Cycling’s Darkest Hour: The Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal Explained

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The Lance Armstrong doping case was the greatest scandal to ever hit the cycling world.

For many years, Lance Armstrong was the poster boy of the Tour de France and helped to elevate the competition to global popularity with his success.

The American rider became one of the most iconic and revered athletes of his generation – winning an unprecedented seven consecutive editions of the Tour de France.

To make this even more impressive, during this time, Lance Armstrong underwent treatment for testicular cancer.

Yet regardless of his success, he just couldn’t escape allegations of doping.

His domination and superiority in the Tour de France were clear, but many doubted the possibility of such feats, without doping. Of course, as it turned out, these skeptics were proved right.

But what did Lance actually do? How did the trial go down? Does the punishment fit the crime?

In this article, we’ll give you the complete story of cycling’s biggest scandal: Lance Armstrong’s doping case, from start to finish. To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:

  • Lance Armstrong’s Career And Achievements
  • Lance Armstrong Doping Allegations
  • Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal: Was The Punishment Justified?

Let’s jump in!

Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal: Title Image

Lance Armstrong’s Career And Achievements

Lance Armstrong’s professional career began in the early ’90s, but only really began to take off in 1996. He raced in a number of the “Spring Classics” along with a few Category 2 World Tour races.

His first significant victory came in the spring classic – La Flèche Wallonne – becoming the first American to ever win the race.

Although he had only raced the first five stages of the Tour de France in ’96, he was called up to race in the 1996 Olympic Games for the USA; finishing 6th in the time trial and 12th overall in the road race. Very respectable achievements considering his status at the time.

Unfortunately, 1996 was also the year in which Armstrong was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer.

The cancer was so advanced that it had spread to his lymph nodes, lungs, brain, and abdomen. Such widespread malignant cancer gave him a low probability of survival.

But, Lance Armstrong was determined to fight the disease, and even stated that he will be returning to professional cycling after he receives the necessary chemotherapy.

By the end of the year, Lance had completed his chemo and had the cancerous testicle removed, and thankfully would never require further treatment for his cancer.

In 1997, when he returned to the world of professional cycling, Lance established the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which was later renamed Livestrong.

This organization was founded in order to provide support for cancer patients and their families, as well as to provide funding for scientific cancer research. It’s visibility was boosted by the ubiquitous yellow wristbands which took the world by storm.

The same year, he signed for the cycling team “U.S Postal Service” – a partnership that would prove very fruitful for both Armstrong and the team.

It wasn’t until 1999, however, two years after completing his cancer treatment, that Armstrong won his first yellow jersey, at age 27.

Armstrong’s moving words after winning his first Tour de France were inspiring for cancer survivors, cancer patients, and the whole general public alike:

“I hope it sends out a fantastic message to all survivors around the world, we can return to what we were before – and even better.”

– Lance Armstrong

Armstrong became the case study for the perfect recovery from advanced cancer. He seemed almost certain to die, with such a diagnosis.

Instead, not only did he recover from the disease, but he won one of the most challenging sporting events in the world just two years later.

Over the next two years, Armstrong won another two editions of the Tour de France. His comeback story and victories had, by this point, launched him firmly into the public eye, becoming an icon of the sport.

It became clear that Armstrong was clearly capable of beating the previous record of five Tour wins before his career was over.

During the early ’00s, another exceptional rider, Jan Ullrich, came into the fold. He was an extremely strong contender for the Tour, particularly from 2002 to 2004.

After beating Lance in the Sydney Olympic games of 2002, many even believed that he would beat the American on the grandest stage in cycling.

However, Jan Ullrich never managed to beat Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. He has more second-placed finishes than any other rider in history.

It’s unclear whether if neither Lance nor Jan had been doping, this would have even ever been a rivalry that was discussed.

But, it became a legendary duel between two of the best in the sport, and there was a very clear victor – Lance Armstrong.

He continued to outperform himself, winning the Tour in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Having now won six consecutive Tour de France, he had beaten the previous record of five Tour de France wins jointly held by four legends of cycling.

In 2005 Lance Armstrong won his seventh consecutive Tour de France, making him by far the most successful rider ever in the competition.

However, after his win in 2005 was when questions really started to be asked.

Lance Armstrong Doping Allegations

Throughout his career, Armstrong faced allegations of doping, many of which were founded on his pure domination of the sport – some just couldn’t believe that it was possible.

However, few of these allegations carried any weight at the time due to a lack of physical evidence.

Lance Armstrong doping: The First Serious Allegations

The first serious allegations came when an insurer, SCA Promotions, was asked to pay out a $5 million bonus for Armstrong’s sixth consecutive Tour de France win.

Being an insurance company, they were not exactly expecting such success and to have to pay out such a huge sum, so they were trying to find a way to get out of the payment.

The president of SCA Promotions had read an under-the-radar expose by journalists Pierre Ballester and David Walsh, which included circumstantial evidence that the U.S Postal Service Pro Cycling Team – including Armstrong – had been doping in 1999.

