Stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France between Annemasse and Lons-le-Saunier should have been a routine day. It was sandwiched in between the final mountain stage and the penultimate day’s time trial, the wearer of the yellow jersey Lance Armstrong had a good four minute lead over Ivan Basso and the terrain was hilly. You wouldn’t have got very good odds on there being a breakaway and the GC men staying quiet before rolling in together at the finish. However, the day ended up becoming the definition of the omerta which helped keep the ‘EPO era’ running.
The inevitable breakaway was established early on in the day and contained six riders. As the gap grew the Italian rider Filippo Simeoni decided that he wanted a piece of the action and broke from the peloton and started bridging over to the group. Bizarrely though so did Lance Armstrong. The two eventually made it up to the head of the race but once Armstrong started taking turns the peloton, lead by T-Mobile, started the chase. They couldn’t let Armstrong gain more time so it seemed that the breakaway was doomed. Soon Armstrong and Simeoni started arguing and Vicente Garcia Acosta, who was in the original break, joined in the heated discussion. The upshot of the debate was that Armstrong and Simeoni dropped away from the break to rejoin the peloton and the attackers were allowed to go off and contest the stage win.
What was all that about then? It was explained by many at the time as the consequence of a long term rift between two men. Filippo Simeoni had testified in a court case against Dr Michele Ferrari in 2002 where the ‘infamous doctor’ was defending a charge of sporting fraud ans the abuse of the position of pharmacist. During the trial Simeoni confessed that Ferrari prescribed him with products such as EPO and Human Growth Hormone while he was in his care.
Like some people I’ve never been a Lance Armstrong fan. But unlike the majority of Lance haters I’m old school, not one of these post-oprah ex-dope-denier types. I didn’t like him as a person and while I couldn’t deny he was a great bike rider, he was certainly bad-ass, I didn’t enjoy watching him race. He was too mechanical, I thought he lacked panache. On the big issue that surrounded him, I thought accusations made against him made sense of a lot of things but I would never believe them 100% until there was a positive test (though I was always happy to mention the Swiss cortisone thing to Armstrong fans) and I would never in the world believed there would be a confession. Furthermore I was a huge Pantani fan and deplored the way he acted in the 2000 Tour after the stage to Mont Ventoux. After Armstrong let Pantani win the stage Pantani said in an interview that Armstrong was being a little disrespectful in doing so. Lance being Lance then resorted to his role of schoolyard bully during a press conference calling Marco ‘Elefantino’, a reference to his big ears and a nickname which the psychologically fragile Italian had hated for years. That stage win on Mont Ventoux happened to be Pantanis final victory and as his life headed towards a tragic end Armstrong was becoming the dominant force in cycling. I was hopeful someone would be able to challenge him. Ullrich looked very promising finishind 2nd behind Lance in 2000 and 2001 but I was holding out hope for an ever improving Joseba Beloki.
The Basque rider had turned professional in 1998 aged 24 and rode for Euskatel-Euskadi for two years. During this time he placed well in some mountainous stages of the Dauphine and Tour of Catalunya. He also had the reputation of a decent time trialist, he was perfect GC material. He joined *cough* Festina in 2000, finished 2nd in the Tour de Romandie and in July started his first Tour de France. Without really doing much he finished a solid 3rd behind Armstrong and Ullrich. 2001 saw the exact same podium but Beloki was starting to look much more dangerous by finishing 3rd on the stages to Alpe D’Huez, Pla d’Adet and the Time Trial to Chamrousse. Ullrich was missing from the 2002 Tour. He hadn’t raced since January due to a knee injury and had just been handed a six month suspension for testing positive for amphetamines. (The ban wasn’t for longer as the German Cycling Federation believed his explanation that they were taken recreationaly along with ecstasy thus not performance enhancing). With the German missing Beloki duly finished 2nd. In the Texans first three Tours de France nobody had finished within 6 minutes of him but Beloki was getting closer to him. He was now next to him on the podium and the time differences between the two at the end of each race were shrinking too. I was sure that in 2003 the Basque rider was in with a great chance of winning.
After the first week of the race which was designed heavily for the sprinters the riders were faced with three days in the Alps. Beloki was matching Armstrong all the way during the first two of those stages finishing alongside him in Morzine and Alpe D’Huez. The two were together again on the decent of the Cote de La Rochette which was the final climb of the first block of mountains. Things were looking good. There were only 4 km left till the finish in Gap and Beloki was only 40 seconds behind Armstrong in the overall (30 of those were ceded in the Team Time Trial) and 1 minute 30 ahead of Ullrich who had returned after his year out. Beloki could maybe start thinking about what he could do in the Pyrenees. It wasn’t to be.
