We’ve been noticing something odd about this Tour de France: Lance Armstrong has been erased. It’s like he never existed. Nobody mentions him on TV or in the press, and the Eurosport channel never shows footage of him from past events (and before this, you could bet a year’s salary that you’d see at least one “great moments” shot of him in every day’s coverage).
The confirmation of this erasure came after Stage 16, which ended with a descent into Gap. On one tight corner just a few kilometers before the finish line, Alberto Contador overcooked it and lost control. The camera found him remounting his bike, just as Chris Froome came zipping around the same corner and had to do some fast crash avoidance, going off onto the gravel and having to step off his bike as well. The two remounted and took off, with no real harm done.
This particular descent, and that near-disaster, rang bells in everyone’s memory. In 2003 the Tour made the same descent into the same town, and another rider got into trouble. Joseba Beloki overcooked the curve, slid on a patch of melted tarmac, blew his tire and crashed heavily on his right side, breaking his leg, elbow and wrist. Right behind him was the yellow jersey wearer, Lance Armstrong. What Lance did to avoid crashing into Joseba Beloki instantly became cycling history:
He missed Beloki’s wheel by a meter, narrowly avoided the gendarme standing off to the side, and then rode his narrow-tired racing bike across a field and carried it up an embankment as if it were a cyclocross race. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, before or since, and it became one of those clips that got shown over and over again in subsequent Tours.
Not anymore. I read three different accounts of Contador and Froome’s near-miss on Stage 16, and not one of them mentioned Armstrong. One didn’t recall the 2003 event at all, one mentioned it and named Joseba Beloki but not Armstrong, and one even referred to the famous ride across the field, but didn’t say who did it. And two of those stories were from cycling magazine sites, which really blew my mind.
This is ridiculous. Yes, Armstrong doped. Yes, he was stripped of seven titles. But has anyone noticed that those titles weren’t subsequently awarded to other riders? From 1999 to 2005, there are no winners of the Tour de France. Why? Because no top rider from that era could conclusively be proven to have ridden clean.
The International Cycling Union, in its decision to leave blank lines for seven years worth of Tours de France, has in effect admitted that Lance Armstrong (eventually) told the truth: At that time it was impossible to win a Tour without doping, because everybody doped. Therefore, the winner wasn’t the doper, but the doper who was also the best rider.
Lance Armstrong was the best rider of his generation. His bike handling skills, as evidenced in the video above, were top notch. His instincts and strategizing skills were the best in the field. And let’s not forget that he had the one great gift any endurance athlete could ask for: a larger-than-normal heart, courtesy of his genetics and not doping, which was capable of pushing more blood and oxygen through his system than a normal-sized heart.
He was, simply, a great athlete. And yes, he was also a towering asshole who vindictively terrorized anyone who tried to blow his cover on the doping. I won’t defend his lies or his disgusting behavior toward the less powerful, but it remains a fact that he was the best on a bicycle. Trying to pretend otherwise makes everyone look like idiots and exposes an appalling double standard. There are men on that Tour right now who were caught doping, served out a ban, and are now being cheered along. Why are they forgiven while Armstrong is erased from history?
Pretending that something didn’t happen does not, in fact, make it so. Last time I checked, the only people who actually believe it does were around three years old.
Can we get back to being adults now?