SCA was eventually forced to pay out the bonus, due to there being no concrete evidence of foul play. However, they did achieve their secondary goal: to eventually force a formal investigation by the sporting authorities.

SCA’s execs had realized that if Armstrong was eventually found guilty of doping, he would be stripped of his victories, meaning that SCA could get their bonuses back.

The French sporting magazine, L’Equipe, brought these allegations made by SCA into the public eye by publishing a series of articles.

Although the evidence was still somewhat circumstantial, it sparked a media storm. Suddenly, the story was carried out by almost every news channel around the world, and Armstrong was even forced to comment on the allegations.

During a CNN interview, he said:

“If you consider my situation: a guy who comes back from arguably, you know, a death sentence, why would I then enter into a sport and dope myself up and risk my life again? That’s crazy, I would never do that. No. No way.”

– Lance Armstrong, 2005

Federal Inquiry And USADA Investigation

2006 came and went, and the allegations of doping began to quiet down for Armstrong.

In fact, after his retirement in 2005, he made a comeback to the sport in 2009, racing in the Tour de France with the legendary rider – Alberto Contador – as a joint team leader.

This Tour was ripe with internal friction for Armstrong and his team. It was unclear who should be the team leader and go for the yellow jersey. This caused a lot of internal disagreements, with Armstrong clearly believing that, based on his status, it should be him.

However, at the time, Contador had proved himself for the team and it would have been unreasonable to strip him of the leadership.

This Tour de France was an intense one for both riders, however, in the end, Contador came out on top – winning his first Tour and beating Armstrong to the punch, who finished third.

In 2010, racing for the RadioShack team, Armstrong made his final appearance at the Tour. Unfortunately, his swansong was something of a disappointment, because he ended up finishing 23rd overall in the race.

After he announced his official retirement from professional cycling, things went from disappointing to damning when a federal inquiry was opened into Armstrong’s doping case.

The inquiry attempted to gain evidence against Armstrong, mostly by asking his former teammates to testify under oath about the goings-on of the 1999 U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team.

The allegations were related to the widespread use within the team of Erythropoietin – commonly referred to as EPO – a hormone associated with increased red blood cell production.

This improves the oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood, allowing the cardiovascular system to more effectively transport oxygen to the muscles, preventing lactic acid buildup.

After testimonies from former teammates, together with blood samples from 2009 and 2010, Lance Armstrong was accused of doping and drug trafficking by the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) in June 2012.

The USADA investigation culminated in a decision in August of 2012, that would ultimately decide Armstrong’s guilt in the matter.

The USADA came to a “reasoned decision” to recommend the UCI that they strip Armstrong of all of his seven Tour de France wins, as well as his Olympic silver medal.

Although he was led to believe that by not contesting the charges, the details of the case would never be made public, the USADA decided to change their by-laws, specifically to allow them to publish the details of the Armstrong investigation.

In October 2012, the USADA published a 100-page report detailing exactly what evidence they had against Armstrong that had led them to recommend that he be stripped of his titles.

Armstrong was accused of blood doping, widespread testosterone usage, intimidation and suppression of witnesses, and of transferring over $1 million to notorious doping physician Dr. Michele Ferrari.

The allegations and confessions of former friends and teammates including Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, and his wife Betsy, were pivotal in bringing Lance Armstrong down.

The public reaction was incredibly strong, with many of his loyal fans finally beginning to accept that the allegations were true.

Just a few days later, the UCI announced its decision to strip Armstrong of all titles since 1998, including all seven of his Tour de France victories.

At this point, Armstrong still adamantly denied the use of performance-enhancing drugs in any of his cycling career.

However, a couple of months later, in January 2013, Lance Armstrong admitted to the charges live on TV in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, saying:

“This story was so perfect for so long. It’s this myth, this perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”

– Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal: Was The Punishment Justified?

While some contend that the punishment of Armstrong losing all seven of his victories was severe because others were also using EPO to enhance their performance, the fact remains that he broke both the rules and the law.

In 2005, all of the top ten riders were accused of doping, with Armstrong being one of three stripped of their results.

However, even if Armstrong was surrounded by other riders using EPO, he still chose to cheat. It’s impossible to say whether he could have won without using EPO, but since he broke the rules, stripping him of his wins is seen as fair punishment by many.

The Lance Armstrong case could be seen as a tipping point for doping in cycling. Doping has been an issue in the sport since its inception, but the high-profile scandal brought it to the forefront of public consciousness.

In the words of then-UCI president Pat McQuaid:

“Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. He deserves to be forgotten in cycling. Something like this must never happen again.”

– Pat McQuaid, UCI President

Want more Tour de France history? Check out the articles below!

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Jack has been a two-wheel fanatic since a very young age. He loves zooming around the local country roads in Sussex on his road bike, and more recently enjoys flying down MTB trails on his gravel bike. A supreme lover of bikepacking, Jack has ridden many long-distance cycle tours in the UK.

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