Posts Tagged ‘Lance Armstrong’

Armstrong, Pantani, and ‘Ventoux’

5 May 2017


As a cycling fan I went to some lengths to see the stage production of Ventoux, currently touring in the UK, after I missed it in London. But it is an interesting piece of theatre as well: it’s not all about the bike.

So what is it? A double hander, with one actor playing Armstrong, the other Pantani, restaging a famous Tour de France contest between the men on Ventoux in 2000, helped along with a couple of turbo bikes and some big coolboxes, of the kind you might use to store, say, doped blood. There’s some back projection as well, and also from time to time the audio of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. As far as I can tell, the script is “found,” edited from actual words spoken or written by the cyclists, which is the modus operandi of the production company, 2 Magpies Theatre.

In terms of the racing, that stage was epic. In 2000, both men had won the Tour once, Pantani in 1998, Armstrong the following year. They had contrasting styles: Pantani a maverick who would race when he felt good, Armstrong the calculator who stacked the odds with a strong and dedicated team, going head to head over the last kilometres. Here’s the footage, with an appropriate music track:

With hindsight, we know that both men stacked the odds in other ways as well. Pantani died in Rimini in 2004 of a cocaine overdose, but we also know that he had used EPO, which boosts performance, especially when climbing, and that Armstong’s entire team was doped up. Liggett’s commentary on the day, used in the play, notes the pace that his team-mates Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingstone were setting on the early part of the climb, and we know from Hamilton’s later testimony that both he and Armstrong had had blood transfusions to top up their red blood cells on the rest day, the day before the Ventoux stage.

What the play does well is explore why, when we know all this, we still admire Pantani and regard Armstrong as a cheat. (Sure, Armstrong was a cheat, a systematic cheat, as the USADA’s Reasoned Decision outlines in jaw-dropping detail, portrayed on stage as flurries of yellow legal paper. But we know that Pantani cheated too). And, by rearranging the chronology of the stage, so we hear parts of twice, knowing the result long before we hear the drama of it, it also reminds us that even when corroded by doping, cycle racing is still thrilling when two well-matched riders duke it out at the edge of their physical limits.

And some of that explanation in the play comes from Armstrong himself, in a speech taken from an article he wrote long after Pantani’s death, and after his own disgrace and lifetime ban from the sport.

Pantani wasn’t a star, he was more like a rock star. He had the aura, he had the following and he was huge. As an American coming over and playing a European sport, I was in a different position… If I was the carpenter, then he was the artist. He had all the panache in the world, all the panache you could fit into a small climber, and I, if I’m honest, didn’t have that.

Here are the actors talking about the production.

Even if you’re not interested in cycling, it’s an interesting piece of theatre. If you are, it’s compelling.



Chasing down Lance Armstrong

28 July 2013

It’s hard to know how to categorise David Walsh’s curiously titled book, Seven Deadly Sins*, about Lance Armstrong’s career as a doper-cyclist. Sports book, obviously: he memorably quotes another writer as describing sportswriters as being like the piano players in a bordello, and Walsh makes his living as Chief Sports Writer on the Sunday Times. Memoir partly, because Walsh was himself at the heart of the pursuit of Armstrong, a co-author of the French language L.A.Confidentiel which put many of the claims about Armstrong into the public domain (to the extent that the libel laws permitted) in 2004, and he was name-checked by Oprah in her interviews with Armstrong in early 2013.

It’s something more as well, something halfway between confessional and ‘I told you so’, because it takes a certain kind of craziness to stay with a story for fourteen years, especially when it’s damaging your reputation – not least because your target is taking frequent potshots at you – and even your closest friends are telling you it’s time to lay off the Lance stuff for a while for your own good.

This is a story about cycling, to be sure, and a well-written one, and every cycling fan should read it to understand how deep in the mire their sport was in the late 1990s and much of the 2000s, and how compliant the governing body, the UCI, was in all of that (of which, more later).

