By Gregory B. Hladky
12:15 PM EDT, August 24, 2012
Lance Armstrong’s decision to give up his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s allegations against him – which has resulted in his being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport – has led to lots of questions about his legacy.
Will he be remembered as a doper and a cheat? Or as the dude who fought a courageous battle against testicular cancer and came back to astound the world by riding the Tour de France – the toughest bike race on the planet? Or both?
One possible answer to those questions may lie with a gray stone monument on the bleak mountainside of Mont Ventoux in the south of France. It marks the spot where British cyclist Tom Simpson died during a hideously difficult stage of the Tour in 1967.
Simpson, considered the greatest British bike rider of his era, was determined to have died from dehydration, heat stroke, alcohol and drugs. Amphetamines were found in his jersey pocket.
His death resulted in the first serious effort to test pro-cycling riders for drugs. How ineffective those efforts were over the next four decades is evident by the ongoing drug scandals in the sport, scandals that have now culminated with Armstrong’s case.
In 2001, a British cycling magazine named Simpson the second-greatest British cyclist of the 20th Century. In 2009, top British cyclists joined a memorial ceremony at Simpson’s monument, which stands 1.5 kilometers from the summit of Mont Ventoux.
Simpson is venerated for his dedication to his sport, a dedication so intense that it essentially led to his death in a sport that has been rife with drugs almost since its inception in the early 1900s.
Perhaps its no surprise that performance-enhancing drug use and the fight against it has been going on so long in cycling, far longer than in American baseball or football for example. The Tour de France was conceived as one of the first extreme sports, and has been compared to running a marathon every day for three weeks.
As far back as 1924, top Tour riders were admitting to the use of drugs to help survive this most grueling of races. Great champions like Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil, both of whom won the Tour five times, admitted to using drugs.
“Leave me in peace,” Anquetil famously told a TV interviewer in 1965, “everybody takes dope.”
Armstrong’s apologists will claim that everybody in the pro peleton was doping during the years he won the Tour, so there was really a “level playing field” and he was simply better than all the other dopers.
The fact that Armstrong, after years of brutal legal battles against anyone who claimed he doped, has given up the attempt to clear his name will be verdict enough for most people.
It also may be a sign that now, 45 years after Simpson died on that mountain road, the endless battle to clean up cycling could be closing in on victory.
There will probably always be some drug cheats in all big time sports. The money and fame involved is simply too huge, the pressure to win too enormous. But there’s little doubt that cycling is a hell of a lot cleaner today than it was in 1999 when Armstrong rode to his first Tour de France win.
Almost certainly, Armstrong will be long remembered and venerated for his fight against cancer and his efforts to inspire and help other victims and find a cure for that disease.
Yet his record in cycling history, all his amazing feats, will always be tainted by scandal, just like Tom Simpson’s.
The difference may be that no one will be putting up any monuments to Armstrong on any famous mountain in France.
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