10 Minutes

It is the summer of 1999 and my American friend and I are by the roadside in a small French town just outside Poitiers. The road leads straight through town and out and whoever rides it fastest will win the last time trial of the 1999 Tour de France. My American friend snoozes in a camping chair. Fans brandish stopwatches as the riders pass and scribble notes in the margins of L’Equipe. Children dart across the road in the brief pause between each blur of moto, rider and team car. The day is warm and still and drowsy, now fragmented by the wave of noise that surges towards us with each new rider, now settling into torpor, stillness, anticipation…

My American friend is here to see the last man out on the road, the man in Yellow, the Survivor. The man who, 11 days ago, crushed the race under his wheel on the climb to Sestrières with the kind of performanceL’Equipe would come to call ‘Extraterreste’.  The man who looked death in the face and lived. The man who will win the 1999 Tour de France and every Tour for the next 7 years. Lance Armstrong.

The helicopter noise turns from bee buzz to angry wasp to full on war zone drone. The roar starts, builds, moves in a raucous wave towards us. My American friend stirs and puts down his book. He leans forward expectantly in his chair. The crowd is yelling full bore, the moto whines into view. I crane my neck to see if he is approaching, this would be giant of the road. And he is there. And gone. And past. Taking the noise and the buzz and the anticipation and the excitement with him. Young lads run to the nearest bar to see him cross the finish line. Families finish their picnics. Children and old ladies are once again free to cross the street. “Wow, he was booking it!” says my American friend.

In 1993, 21 year Lance Armstrong rides his first Tour de France. He will concede over 6 minutes to Miguel Indurain in a 59 km time trial around Lac Madine and afterwards he will tell David Walsh – a man who will describe him as “an ambitious, intelligent, interesting kid” – “If I can get a minute a year, a minute a year isn’t that much. .. When you’re 30 you’re not gonna be 9 minutes faster than you are at 21”

But being 9 minutes faster than he was at 21 is exactly what Armstrong will be, finishing the  57km stage 19 time trial in the 1999 Tour in  1’ 08”, already a stunning 10 minutes faster than his time around Lac Madine. And he will continue to blitz the time trials, continue to ride minutes faster than the 21 year old self that made that prediction.

Standing by the road that day in 1999 did we know we were witnessing the birth of a myth?  The Comeback King. The Man Who Lived.  Nobody wanted to admit that Lance Armstrong might not be Prince Charming. That he might be the ogre in the fairytale not the hero. Not even when L’Equipe exposed his hurriedly backdated TUE despite the fact that, in an interview to that paper, he had denied having any TUEs in his medical book. Not one. Not even for EPO. Even though he was a cancer survivor and might legitimately have claimed its’ therapeutic use.

The TUE didn’t make sense but then it wasn’t anything the UCI under Hein Verbruggen were strangers to. It is 1997 – the year that Tyler Hamilton says he started doping – and Laurent Brochard has just burst out of the peloton in San Sebastian like a mad dog chasing a train and lifted his arms in the eternal V of victory to claim the World Championship jersey for France. Hein Verbruggen will announce ‘if a doctor wants to cheat, he can do so before or after the race’. To hell with the UCI rule 43 that stated  a post dated TUE cannot be accepted.  And to hell with it again in 1999. Today UCI rule 46.6 allows for a back dated TUE for ‘emergency treatment’ or ‘exceptional circumstances’. The current UCI leadership are covering their backs.

But Verbruggen, some feel, has always placed himself above the law – he will corner Bruno Roussel in a hotel corridor in 1993 and remind him “Si vous ne faites pas le nécessaire, je peux vous faire un coureur positif… Words that Willy Voet will confirm. Words that resonate when, in 2011, Tyler Hamilton tells us that ‘Lance’s people and the people from the other side, the governing body of the sport [the UCI], figured out a way to make it go away.” If you have the power to make a rider positive then do you also have the power to make a positive disappear? Especially if that rider decides to ‘fais le nécessaire’ by making two large donations to the UCI?

It is summer 1999. Sestrières has been an extraordinary display of power, on the limit of what you could accept as possible even when you later hear the tales of sniggering in the press room. Even when L’Equipeuse their code words for doping to report it, just as Hamilton and Armstrong are using their own secret code for Edgar Allen POE. Secret boys clubs both in their own ways enforcing the Omerta.

But it is on this particular blazing summer afternoon in July, after you’ve watched the inevitable result in the local bar, after your American friend has got drunk on beers and pastis and wine bought for ‘notre copain Americaine’, after he has been practically carried shoulder high into the streets on a wave of bonhomie and alcohol, that you realise you know, and will always know, that those extra 10 minutes didn’t come from cadence, or training harder, or better nutrition, or weight loss or cancer, they came from a syringe or an eye dropper or a patch. They came from the desire to do whatever it took to win, enabled by a governing body that desperately needed a ‘Tour of Hope’ after the debacle of 1998 and the fallout of the Festina affair. They came from the complicity of journalists content to publish the feelgood story and never look too long or too hard at the facts behind the myth.

They came from the recognition that ‘you’re never gonna be 9 minutes faster than you are at 21’ on bread and water.

This first appeared on the Flammecast website www.flammecast.com


He just didn’t have class…

The following is the text of an email Betsy Andreu sent me in 2009 in response to the question “What was Lance Armstrong really like? Was he a nice man”. This is her response which I reproduce with her permission

To answer your question - we did have fun with Lance.  I’ll give you the answer I always gave when we were friends:  he was always nice to me but he was so crass with others.  Honestly, I chided him so many times for being so rude.  Back in 94 when I first met him I didn’t understand how he could be so rude.  I’ll give you an example.  We’d all go out to eat when they lived in Como.  In Europe, service is slow for an American.  Lance didn’t like that.  He wanted it fast.  I remember the first time we all went out to a pizza place he was so loud (just like the stereotypical Texan) saying, “These fucking Italians take so fucking long to give you the damn drink…..”  He’d be like that the entire night.  Sure, we’d enjoy conversation, have fun but he just didn’t have class.  Lance and I are so opposite.  He’d like to engage me in dialogue on topics he knew I was passionate about just to get me going.  He enjoyed that.  We’d go back and forth.  He was fun.  He used to tease Frankie about being cheap all the time and I’d laugh or chime in. 

I have nice memories of him but that’s because I was his friend - funny to even write that.  The way he treated people bothered me and I let him know that BEFORE he even dreamed of winning the Tour.  As time went on it just became apparent he wasn’t the type of guy you’d want your husband hanging out with.  It wasn’t a matter of trust with Frankie (believe me if Frankie had cheated on me the Lance Mafia would’ve made sure that got out).  As you get older and you have kids you tend to hang out with people who share your ideals.  Going to the strip club and screwing around on your wife wasn’t something Frankie and Lance had in common.  Frankie really is a family man, a home body.  I’m the one who likes to go out and when I say go out I mean to dinner - I don’t go to bars or clubs.  Frankie prefers to stay at home seemingly all the time.  But even Frankie has said had there been none of this stuff with Lance, he and Lance would’ve gone their separate ways, remaining friendly, but not close like before.  They’re just too different. 

 I’ve learned through this whole thing that money, fame and power don’t change someone; it just brings out the real person.”

One day I will be in the same room with Betsy Andreu and have the opportunity to say how much I, we, thank her for being that rare thing - a beacon of truth in the whole sorry mess of the Armstrong doping scandal. 


Just who owns a World Championship anyway?

So I make no secret of being ABC (anyone but Cavendish) but the Manxman took his World Championship with some style, coming from a seemingly impossible position to claim the Rainbow Jersey and those immortalising bands. At the end of a race on a particularly non selective Copenhagen course that was predestined to result in a sprint finish, Cav simply wanted it more and knew he could beat those other bastards just like he had done all season - lead out or no lead out. 

Hindsight will paint Brailsford’s tactics as perfect but that lead out certainly wasn’t. If only Team Sky - sorry GB - had put a man in the early break they might not have left quite so much on the road. They might have had a lead out train worthy of HTC. In the event, it didn’t matter - Cav has learned how to get the job done with or without a train (and with or without his poisson pilot Mark Renshaw, a deliberate absentee in the Aussie team).

And then it starts: ‘our World Champion’ ‘We’re World Champions’ and I find myself asking just who does a World Championship belong to anyway? Did Mark Cavendish hurl his bike at the line a gasp ahead of Matt Goss for me? Or for himself? He clearly didn’t want to let his team down - the hours of planning and preparation and training - but did most of us contribute to that, except perhaps by paying our Sky subs? Did we make him a World Champion or did he do it all by himself? So why do we feel we get to claim the glory simply because he was wearing GB colours?

Cavendish acknowledges that this is for ‘Great Britain’ - but he doesn’t mean those of sitting in our armchairs spectating, he means the teammates that he credits with delivering him the win: 

"The team all rode out of their skins today. It’s a shame they can’t wear the world champion’s jersey as well. I’ve won the jersey, but I just put the finishing touches to the mission".

I confess, nationalism makes me uneasy - it robs individuals of their right to an achievement by wrapping it in a flag, in the worst case scenario it leads to jingoistic violence. It takes Cavendish’s achievement and makes it ‘our’ achievement when it clearly is nothing of the sort. It belongs to him and the 7 other men who rode their guts out for him, who made their Plan A work when it mattered.