I remember the moment. Etched in my memory as if in the granite mountain behind them, Lance Armstrong and German Jan Ullrich climbing a massive hill in the Alps , far ahead of the peloton. Lance looked over at Jan, not once but three times, checking to see what he had left in the tank. This was one of their many private battles.
Armstrong had seen enough; he knew from the look in Ullrich’s eyes that he had nothing left. He was just hanging on doggedly, his heart rate already in the red zone. Armstrong pounced and stood up on the bike, dancing on the pedals for a devastating attack that left Ullrich for dead.
This pattern was to be repeated for several years until Armstrong had amassed a record number of Tour de France wins. He had reached an almost mythical standing in the sport and in the wider world. Cycling fans either loved or hated him. Some hated him for being so American, so brash so uncompromising, for refusing to give interviews in anything but English.
Others were always suspicious of the way he could just leave people behind when he chose to. The way he could smash the challenge of other World class atheletes in the race. The way he only entered the Tour de France. The single minded concentration on that one great prize.
He had his attack dogs, who would weaken the others with constant bursts of acceleration, waging psychological warfare on men and teams with less money than US Postal.
In equal measure, fans respected his non-nonsense Texan approach to this most European of sports. They chose to ignore or not to care about the rumours of doping, of drug abuse, of blood transfusions. None of these fitted the mythology of Armstrong. Livestrong. The man who beat cancer. I read his book, as did millions of others and was inspired to get back on my bike.
Today I watched the 60 minutes programme on CBS which spoke at length to one of his team mates and Olympics gold medallist, Tyler Hamilton. The dream and the myth are over. Even George Hincapie, Armstrong’s best friend on a bike has indicated that the accusations of EPO abuse and blood transfusions are true.
So what are fans left with? A very sour taste in the mouth. The removal of those files of pleasure in the brain, the tarnishing of those great moments in time trials and on the high mountains of the Alps where Armstrong reigned supreme for a decade. On whom should we now pins our fantasies of man and superman, Alberto Contador? The three times winner of the Tour de France is being investigated for drug abuse. Another phenomenal hill climber who can dance on the pedals while others are fighting for breath. I don’t think so. He looks like he will win the Giro d’Italia, in many ways tougher than the Tour de France, but risks being stripped of the title if he loses the forthcoming court case.