Ivan Basso left the Tour de France this week for emergency surgery to remove a small testicular tumour, detected after he felt persistent discomfort following a crash on the fifth day of the race. He is 37 now, and it is a few years since he slipped back from the summit to become a kind of super‑domestique, this year in the service of Alberto Contador.
Mention of Basso always evokes the memory of the easy elegance with which he accelerated away from his pursuers on the steepest climbs during his wins in the Giro d’Italia in 2006 and 2010. In between those victories, following an investigation into his links with the notorious Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, he admitted “attempting to dope” and served a two-year ban from competition.
Those apparently effortless stage wins are examples of what Chris Boardman meant when he said, a long time ago: “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.” The ambivalent feelings aroused by the Italian rider’s feats parallel those towards others of his era who cheated their way to victories and the spoils that came from them, essentially depriving rivals of glory and material reward.
The media scrum surrounding Lance Armstrong this week provided a much more explicit reminder of the clouds that still hang over cycling. The disgraced Texan’s arrival in France to pedal a couple of stages with Geoff Thomas’s cancer-charity ride was never going to be ignored. For those with pages and screen-time to fill, this was too good a story – even though it was really no story at all.
But, like the silly tale about the Team Sky warehouse manager who worked as a soigneur for Armstrong’s team for about five minutes in 1999, it was something to add to the peripheral narrative of the 2015 Tour, thereby helping to move the stories about the performance of Chris Froome and his Sky team-mates further towards what some people no doubt hope will become, sooner or later, a critical mass.
What Froome did on Tuesday, soaring clear of his chief rivals on the long, tough climb to La Pierre-Saint-Martin, was inescapably reminiscent of rides such as those of Basso. As the Sky leader burned off first Vincenzo Nibali, then Alberto Contador, and finally the usually adhesive Nairo Quintana, he managed to dismay two sets of people: those who had hoped to see a real race, and those who view such displays of blatant superiority with suspicion. Richie Porte’s cruise past Quintana in the final kilometre, an attack intended to deprive the Colombian of bonus seconds, served only to confirm the disquiet.
In the post-Armstrong era, any display of superiority is viewed with scepticism. And the doubts about Froome quickly found their voices, many of them only too keen to find ammunition for an assault on the widely disliked Sky and their riders. Some of the accusers, still nursing resentments over the way the old guard of dopers – the generation of Armstrong and Basso, and their managers and facilitators – were finally exposed, are keen to uncover proof that Sky’s zero‑tolerance policy is no more than a sham, and that nothing has really changed. They would see this as a retrospective justification of their own behaviour, opening a possible door back into polite society.
That is what Armstrong, in a slightly subtler way, is trying to achieve. “Clearly Froome/Porte/Sky are very strong,” he told his 3.85 million Twitter followers this week. “Too strong to be clean? Don’t ask me. I have no clue.” Charged with making unjustified insinuations, he responded: “I’m not accusing anyone. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m not interested (nor do I have the credibility) to opine there.” But he didn’t mind putting the thought out there, disingenuous to the end.
It can hardly be said too often that there are good reasons why Armstrong is treated as a pariah, rather than Basso or the many other top riders tagged for doping in recent years. He is a special case: not just the biggest liar of them all but the one who set himself up as the spokesman for fabricated denial over a 10-year period, and who coldly sought to destroy the careers of those attempting to expose his wrongdoing. And also, of course, the biggest beneficiary.
Armstrong now goes to considerable trouble to make his peace with those whose lives he once tried to ruin, saying sorry in a carefully publicised show of contrition. But that is no reason to welcome him back into a world where the damage he did is still so much in evidence, or to permit him to repolish his image through a return to the charity work that he once used as a shield with which to deflect unwelcome investigation.
He is even careful to apologise to Froome, who is forced to ride through the fallout of cycling’s disgrace. It is as much Armstrong’s fault as anyone’s that Froome now has to endure the unauthorised revelation of his personal performance data, acquired by questionable means and unverified by the sort of scrutiny that would be required in any court of law.
Two years ago the man who exposed that information to the world, the former Festina trainer Antoine Vayer, used a newspaper article to compare Froome with Armstrong and Marco Pantani, two men who went up hills unusually fast thanks in part to the abuse of illegal substances. Does Vayer have an agenda when it comes to Froome? Maybe not. Perhaps he just sees himself as a guardian of cycling’s morality. And possibly this is the logical way to go, compelling the teams to divulge all the data from their riders’ power meters and heart monitors in the belief that until everything is available for inspection, cycling will not emerge from its dark tunnel.
Team Sky, being so data-oriented, could easily comply with that requirement, although it would not sit easily with their culture of finding performance gains in areas overlooked by their rivals. And the result would not, let’s face it, be very compelling to anyone beyond the community of obsessives who measure human value in watts per kilogram.
Unless there is something more than circumstantial evidence to the contrary, it might be best to accept the phenomenal nature of Froome’s performances. That would not stop some of us quietly hoping that the coming alpine stages will see Sky’s suffocating dominance, with its reliance on power meters, challenged on the road rather than in the court of innuendo.
Meanwhile, Basso is apparently recovering well from his operation in a Milan hospital. At least everyone can be happy about that.