most of us draw lines and tell ourselves we won’t cross them. Usually we don’t. Occasionally we do and then we feel shitty about ourselves. Lance Armstrong isn’t like that. Lance has goals and his goals obscure everything else. This is what makes him a remarkable person, even if it is also what prevents him from being a wholly admirable person.

To achieve the particular goal of winning the Tour de France, he wanted the best team, the best coaches, the best bikes, the best gear and the best doping programme from the best doping doctor. It was all the same to him. Everything was a means of getting an advantage over his rivals.

A partial defence of Lance Armstrong

I am not a fan of Lance Armstrong. In fact, I am consciously trying to fight back the schadenfreude. Cocky Americans are bloody annoying and when they’re lauded as saints as well, it’s sickening at the best of times. It’s even worse then there’s a murky truth which is being methodically hidden from sight and when so many appear to be complicit in the deception.

But let’s try and keep perspective. Lance Armstrong’s determination, conviction, self-certainty and near-psychopathic utilisation of those around him are the qualities that seem to have allowed him to run a sophisticated doping progamme, but they are also what helped him become a top cyclist in the first place and they also helped him beat cancer and set up a non-profit organisation which has had an enormous impact.

Armstrong couldn’t have done the good things without being how he is – even if that character also allows him to do other things. There’s no point weighing up the pros and cons and trying to work out whether he’s in credit. It doesn’t work like that.

The pro cycling subculture

One of the main reasons why Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force is such a good book is not because of the insights into Armstrong’s character, but because of what it tells us about the world of pro cycling.

The peloton has its own subculture. It has different norms and values from normal society. Most revolve around retaining fitness and fear of illness, but during Armstrong’s time, these norms also related to doping. Not everyone was doping, but enough people were that it was considered normal within that world.

When we judge Armstrong, we have to bear this in mind. Most of the people he came into contact with will have considered doping to be fairly acceptable. The widespread use of EPO and other outlawed methods was a fairly open secret among the riders and team employees, even if they knew the wider world disapproved.

The reality is that most of us are less concerned about the wider world than the opinions of those we come into direct contact with. Fortunately, on most issues, our nearest and dearest are pretty much in agreement with society as a whole. In pro cycling, this wasn’t the case when it came to doping.

Is Lance Armstrong any worse than the rest of them?

The United States Anti-Doping Agency’s report tells us that Armstrong turned to doping in frustration after being beaten by other riders already using such methods. However, it also paints a picture of a man who then enforces this way of working. For that, he would have to accept far greater responsibility.

If you have won the Tour de France, you are a role model and a very influential person in the world of professional cycling. Armstrong was far more than the average Tour winner and he therefore moulded the peloton in his image. It’s fair to say that Lance Armstrong set the standard.