In his biography of Marco Pantani – the Tour de France winning, dope test failing, cocaine addicted Italian cyclist who was mysteriously found dead in a hotel room in 2004 – the writer Matt Rendell talks about the terrible bother cyclists once had to go to in order to keep on living. A life spent continuously bingeing on EPO – Lance Armstrong's thickener of choice – seems a hard one. The problem is, you see, that EPO increases the viscosity of blood – making it harder to pump round the body from a standing start. As a consequence, in the 90s, hardcore dopers began dropping dead in their sleep in ever larger numbers. Otherwise healthy young men were waking up in the morning to find they'd died of a heart attack in the night. And not just a few: at least a dozen in 1997 alone.
Evidently, this was a problem. So, spooked but not chastened, they employed the same mix of bodily blitheness and mechanical ingenuity that had kept their peloton of naughtiness on the run so far. They slept with their heart monitors on. And they set an alarm to sound if their heart rates dropped below a certain level. On hearing the alarm, you then got up out of bed, got onto your bike, already rollered in your hotel room, and pedalled for ten minutes to re-start your circulation. “By day we live to ride, at night we ride to live,” was how one competitor put it, seemingly unaware of what a fucking stupid thing he was saying.
Pro-cycling has, in recent weeks, thrown up a lot of great stories about people who bent reality into really confusing shapes so slowly that they didn't even notice how strange their lives had become. There's the moment Floyd Landis – 2006 Tour de France champion – recalled sitting in a lay-by somewhere in the Pyrenees with Armstrong and the rest of the US Postal Service team. As they reclined, each man had a bag of his own blood hooked up to the side of the bus, which was being fed back into his body, while a few officials hung round working at their computers. There they were, the cycling elite, all sat about trying to make small-talk: talk about baseball, about sponsorship deals, about their kids, about how much their nuts hurt, anything, anything at all except the very obvious fact that they were presently re-potting their own blood into their veins in order to cheat-to-win.
The French former road racer Philippe Gaumont said he would rub salt on his testicles until they bled, so he could get a script for cortisone cream. When it wasn't blood, cyclists would be pouring saline solutions into their veins to lower their hermacrit levels below the crucial 50 percent level. Sometimes, the grim farce turned more farcical than anything. Like Jesus Manzano's confession that he nearly died during the 2003 Tour de France when he was accidentally given a transfusion of someone else’s blood instead of his own. Or the sorry tale of busted doper David Zabriskie, who only got into pro-cycling as a redemptive path in order to escape the horrors of his dad's death from drug addiction.
But hey man. Every revolution has casualties. This was Lance's summer of love. Back then, cycling itself was sport's Haight-Ashbury district, and Lance was just the hippest froob on the block. Like any good drug scene, his came with a rich, bejewelled argot. Red Eggs: testosterone pills. Oil: the skin-rub 'roids Lance loved. Edgar: the performance-enhancing drug EPO, as in “Have you seen Edgar?”
Lance's line now is the classic teenager's fallback: that everyone was doing it. “Basically, yes I doped. But it was the late-90s and early-00s, bro – you telling me you never injected Human Growth Hormone into your buttocks in '99? Well you just weren't going to the right sort of parties, then, dude...”
And that's the weasly half-truth. Everyone was at it. And if Lance hadn't won, no doubt one of his many other newly life-banned contemporaries would've. But at the same time, Lance really was the Tim Leary of his scene. He was the high priest of drugs. Turn On. Tune In. Just Do It. These were his watchwords. He wasn't one of the chasing pack. He was a leader, a virtual pioneer in building a new kind of human body. And what was driving him was that, like all truly successful junkies, Lance's paranoia was inbuilt, and long pre-dated his cycling days. “I would love to know what’s going on inside his head,” Landis told a fellow cyclist of Armstrong. “Lance doesn’t want a hug. He just wants to kick everyone’s ass.” This philosophy branded itself most sharply in what his friends soon termed Lance's Golden Rule: “Whatever you're doing, other people are probably doing more.”
Gradually, their world evolved into the all-enveloping junkie pantomime we've been hearing about. The scariest part being, as ever, how they were all sucked through the looking-glass so slowly but inexorably that few of them really bothered to question how extraordinarily creepy their lives had turned out: why their friends were all dying, why they were sat around making chit-chat over pints of dribbling warm blood.
In fact, t wasn't so much a glorious, third-eye opening 1967 San Fran. It's more of a Trainspotting scene. Alison's baby dies. Tommy dies. But does anyone stop getting high? Do they fuck. Pro-cycling was a squat scene full of guys in lycra pants with tourniquets between their teeth. It was a day-glo, swoosh-branded shooting gallery with turds in the corner, and at the centre of it all, a grinning Texan bully with scars on his scrotum from where they cut out the ball cancer, who'd beat the fuck out of you if he caught you with more stash than him. Some chose life. These guys chose something else instead.
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