Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: With Armstrong, et al., long gone, cycling promotes a cleaner sport

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

The last time the Tour of California started in the capital, downtown hummed like a rock concert on wheels. Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong cycled furiously down and around the streets while thousands of spectators squeezed together on sidewalks for a glimpse at the sport’s luminaries.

But five years was a lifetime ago. USADA’s wide-ranging investigation stripped the long-troubled sport to its skivvies. The doping confessions by Armstrong’s teammates and peers spread like a virus, leading to banishment, bankruptcy, shredded friendships, protracted lawsuits, unemployment.

Armstrong fell farthest because his was the deepest well. Lance’s people were true believers. Many were cancer survivors; those yellow Livestrong wrist bands were everywhere. It still seems inconceivable that an elite athlete who survived cancer, generated millions of dollars for research, reached the pinnacle of his profession and was adored by his American public was nothing more than a scam artist who could spin a tale.

The 202-page report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, released in October 2012, concluded Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team conducted “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sports has seen.”

The evidence is staggering. Eleven former teammates testified. Medical tests revealed his blood had been manipulated. Banking and accounting reports detailed payments to Dr. Michele Ferrari, whose reputation has long been as shaky as an active California fault line.

With this as a backdrop for today’s opening stage of the Amgen Tour of California, the participants in Friday’s media session sat on a dais and attempted to whisk (and wish) away the nasty stuff. Bright young personalities were introduced, including Taylor Phinney, Peter Stetina, Ben King and Peter Sagan. Veteran Mark Cavendish chatted about his fondness for California and his previous successes.

“Everybody by now is aware of the fact that doping is a no go,” said a slightly irritated Jens Voigt, who at 42 is retiring this year. “I strongly hope and strongly believe fans realize we did change our sport. We are going in the right direction. We have a young generation coming up. What we don’t need is another 50 books coming out about somebody five years or 10 years or eight years ago. We just don’t need anymore of that.”

The clean cyclists – assuming such a group exists – crave closure the way we crave rain. But while Armstrong has been ostracized within the industry, his sponsors having jumped off the bus long ago, he remains a confounding, compelling figure. Some would describe him as infuriating. columnist Rick Reilly visited Armstrong in Austin, Texas, recently and wrote an emotional, scathing piece about the cyclist’s lack of remorse.

“I wanted someone who was sorry – sorry for what he’d done, sorry for what was next, sorry to be stuck in his new, sorry life,” Reilly wrote. “But that’s not what I found. Really pissed me off.”

The recent New York Times bestseller by Juliet Macur is far more damaging. In “Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong,” the Times’ investigative reporter exposes corruption at virtually every level of the sport, provides insights and revelations from other cyclists, documents and details several doping methods. Some cyclists locked hotel doors and placed plastic tape over vents, toilet seats and smoke detectors, she writes, to avoid detection.

In one particularly gripping anecdote from the 2004 Tour de France, Macur describes a scene from a stage finish to the team hotel: “The team bus came to a halt on the side of a mountain. It wasn’t engine trouble that stopped it. It was the riders’ need for blood. While the bus driver pretended to tend to the bus’s nonexistent mechanical problem, the Postal Service team received blood transfusions, some lying on seats, Armstrong on the floor. Their blood bags were hooked to the luggage racks. Fans and reporters driving by might have seen it for themselves but for the vehicle’s darkened windows.”

Macur, whose 459-page account offers a raw, unvarnished glimpse of Armstrong’s relationships and his dominating, bullying personality, met the cyclist in Sacramento during the 2009 Tour.

“I had been in Lance’s crosshairs,” Macur said from her cell phone, “but that was the first time we met, my first exposure to the swarm of fans, the lovefests, the whole PR machine. His thing was, ‘Lance rides again. Hope rides again. The emotion is back.’ The reason I wrote the book was because I wanted somebody in the future to pick up the book and say, ‘Wow, this is Lance Armstrong.’ Whether you like him or not, he has been a fascinating presence for years. And he was not alone in this.”

The veteran journalist, who personally transcribed her interview tapes because of the sensitivity of the information, remains skeptical that the sport is dope-free, enhanced testing notwithstanding. She suspects some cyclists continue to dope and is troubled by the ongoing presence of trainers, general managers and physicians that her reporting indicates were complicit. And, she advocates for a larger shakeup in cycling’s governing hierarchy.

“They (International Cycling Union) needed to do something really huge,” she continued. “Lance hurt a lot of people, people who had survived cancer. Should fans just say that’s OK? I’ll be very curious to see the turnout in Sacramento. I was going through the list; we have a bunch of new riders, and Lance and the (cyclists) who turned on him are all out. Will the interest be there? I am really curious.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee