Anyone who’s been following cycling for more than just a millisecond will know that the sport has been plagued by scandal in recent years. From the 1998 Festina doping scandal to the ongoing allegations of Lance Armstrong doping his way to his Tour de France victories to the Operacion Puerto affair and Floyd Landis’ tainted Tour win just last year. And despite the evidence in each of those cases, I’m very much a Pollyanna type – I want to believe in the people who say they’re innocent, and am heartbroken when it’s proven to be otherwise.
I’d like to believe, for instance, that Lance overcame a death sentence to win one of the world’s toughest sporting events a record seven times. One of the reasons is that I was there in 1999 when he won the first one – it’s just sad to think that magic I saw firsthand was in any way false. One of my favorite travel memories to this day is standing on the Col du Galibier in a mountainside restaurant after watching the peloton go by, huddled around a television watching the coverage of the race as it made its way to the summit. There were only a couple other Americans there besides ourselves, and we got to talking with an Aussie who asked, “So, who do you folks think is going to win the day?” The three boys – the real cycling fans in our group – all responded quickly with names of European riders who were known cimbers. Then the Aussie looked at me. I tried to beg off the question, saying I didn’t know what I was talking about, but he was having none of it. Finally, I coyly said, “Well, I’d like for Lance to win…”
Lance had just taken the yellow jersey the day before – his second of that Tour – and he was in a break off the front of the peloton along with a few other riders, including the French housewives’ favorite and noted climber, Richard Virenque. We had watched them all ride by, cheering wildly and waving our American flags; and even though I knew it was naive, I was being truthful – I really did want Lance to win! Lance, however, was not known for his climbing prowess – pre-cancer, he’d been just heavier enough to be a power rider, but not a climber at all. Not many people thought that had changed.
Well, the Aussie stifled a smile (I’m sure he was thinking, “That’s cute, but the silly American girl doesn’t know what she’s talking about…”) and I think even my travel companions were thinking I was nuts. So when Lance rode up to Virenque and then right past him to claim his first mountain stage victory at Sestrieres, all of the boys turned to look at me. I was just as shocked as they were.
Several years ago I became a fan of Ivan Basso, and even went so far a couple years ago as to say, “If Ivan is ever embroiled by a doping scandal, I’ll lose faith in this sport forever!” Obviously, since I’m writing this post-Operacion Puerto, I haven’t kept my word. And even though (at the moment) it appears that the charges against Ivan aren’t going anywhere, it’s still sobering. I do believe that there’s hope for cycling, that it will survive the latest scandals, and it’ll be stronger for it. So, even though I know some people have made up their minds about Lance and Ivan – not to mention all the others mired in controversy over the past few years – I’d like to maintain my Pollyanna sense of things. I know that where there’s smoke there’s probably at least a little fire, and that I’ll be disappointed in riders now and again (David Millar comes to mind, although I give him credit for eventually admitting his error and paying his price)… And yet I love being charmed by the what I still consider the magic of the sport. I don’t want that to end. Ever.