Thursday, 20 September 2012

Was Lance Clean and Did He Need To Cheat?

What an emotive subject Lance Armstrong is. He has inspired millions, whether they are cyclists, armchair sports fans or cancer patients his story has touched so many across the world. The man who dominated cycling to such an extent that it's probably better to describe him as crushing rather than dominating his opponents. Lance was everything the sport needed and he was everything that was needed to win at the sport. His nationality and mother tongue made him perfect for the media and his dynamic personality filled inches after inches of sports columns, hours and hours of TV coverage and flogged products to their readers/viewers. So was it all a sham, did he take drugs and that was why he was so good? Well the answer to the those two questions is "probably" and "no".

First of all let's rewind to before Lance had cancer, he was a strong rider from a young age and was the youngest rider to be road race world champion. Then cancer hit. Armstrong hit back at cancer with everything he had, he researched cancer to the nth degree and went about it in a way that he would be famous for attacking cycling when he made his comeback. He was methodically, looking at everything at the heart of that was nutrition. Coming out the other side (if you want the whole story read his excellent autobiography) he must have then analysed cycling with a new lust for life. I imagine him saying "right what do I need to do to win the Tour de France" and then researched it massively. This is where the grey areas start to come in. The Tour at that point (late nineties) was a dark place, running a two speed peloton - those who took drugs (doped) and those who didn't. There wasn't yet a test that could detect the most popular drug EPO and so it was rampant amongst cyclist. This description from explains how it works

"EPO artificially boosted the body’s red blood cell count . Boosting an athlete’s red blood cell count (and thus the efficiency with which oxygen is transported around the body) in order to improve performance, is done by injecting erythropoietin – a hormone produced by the kidneys that stimulates production of red blood cells – and it gives a massive advantage in performance."

The only cyclist and those on the staff who had been caught were those caught in possession of the drug rather than through drug tests. So before we go any further those who claim that because an athlete has take "hundreds of drugs tests" it doesn't mean they're not taking drugs. There wasn't a test for the third generation of EPO until May 2008, three years after Lance won his last Tour.

So back to Lance and his outlook in 1997/8, all the top cyclists were doping. Evidence? Let's look at the three winners before Lance, they were Pantani, Ullrich and Riis. Bjarne Riis has admitted he took drugs, Jan Ullrich has been done for drugs and, if you have the stomach for it, you can read The Death of Marco Pantani, a biography that uncovers his drug aided career from start to cocaine overdose finish.

Faced with a Tour that was fuelled by drugs it is feasible that Lance thought his only way of winning the tour during his generation was to use EPO.

However, Lance wasn't just EPO good, he was amazing. This is where the non-drugs side to Lance comes through. He was the complete rider. Let me explain in more detail.

He trained hard, he was one of the first riders to bring in reconnoitering the major stages of the tour before hand. Knowing how the route was gave him that extra edge, knowing exactly when to attack, knowing which side of the road to be on when descending. It all added up.

His diet was followed strictly, unlike Ullrich who would crash diet before the race Armstrong would turn up to the tour looking lean and but would stay lean aiding his training. Why is that important? Before cancer Lance had a lot of upper body weight in the form of muscle (he used to be a tri-athlete), the new slimmed down version meant he was a lot lighter and that aided him when climbing mountains. As you can imagine the lighter you are, the less weight you have to drag up a mountain.

Everything for Lance was down to the little detail, he wouldn't walk around in bare feet in his house as that was a way to catch colds. Everything was thought of. You may have heard David Brailsford talk of marginal gains to do with British Cycling and Team Sky but it's Lance that really brought that thinking on a step. He looked at everything, I've mentioned nutrition, training, health but his team also looked at his bike making sure he gained every advantage where he could.

Tactics wise he was spot on, at the start of his dominance he seemed easy to read, he would attack on the first mountain summit finish and then just keep eating away at time after that. Yet, it wasn't that simple. First of all, knowing when he would attack wouldn't help if you could keep up with him but he controlled the whole race from start to finish. He would carefully choose who would have the race lead by allowing only certain breakaways to have success (by his team not chasing them down) and would then hold them at a certain length so they weren't a danger to him but meant he wouldn't have to defend his lead too early. Team Sky are still learning from Lance today. They looked at how he never got in any crashes - something Bradley Wiggins didn't avoid as he went out of last year's Tour with a broken collar bone. Again it seemed easy to read him, just stay at the front and you don't end up in a crash. Yet when 200 riders want to be at the front for that very reason it actually causes the crashes so how did Lance do it? He got his team to ride a fast pace even on stages where there was nothing at stake, this stretched out the peloton and meant that the scrum for the front was no more.

Drugs may have helped with the implementation of his tactics but it didn't help form the original thought. That really sums Lance up, it may have helped his implementation but he was head and shoulders above the other drug takers. Does it make it right? No but he's still the best rider of his generation. That I'm sure of.

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