PARIS (AP) — Take the entire Lance Armstrong story, the cancer survivor's resurrection from his sick bed to conquer the hardest bike race in the world, and flush it. Goodbye. Good riddance. Never happened.
That, at least, is what his sport will be able to do if the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency can back up its reams of new allegations that the seven-time Tour de France champion wasn't a larger-than-life, good ol' American inspiration but merely a co-conspirator in one of the biggest chemically powered frauds in sporting history.
There's a long way to go before that can happen, if it happens at all. It would be out of character for Armstrong not to contest every charge, sentence and comma in USADA's 15-page rap sheet, sent to him, his friend and former team manager Johan Bruyneel, three medical doctors and a trainer. USADA alleged they were "part of a doping conspiracy" that used "fear, intimidation and coercion" to keep it secret.
Armstrong liked to recount how he trained harder and better than competitors he trounced from 1999-2005 on French roads, famously saying in a commercial for one his sponsors, "What am I on? I'm on my bike, busting my ass, six hours a day."
That isn't what USADA's letter says. "Numerous riders, team personnel and others will testify based on personal knowledge acquired either through observing Armstrong dope or through Armstrong's admissions of doping to them that Lance Armstrong used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone" — in other words, the cornucopia of banned pharmaceutical aids cheats need to give them the edge for cycling's three-week French showcase in July.
With the millions he earned from the sport and the friends in high places he acquired with his unique personal story and his campaigning against cancer, Armstrong has money and clout to fight these allegations that, if proved and prosecuted, would pull apart his whole narrative and everything he has become.
Inspiration no more, Armstrong would become the face for the era when cycling became a freak show, with riders whose veins bulged but who, strangely, didn't seem that exhausted after sprinting up a French Alp. Other clowns in this circus were race organizers who pedaled the myth that nothing too serious was amiss, the cycling bureaucrats who didn't act decisively until the rot was entrenched so deep that the sport's future was in danger and journalists who breathlessly told the tales of hard men in the hardest race but, with some notable exceptions, didn't do enough to answer the question, "What am I on?"
The absurdity of that era is such that if Armstrong was, by some miracle, stripped of his Tour titles as a result of USADA gumshoes digging into the past, then who could you give them to? Jan Ullrich, the chunky German who finished runner-up to Armstrong three times? Excuse me while I choke on my schnitzel. Only this February, the 1997 Tour winner was exposed for involvement in blood doping and banned for two years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Ivan Basso, the Italian who stood next to Armstrong when he delivered his farewell 2005 podium speech denouncing the "cynics and the skeptics" who no longer believed in cycling, was also subsequently banned. So, too, was Alexander Vinokourov, third behind Armstrong and Ullrich in 2003. I could go on. But it's just too sad.
Unlike his former teammates Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, don't expect Armstrong to make a belated confession. Battling tooth and nail is more his style. He has much more wealth, prestige and admirers than Hamilton and Landis ever did, far too much to lose. Besides, he insists USADA's charges "are baseless, motivated by spite and advanced through testimony bought and paid for by promises of anonymity and immunity."
"I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one," Armstrong said in a statement he flagged to his 3.5 million followers on Twitter.
Armstrong is a smart guy. By definition, the smart dopers are those who don't get caught. Instead, they hire dirty doctors to provide them with dosages and timetables of what to take when so their cheating doesn't show up in tests, and to help them dodge the radar of the expensive anti-doping program that cycling's governing body, the UCI, has operated since 2008. That so-called biological passport program works by monitoring riders' blood readings, flagging suspicious ones that could point to doping.
The bio passport would have kept tabs on Armstrong, too, when he returned to cycling for the 2009 and 2010 Tours. USADA's letter says its evidence of doping includes data from blood samples the UCI took from Armstrong in both those years.
Why drag up all this again now? Why spend taxpayer dollars to try to nail a rider from cycling's past?
Short answer: Because determining the truth about Armstrong's past is vital to the well-being of cycling's present. Even retired, he remains one of the sport's most widely recognized names. If he was dirty, his name needs to be expunged from the record books. If he was dirty, the cancer survivors his story inspires should be told he's a fraud. If he was dirty, kids need to know that cheats do get caught, even many years later.
USADA's letter to Armstrong said "numerous" riders will testify that team manager Bruyneel, Italian doctor Michele Ferrari and Spanish doctors Luis Garcia del Moral and Pedro Celaya pushed doping products and methods and worked to conceal rule-breaking. If they were dirty, they must be drummed out of cycling so other riders can't be corrupted.
If Armstrong and associates were dirty, we should be thankful that USADA is trying to do something about it because others who might haven't.
There's evidence that suggests cycling is no longer as dirty as it was, that the UCI bio passport is deterring cheats and that riders today are winning more on merit. The victory in May of Ryder Hesjedal at the Giro d'Italia was seen as a significant sign that cycling is progressing because the Canadian rides for a team, Garmin, widely praised for its toughness against doping.
Cycling is a beautiful sport. The individual effort, the teamwork, the fabulous backdrops of French chateaux make it so. To be able to appreciate all that to the full again, to believe in today's seemingly more honest generation, the dirty past needs to be exposed and then deleted. Go away. Vanish. Make way for a cleaner future.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester