On the eve of the Tour de France’s 100th outing, Lance Armstrong stated to French journalist Stephane Mandard that winning the most prestigious of cycling events is impossible without dope. During the interview with French daily Le Monde, Mendard posed the question “is it possible to win without taking performance-enhancing drugs?” with Armstrong replying: “That depends on the races you want to win. The Tour de France? No. Impossible to win without doping because the Tour is an endurance event where oxygen is decisive. To take one example, EPO (erythropoetin) will not help a sprinter to win a 100m but it will be decisive for a 10,000m runner. It’s obvious.”
Armstrong later took to social media to clarify his claims, tweeting that they had been taken out of context and he was only referring to the years in which he won the event (1999-2005). In a face-saving move he stated that he was hopeful that the cyclists of 2013 are able to win the tour without performance-enhancing drugs.
Despite his Twitter back-peddling, Armstrong’s comments have undoubtedly tarnished public perception of professional cycling. Furthermore, the incongruity between Armstrong’s statements in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 and the results of tests undertaken by United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) have done no favours for current tourists.
In his interview with Oprah, Armstrong claimed that he had not used performance-enhancing drugs since 2005, and that the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport in 2008 had put paid to athlete’s use of EPO and blood doping. However, the samples taken from Armstrong between October 2008 and April 2012 tell a different story. Professor Christopher Gore at the Australian Institute of Sport concluded: “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.”
These revelations have put enormous public and media pressure on professional cyclists, with Chris Froome gaining a lot of unwanted attention for his recent historic win on Mont Ventoux. The usually cool Froome finally had enough of doping questions, stating “I just think it’s quite sad that we’re sitting here the day after the biggest victory of my life, a historic win, talking about doping.”
Despite the heartfeltedness of Froome’s outcry, Armstrong’s consistent deception has the public doubtful of the trustworthiness of any successful athlete.
I spoke to Omar El-Gohary, Superindendent Pharmacist at Chemist Direct and asked him whether he believed that the level of endurance that is expected of riders on the Tour is achievable without illegal drug use, he answered: “During the Armstrong era of cycling, it seems very unlikely that a ‘clean’ rider would have been able to challenge the leading pack. If you are competing in a level playing field where no riders are taking any performance enhancing drugs it should of course be possible to win clean.
“There is no legal substance available on the market that can boost oxygen levels and we can see the winning times during the last 2 Tour de France competitions are a few hours off Armstrong’s record time. Now that the sport has seemingly cleaned itself it should be possible for clean riders to compete at the highest level.”
Whilst Mr El-Gohary’s assessment is optimistic and certainly what cycling fans will want to hear, he did add a final caveat: “As long as cheating exists, it is likely doping will exist, providing dopers can get away with it. We have been seeing an increasingly sophisticated arms race between doping and testing. Unless a completely infallible illicit drug test is invented we are unlikely to see the last doping scandal.”
Armstrong’s high-profile shaming, still fresh in the memories of cycling fans, has led to widespread public cynicism regarding sporting excellence. Whilst it is a true shame that the successes of men like Froome will always be closely scrutinized, the willingness of Sky’s team principal Sir Dave Brailsford to allow a World Anti-Doping Agency full access to the team’s physiological data certainly seems like a genuine attempt to clean up professional cycling.