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Cycling: The Great French Problem

Lance Armstrong

A question for any cycling fan, what does Lance Armstrong share in common with the likes of Ivan Basso, Jan Ulrich, Alexander Vinokourov or Marco Pantani? It is not a tough one this. But if any readers are generally struggling, the answer is that at some point all of the previously mentioned world class cyclists have either been caught using or admitted to using Performance Enhancing Drugs. Most of the planets populace will be aware of the famous Oprah interview in which Lance confessed all to a ‘shocked’ audience, although it must have taken someone extremely naïve before the famous interview to think that Mr Armstrong had achieved all without the help of a chemist size cache of exotic aids. But some readers may not be aware of who the others are.

Ok here is the next question, what do these gentlemen not share in common? Lance Armstrong was banned for life from competitive sport of any kind following the revelations regarding his drug use; the others were all welcomed back to competitive cycling with open arms following a brief ban. Fair? Well no not really. Now ok some readers are probably thinking ‘well Lance orchestrated the most sophisticated drugs program in the history of the sport… Lance ruined careers and lives… Lance generated more wealth than all the others put together so deserved to lose it all.’ All of those assertions are true but the fact remains others cheated in the same way to achieve the same goal- to win. Therefore the punishment should be the same surely? The fact it was not is a total farce. The ban Basso received, for instance, was pathetically just a year!  Another aspect the riders do not share in common? Lance is the only one who’s native language is English.

L’equipe the great French newspaper that has always been historically linked with the Tour hounded Armstrong for years having never believed his claims of being a clean rider. And this personal attack is justified as Armstrong was a cheat. But would this vociferous attack have continued for so long had Armstrong heralded from a quiet suburb of Lille, or from the mountains of Tuscany as opposed to the hamburger consuming lone star state (Texas). There can be no doubt that Armstrong did not help himself: ruthlessly chastising any journalist he took a disliking too; needlessly surrounding himself with irritating Hollywood A-listers and generating monopoly winning wealth in the process. He changed the Tour from a romantic fairy tale into full throttle capitalism almost single handed. He Americanised the classic French race, a cardinal sin in a proud Latin speaking country. But the fact remains others cheated too; the punishment should be the same surely?

It seems rather unlikely that Miguel Indurain won his five Tour titles clean. The great Spanish rider who weighed almost eighty kilograms could beat riders weighing a little over fifty (who were doped) to the top of some of the most gruelling climbs in the world. Fans of his will point out cynicism is surely misplaced as Indurain never failed a dope test. But then again neither did Lance!

2015

This year saw Chris Froome win his second Tour de France and in the process television cameras were able to obtain footage of the rider in yellow being spat at, booed, and in one delightful circumstance a bottle of urine was thrown in his face. So obviously he was not a popular Tour winner, the possible reasons for this? Did the quietly spoken, Kenyan born champ arrive with an aggressive entourage? Well no. Did he win by such a huge distance that it was clear only drugs were responsible? Well again no he beat Columbia’s Nairo Quintana by one minute twelve seconds, hardly light years. So what did he do that clearly annoyed the fans so much? When dissected the only answer can be the fact he is an English speaking rider, competing for an English team- surely another cardinal sin equal to that of Lances self-imposed domination during the late nineties to early noughties.

Some may say this is unfair and bias, maybe it is. But when you consider the Tour in 2014 was won by Vincenzo Nibali of Italy by a monstrous seven minutes and thirty nine seconds, a winning margin that evokes memories of the ‘Festina’ drug plagued era. Put simply if Froome is doped and the others are clean his winning margin would be much greater than seventy two seconds. Either Froome is clean or they are all doped. Nibali winning by such a large gap is far more suspicious and yet he did not receive the same sort of abuse that Froome experienced. If the fans are anti-doping then treat the riders the same there should be no exceptions.

When put this way there is no substance to the argument that fans used against Froome ‘that he might be doped’ because, as just mentioned, there have been far more dubious performances from other riders that have just been ignored. The French it seems do not have a problem with doping it seems they have a problem with English speaking riders winning their race. A stance only exacerbated by the fact that a French rider has not won the tour in thirty years since Bernard Hinault triumphed in 1985.

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