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8 Upper

The True Wheel

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/1/2001

If Americans were more like Europeans and gave a crap about bicycle racing, this would be the time to discuss whether Lance Armstrong is on his way to becoming another Eddy Merckx or Jacque Anquetil, an immortal figure in the history of the Tour de France. Yank that I

am, I just hooked those names out of the newspaper. I believe this year's Tour had reached Verdun, if not Bar-le-Duc, before I fully understood that Armstrong, the American who'd survived serious testicular cancer to win the previous two Tours of France, was not the same person as Greg LeMond, the American who'd survived a serious shotgun wound to win multiple Tours of France in the '80s and early '90s.

And so, in my cloddishness, I am focused not on the athletic majesty of Armstrong's victory over Jan Ullrich but on the question that followed the defending champ from Dunkirk to the Champs-Élysées: Is Armstrong on drugs?

Armstrong has always proclaimed that he is a squeakily clean competitor in the drug-soaked cesspool of professional bike racing. But at the start of this year's race, the London Sunday Times reported that Armstrong had made multiple visits to Dr. Michele Ferrari, a physician who is being investigated by Italian authorities for allegedly giving cyclists illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Staff members of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team, the Times said, had been seen sneaking out of the team's hotel at night to dump used syringes. Add in the envious whispers from the back of the peloton, and you have something that sounds like an indictment.

It does seem almost inconceivable that Armstrong is not abusing performance-enhancing substances. Pro cycling is a notoriously and spectacularly drug-laced sport. Like Olympic weightlifting or NFL line play, it has superhuman performance standards, which people meet by superhuman means. Based on the history of the sport, winning the Tour de France without drugs would be akin to winning the Indianapolis 500 on horseback.

But unless Armstrong flunks a pee test or a blood count, I have to regard his success as fair and legit. I say this not because I have faith in his integrity--much less in the integrity of the sport--but because I don't. Armstrong might well be a hypocrite and a doper, but it's hard to see, by the standards of cycling, how he could possibly be a cheater.

That is, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Armstrong owes his victory to illegal drugs, any more than the Yankees owe last year's pennant to the designated hitter. When Ben Johnson turned in his stanozolol-fueled 9.79 in the Olympic men's 100 meters in Seoul in 1988, that was a performance so extreme it could not have happened without the drugs; it took 11 years of steady advancement by the world's sprinters before Maurice Greene was able both to match that time and pass a drug test. Likewise, Mark McGwire's outlandish home-run totals go with his outlandish (for a baseball player), androstenedione-bulked frame.

Armstrong, though, has not violated the standards of his sport. Nor has he been caught breaking the rules, inasmuch as the rules are enforced. The whole notion of enforcement is a shaky one in cycling; faced with abuse of blood-thickening treatments, for instance, cycling officials set a maximum allowable level of red blood cells--above the normal human range, but not too far above it. Riders pass the test, nobody drops dead of sudden blood clots anymore, and everyone rides well.

And there's another, better reason to take Armstrong's victory more or less at face value: Nobody keeps track of doping in sports as avidly as the dopers do. Performance enhancement is an arms race. If Armstrong were winning because he was using some special new monkey-gland cocktail, the rest of the cycling community would have long since gotten itself some monkey glands. Yet through three years of his dominance, no one--not even his teammates or Dr. Ferrari's other clients--has caught up with him.

So to keep winning in the ultratweaked world of cycling, Armstrong must be either a self-taught pharmacological genius or a genuine physical prodigy, like Secretariat or Babe Ruth, able to do things beyond the power of even his elite competitors. Based on the way he keeps crushing his foes, I would bet on the latter.

This year, he was 35 minutes off the lead after nine stages, nearly halfway through. Then the Tour entered the Alps. Five stages of mountain-climbing later, Armstrong cruised out of the Pyrenees with the mallot jaune and a five-minute edge. Whether you care about cycling or not, it was a distinguished moment in the annals of ass-kicking. Through the most brutal part of the race, when most riders were straining to survive and hold position, Armstrong was steadily and smoothly pulling away from the field. If drugs made that much of a difference, the rest of the Tour racers had better fire their druggists.

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