But it’s also a story about power and its discontents, about journalism, and about whistle-blowing – what makes people decide to do the right thing even when it comes with a heavy personal cost. The rest of this long post follows after the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

Lance and the return of the repressed

20 January 2013

Lance’s limited but significant confession on the Oprah Winfrey Show sent me back to USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” – their report on the organised doping conspiracy (their words, not mine) that was represented by Armstrong’s various teams, before and after his comeback.
One of the reasons was to check the odds that Armstrong was telling the truth when he claimed not to have used drugs on his comeback, in an age when biological passports make such things easier to check. The answer: at least a million to one against. USADA asked Professor Christopher Gore of the Australian Institute of Sport to examine Armstrong blood samples taken between 2008 and 2011, looking in particular at reticulocytes (the immature red blood cells that are a clue to the possibility of blood doping):

When Prof. Gore compared the suppressed reticulocyte percentage in Armstrong’s 2009 and 2010 Tour de France samples to the reticulocyte percentage in his other samples, Prof. Gore concluded that the approximate likelihood of Armstrong’s seven suppressed reticulocyte values during the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France occurring naturally was less than one in a million. Prof. Gore [p 140]

But there’s also a striking moment in one of the footnotes of the Reasoned Decision. Go back to the moment in 1999, right at the start of the Tour, when Armstrong was informed at he had tested positive for corticosteroids. [pp 31-32] The team doctor was prevailed on to backdate a prescription saying that Armstrong had taken a cortisone cream for a saddle sore. (According to the evidence given to USADA, Armstrong said to the masseur, Emma O’Reilly, who knew the story to be untrue,
“Now, Emma, you know enough to bring me down”.) But the striking part of the story is in the news conference that Armstrong gave, where he told journalists:

”I made a mistake in taking something I didn’t consider to be a drug,” he said, referring to what he called ”a topical cream” for a skin rash. ”When I think of taking something, I think of pills, inhalers, injections,” he said. ”I didn’t consider skin cream ‘taking something.’ ”

Now, one of Sigmund Freud’s more famous concepts is the notion of “the return of the repressed”, in which a forbidden idea surfaces despite our best attempts to police it. The shrinkwrapped blog explains it like this:

He theorized that an unconscious thought/feeling (Id derived) would constantly press for access to the executive fictions of the mind in order to be discharged. The Ego would be on constant alert to prevent the direct expression of the forbidden idea but the idea would find a disguise and surface as a symptom.

And what’s striking about Armstrong’s language, even in this brief quote, is how much he says about the technology of doping (“pills, inhalers, injections”). A clean rider wouldn’t even have mentioned this. With hindsight, the forbidden idea is escaping its repression.
Armstrong told Oprah that he didn’t think it was possible at that time to win the Tour without doping, and he may be right about this. In Matt Rendell’s book A Significant Other, about Armstrong’s team-mate Victor Hugo Pena in the centenary tour in 2003, Pena maybe gives another clue. He tells Rendell (this is from memory) “We all live this life” – meaning the ascetic life of no alcohol, no chocolate, no parties. “Only Lance leads it more than anyone else.”

The picture at the top of this post is from and is used with thanks.

Nosing out the Armstrong scandal

14 October 2012

Perhaps it’s coincidence that the two journalists who have pursued Lance Armstrong most assiduously – David Walsh and the former professional cyclist Paul Kimmage – are both Irish. Kimmage has been a vocal anti-drugs campaigner since his landmark book A Rough Ride was published in 1990. The Sunday Times settled a libel case with Armstrong out of court (in the libel-friendly English courts) after the paper published extracts from Walsh’s French-language book, LA Confidentiel. M’learned friends are revisiting that case as I write; and I imagine that publication of USADA’s ‘Reasoned Decision‘ will open the way for an English-language edition, or an update of his book From Lance to Landis.

Despite all the leaks, the USADA report, which runs to 200 pages with another 800 pages of affidavits by way of an appendix, is eye-watering. There’s a line in Matt Rendell’s book, Significant Other, written about and with the US Postal domestique Victor Hugo Peña, where Peña says of Armstrong, in effect, that while all professional cyclists live the abstemious life, Armstrong does it more than anyone else. The same turns out to be true of drug abuse.

A profile of David Walsh in the current edition of the UK Press Gazette, explains why Walsh became curious about Armstrong:

What first piqued Walsh’s suspicion was Armstrong’s reaction to an article by a young cyclist named Christophe Bassons, in which the Frenchman claimed the top riders were still doping.

“Armstrong bullied him and hounded him out of the race,” says Walsh. “My feeling at that moment was that a clean rider wouldn’t have done that. It was pretty obvious to me that Armstrong was doping – not from any evidence I had but from the way he behaved.

“I think if anybody had been applying cold logic at the time, they would have come to the same conclusion.”

That was in 1999, and Bassons (along with the former US Postal soigneur Emma O’Reilly who talked to Walsh for LA Confidentiel) is one of the unsung heroes of the Armstrong affair. When Armstrong did something similar to Filippo Simeoni, another critic from inside the peleton, five years later, more suspicions were aroused. (As an aside, Armstrong’s line as an enforcer of the omerta within the peleton on drugs use is an interesting application of game theory: the correct strategy is the maximum level of personal threat to the edge of the law).

Anyway, I worked as a journalist myself at the start of my career, and I thought that Walsh’s observation was a fine example of what’s sometimes called journalistic ‘nose’ – niggling away at something that doesn’t quite fit until the underlying story reveals itself.

It’s clear, now, that one of the reasons that cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has been so irritable about the USADA investigation is that now the evidence against Armstrong is public, their own complicity is visible. The former President Hein Verbruggen was on the offensive this week with a fine line of bluster. But of course, like Armstrong, the UCI suits do their own line in bullying, pursuing a ‘shoot the messenger’ strategy in the Swiss courts. Floyd Landis has just lost a libel case brought by the UCI and its current and immediate past Presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen, and Paul Kimmage is being sued by the same trio for comments in an interview with Floyd Landis published in the Sunday Times, because, says the UCI, “Mr Kimmage had made false accusations that defamed the UCI and its Presidents, and which tarnished their integrity and reputation.” (The full transcript of Kimmage’s interview with Landis can be read at NYVeloCity).

Kimmage, unlike Landis, is contesting the case. Vigorously. (The UCI hasn’t sued the newspaper, which speaks volumes for their approach: and some of the legal affidavits about the UCI in the documents released by USADA with the Reasoned Decision seem pretty tarnishing, which may give the court at least a pause for thought).

You can show your support for Kimmage by contributing to his defence fund, started on the cycling site NYVeloCity, which is at $60,000 as I write. There is, inevitably, an expletive laden Downfall parody online, of the moment the UCI learns of the defence fund. But increasingly, in the wake of the USADA documents, the UCI and the two Presidents look like the losers here, no matter what the outcome in the courts. Given the extent of the evidence that USADA has pieced together, they’ll have to choose if they want to be taken for fools or for knaves.

This cartoon of Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen is from the cycling commentary and satire site cyclismas, well worth visiting for its coverage of the Armstrong affair and other things cycling, and it is used with thanks.

Armstrong’s former teammates

27 February 2009

An interesting spat at the launch of the Tour of California between the cyclist Lance Armstrong and the former cyclist, now journalist, Paul Kimmage, who has long held the view that Armstrong has used banned performance enhancing drugs. When Armstrong made his comeback, Kimmage called him “the cancer in the sport”. Armstrong never forgets anything that anyone says, but all the same you’d be unlikely to forget a remark like that.

At the Tour of California news conference, Kimmage asked a question about riders who had returned from drugs bans:

“You’ve spoke recently about the return of Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis, who have returned after their suspensions, compared to David Millar – that they should be welcomed back like he was. But there was one obvious difference in that Millar admitted his doping whereas these guys have admitted to nothing. What is it about these guys that you seem to admire so much?”

Armstrong did get round to answering the question eventually, but reminded Kimmage first of his previous remark:

“When I decided to come back, for what I think is a very noble reason, you said, ‘The cancer has been in remission for four years, our cancer has now returned’ – meaning me, that I am the cancer! … You are not worth the chair you are sitting on with a statement like that, with a disease that touches everyone around the world.”

And here’s the answer to Kimmage’s question:

“You have to consider what has happened to David [Millar], who I admire a lot [and] who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Is it heroic that he has now confessed? Some would say so. I applaud him that he is back and I hope that he is very successful. Floyd [Landis], on the other hand, there is a lot of evidence against him and there is a lot of evidence in his favour. Floyd does not believe he is guilty, so to appease people like you he can’t confess.”

Obviously Lance Armstrong never used performance enhancing drugs. He has said so repeatedly and has won libel battles in several countries to prove it. But the departure of his former team mate Manuel Beltran from the Tour de France for a positive test prompts an interesting list of those who rode for Armstrong in his Tour-winning years who subsequently have tested positive: apart from Beltran, there is Frankie Andrieu, Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, and Floyd Landis.

For me the moral sludge around this was exemplified by Discovery’s offer of a contract to Ivan Basso at a time when he was deeply implicated in the findings from the Operation Puerto investigation into blood-doping. (One of the bags in the good doctor’s lab was code-named with the name of Basso’s dog; subtle.) At the time no other team would touch him, but Discovery saw him as a potential tour winner. Of course, the deal fell through when Basso admitted his involvement, and he has just returned from a ban for drugs use.

Armstrong has said in public that the exclusion of Astana from the Tour de France is effectively motivated by a grudge against him by the organisers. But since the Astana team is now run by Discovery’s management, I’d have thought that the Tour was just taking a necessary precaution: since you’re more likely to get caught these days, show us that you are clean by running for a while without any positive tests.