Cycling is a sport were you hang from success by a thread. If the thread snaps you can only watch it disappear as you eventually crash down to earth. Coming down a straight towards a sharp turn Beloki lost control of his bike. Skidding one way then the other it looked as though both his wheels had locked. He was fighting to regain control but just could’t and ended up crashing heavily onto his hip and sliding down the road. Armstrong just behind him reacted quickly to avoid the stricken Basque but the only place he could go was off road as his momentum took him into a field. He guided his bike downhill over the coarse ground and back towards the road which wasn’t too far due to the twisting nature of the course. There’s a ditch now between him and the road but Lance quickly hops off his bike, jumps over the ditch with it and rejoins the race as the group he was just with goes past. The calm way he instinctively delt with the situation was incredible and contrasted brilliantly with the sight of the wee fan at the roadside running about like a headless chicken not sure whether to help then just standing and clapping. Armstrong didn’t have the riding flair of some of the greats but he certainly provided a bit of Hollywood from time to time.
Armstrong finished the stage and was still in the lead of the race. It was however a disaster for Beloki. A teammate had stopped to see how he was but it was over for him. The crash was horrific. He had hit a piece of tarmac which had melted in the intense heat of the day. His injuries included fractures on his right thigh, elbow and hip and would effect him for years to come. He was never the same rider after this stage, the crash had ended his career as a world class GC rider. Beloki retired in 2006 and has since worked as a commentator for Basque radio and various magazines and was also a training consultant for the Cafes BasqueBasque team.
Lance Armstrong’s return to cycling in 2009 seemed very strange at the time. Sure, he probably couldn’t stay away from the sport and a few other clichés but at 37 he surely couldn’t achieve what he had in the past. Was he going to be happy playing a support role for Alberto Contador in their Astana team?
After enjoying taking part in the Tour Down Under and the Giro d’Italia, getting massive appearance fees along the way, the question of whether Armstrong was a team player or not would be answered within days of Astana’s main objective of the year starting.
With only 32km of the stage to La Grande-Motte left the peloton encountered some unexpected crosswinds. HTC-Columbia with 8 riders at the front immediately realised what the scenario meant and started drilling it in order to distance Mark Cavendish from his sprint rivals. There was quickly a split in the pack with only 28 men in the first group. As well as the 8 HTC riders Lance Armstrong was there along with 2 of his Astana team mates. Alberto Contador wasn’t in that number. While everyone was expecting the Astana men to allow themselves to get pulled along and hope that Contador’s group would catch up with 20km to go Armstrong ordered Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia to the front. This was a direct challenge to Contador at best but it could also be called a mutiny. The one thing you can say in the Texans defence was that there were no GC men in the front group so he wasn’t aiding any other dangermen. But this is typical Lance, he does everything for himself. He was also needlessly burning out two Astana riders with a Team Time Trial coming up the next day and introduced an atmosphere of mistrust to the team.
In the end HTC-Columbia got their reward for their superb team play as Mark Cavendish won the stage with his famous mobile phone celebration.
Gerard Vroomen asked an interesting question on Twitter on Monday. He was wondering why Marco Pantani gets so much kudos when he was as much a doper as Lance Armstrong. This has been something I have been thinking about recently as I wrestled with my own views on Marco Pantani while reading Matt Rendell’s book “The death of Marco Pantani”. Even though I have always known he was a doper and cheat I have held him in high regard as a magical rider and along with many cycling fans, I’m sure, spared him a thought on Valentines day. But why was I so delighted when Lance Armstrong was convicted of doping last month, while my adoration for Pantani is only starting to waver now almost 14 years since being kicked out of the Giro at Madonna di Campiglio for having a high hematocrit level. This was one of many times he recorded a high level and probably wasn’t too surprising given his links to Francesco Conconi and Eufemiano Fuentes. However Marco was a god to me and many others while Lance was the devil.
The lance Armstrong doping story, the tale that never ends. It Is one which cycling fans had become to grow tired of toward the end of last year and the person who held the answers to the questions the story posed, would never talk. Then suddenly at the start of 2013 things started to happen at pace. Around the 8th of January reports began to surface that Lance Armstrong was ready to confess. Soon it was confirmed that Lance would be interviewed the coming Monday by Oprah Winfrey and their chat would be televised on the 17th and 18th. Would Lance would be putting this thing to bed? Mmmm.