In the summer of 2005, I stood on the Champs Élysées feverishly snapping pictures of Lance Armstrong as he ascended the podium erected in the middle of the famous avenue. The Texan had just secured his record seventh and final Tour de France title, assuring that he was the event’s greatest champion. Well, that moment didn’t happen. Sure, I’ve got a photo next to me right now of him with his arms raised in victory as he looks back my way, but that must be my eyes playing tricks on me. Because on Thursday night the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) stripped Armstrong of his Tour titles and banned him for life after Lance gave his Chief Joseph impersonation and told the world “he’d fight no more forever.” So who was the champion I should have seen that day and the other six times Armstrong won the race?
It should be easy enough to just bump each year’s number two up to number one, hand them the trophy and adjust the record books accordingly. Unfortunately, this is cycling, so clean blood is a little tricky to find.
First, a bit of a history lesson. Armstrong arose not just on the heels of surviving cancer, but in the immediate aftermath of a drug scandal that nearly brought down cycling. In 1998, the Festina Affair erupted right before the start of the tour when police searched the team masseuse’s car and found he had a massive store of performance-enhancing drugs onboard, including 250 bottles of EPO (a drug that helps bring more oxygenated blood to muscles) and a pile of amphetamines. So they toss him in jail for a few weeks and start scrutinizing the rest of the operation. The team’s director eventually cops to the obvious—Festina was doping—and so they’re all thrown out of the Tour in shame. The remaining riders didn’t take to kindly to this and literally get off their bikes during one stage, delaying the race for two hours, and later officials had to cancel another stage because of more rider protests. It was a mess.
Then, like Babe Ruth saving baseball in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, came Lance. The story is irresistible. Cancer, deathbeds, chemo, brain tumors, ball removal, and then victory in one of sports’ most grueling tests of physical mettle. American saves sport from drugged-up Frenchies and an assortment of pretentious, shaved-leg Euros. God, we ate that shit up. And to his credit, Armstrong worked his ass off, training harder than everyone else so he could keep serving it to us for seven straight years.
When I first heard the news about his lifetime ban it struck me as ironic that the man who saved the Tour de France from one of the biggest doping scandals in the sport’s history would himself be taken down by a drug scandal. But then I quickly snapped back to my senses. Calling a drug accusation against a pro cyclist “ironic” strains the definition of the word past Morissettean levels. That’s like saying it’d be “ironic” to find out politicians talk to lobbyists. Cyclists all doped. Which makes our original question so difficult to answer: Who now holds the Tour de France titles from 1999-2005?
Let’s start with 1999 and work our way forward. We want to find the rider free of drug taint. We don’t want to go crowning a guy then having to take his title away so soon after we did so to Lance. 1999 should be easy compared to following years because Marco Pantani, the ’98 champ, had already faced a drug suspension earlier in the year and skipped the Tour. (Also, he died a few years after when he OD’d on coke and we want our new winners to be alive, so we can give them victory parades through their hometowns—we’re about feel-good stories here.)
It appears second-place finisher Alexander Zülle is our new 1999 champion! But wait. The Swiss cyclist was a member of that tainted Festina team that had just been thrown out of the Tour a year before. He even later admitted that he used drugs, and tested positive. So Zülle is out. I’d name Fernando Escartin the winner, but in 2004 a former teammate spilled the beans about Escartin’s team’s systemic doping, so that’s not a safe pick. In fourth place was Laurent Dufaux, but like Zülle, he was on that Festina team. Ángel Casero, the fifth-place rider, was named in Operacion Puerto, a big investigation into by Spanish police that took down the doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, who provided the doping fix for countless riders. Abraham Olano finished behind Casero, but he was a happy customer of Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Armstrong was another client), who has been banned by USADA for giving drugs to his athletes. From my research, it looks like Daniele Nardello should be champ because he’s the highest finisher not twisted up in a drug scandal. Congrats, Daniele. Someone should find him and tell him.
My god, this is fucking exhausting. Let’s try 2000. This was the showdown between 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich and Lance. Ullrich, not Lance, was supposed to be the guy who ruled the sport after the domination of legend Miguel Indurain, who won five straight Tour titles in the 90s. Ullrich was a big uberGerman, a smooth rider with close-cropped hair, an angular jaw, and his garish Rudy Project sunglasses that looked more like goggles some Eurotrash kid would wear to the discotheque. Well, he was no stranger to drug bans himself. He once served a six-month suspension for testing positive for amphetamines, which he said was a result of taking ecstasy at a club. He also was implicated in Operacion Puerto, just like Joseba Beloki, that year’s third place finisher. Although a Spanish court cleared Beloki of involvement, they did the same for other riders who ended up testing positive later, so let’s err on the side of caution and not crown him. Fourth place: Christophe Moreau? A Festina Affair rider who also tested positive for steroids. OK, next up: Roberto Heras? Busted in 2005 for EPO. Richard Virenque? Festina Affair. Santiago Botero? Operacion Puerto. Fernando Escartin? We already disqualified him from winning in the last paragraph. Francisco Mancebo? Another Puerto guy. Daniele Nardello? We have a winner, and Nardello has a second victory!
Honestly, we could keep going through all of Lance’s titles and they’d look a lot like these two years. From receiving illegal blood transfusions to EPO to steroids to amphetamines, the Top-10s of the Armstrong-era Tour de Frances are panoply of doping in sports. So there’s an argument that hey, Armstrong never failed a drug test—why not just let him have his trophies? (He still claims to have never used drugs, even while giving up the legal battle.)
The problem there is that he did fail a drug test. Specifically, one in 1999 for a banned corticosteroid that he did not have a Therapeutic Use Exemption for (that’s essentially a doctor’s note). It’s widely believed he and his team went and got that note from a doctor that said he needed the steroid to treat saddle soreness, then had the note backdated, thus sating the cycling officials and letting Lance continue his dominance. But that’s not the only failure. Last year, 60 Minutes reported that Lance failed a 2001 drug test for EPO, but the governing body of cycling swept the results under the rug, according to Armstrong’s former teammate, Tyler Hamilton—who himself had to give up his 2004 Olympic gold medal because of doping. Jesus, you guys.
Why would the officials look the other way with Lance back then as Hamilton says? Well, we were living in the swinging era of the late 90s and early 00s where, like analysts pimping tech stocks, we wanted to look the other way on negative news as we inflated our heroes. Andre Agassi tested positive for crystal meth in 1997 and he avoided any punishment because he lied to the ATP, who accepted his excuse. We shouldn’t blame the sports authorities though, because really, we didn’t want to know. We liked our home-run hitters ‘roided up and our cyclists pumped full of amphetamines. But now we do care about athletes being clean, or at least some sports bureaucrats do. So they’re spending all their time litigating things that happened more than a decade ago, stripping titles and hoping to erase big portions of the record books. The sportocrats say they must purge us of our past sins and dopers. But that picture I have of Lance on the podium isn’t disappearing, and unless we’re all willing to say Daniele Nardello—Daniele Nardello!—was the best rider of his generation, we’re going to have to live with a little dirt on our champions.
Jeremy Repanich is a Brooklyn-based writer who has spent most of his life in Seattle. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated Kids and Men's Journal, and on Deadspin, The Classical and Wired.com. You can see him wallow in Seattle sports misery on Twitter @racefortheprize.