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The Daily News jumped the gun with its cover this morning — no, Lance Armstrong has not been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. Not yet, anyway.
Last night, Armstrong threw in the towel with a defensive statement posted to the Internet, saying that he was no longer going to fight the doping charges being leveled at him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
But as Bicycling magazine editor Peter Flax pointed out on CNN this morning, USADA doesn’t have the power to strip Armstrong’s Tour titles — that will be decided by a couple of international sporting bodies, and Flax is right to point out that they may not go along with what USADA wants.
Still, this is not a good day for those of us who cheered on Lance Armstrong during his amazing comeback from cancer and then string of Tour victories.
In fact, it feels like a punch to the gut.
In 1999, I wasn’t even rooting for Lance Armstrong as the Tour de France started. The previous year, another American, Bobby Julich, had finished third, and was the first American on the final podium since Greg Lemond’s run of three wins ended in 1990.
It was Julich I hoped might do something great as the race started that year in Le Puy du Fou with a short prologue.
But it was Armstrong who took that day’s race, and then later went on to win the entire three-week event, his first of an incredible seven straight victories. (No one before had ever won more than five.)
In 1999, the Tour wasn’t even broadcast live on television in the United States, and each morning I, along with a lot of other American cycling fans starving to know what was going on, followed minute-by-minute updates at cyclingnews.com while each day’s stage was unfolding.
But at least that was better than how things were in the 1970s, when all we had were tiny summaries in the daily newspaper, and maybe a few moments of taped coverage on the weekend’s Wide World of Sports.
Thanks to Lance Armstrong, that all changed. By 2001, we were finally able to see the Tour as it was happening. Interest in the race here had exploded.
As a lifelong Tour fan, I was beyond grateful, even if I often had a hard time warming up to the man who made it all possible.
While he was being feted in the US for his story of cancer survival and for his domination of the French race, people more familiar with the cycling scene knew that Armstrong was known as a bully, and someone you didn’t cross.
I didn’t like to think of him that way, but a friend of mine who had been a professional cyclist, Matt Smith, was shocked when he saw how Armstrong had treated a cyclist named Filippo Simeoni in the 2004 Tour.
Simeoni had dared to testify against Michele Ferrari, a notorious doctor accused of doping his patients. One person who had hired Ferrari over the years was Lance Armstrong. During the 2004 Tour, Armstrong chased down Simeoni when the Italian had an opportunity to win a stage in that year’s race.
“That’s omerta!” Smith told me, trying to get me to understand that Armstrong was punishing Simeoni for breaking the code of silence about doping in the sport.
Over the years, Smith, who was a columnist at our sister newspaper SF Weekly, regularly pointed out to me all of the evidence building that Armstrong had doped during his career.
Although I was always more a fan of the race than of Armstrong himself, I didn’t want to believe those stories. I tended to believe Armstrong’s defenses, and along with other fans, I badmouthed proven cheaters like Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton who had leveled charges at Armstrong.
I was even hoping to see Armstrong shove USADA’s charges up its ass. I didn’t like the way the investigation was proceeding, relying on eyewitness testimony rather than clinical results.
When Armstrong gave up that fight last night, I wasn’t really even sure how to process it.
But now I’ve had some time to think it over.
Lance Armstrong can complain about the way the investigation was conducted. He can complain about how USADA was going so far into the past for evidence. He can even complain that USADA had no physical evidence to prove that he’d doped.
But by simply giving up rather than trying to prove those allegations, Armstrong gives up on all of us who wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. And now, we have to give up on him.
Tony Ortega is the editor in chief of the Village Voice.