Cases for and against Armstrong

Call it “physiologically believable” (which many don’t like, but I use it with its obvious intention), or call it signs of change, I do believe that the Tour is slower, and that the days of 6.3W/kg for 40 minutes are now the stuff of highlights and commemorative DVDs.

-Science of Sport, 7/23/10


For a while now, I’ve believed that Lance took performance enhancing drugs during his seven-tour run.  Not a shattering thought certainly, and perhaps evidence that in sentimental cases my optimism goes too far.  In the end, irrespective of the details, I find the whole affair to be a very sad one.

While writings like the recent Sports Illustrated article take a legalistically nit-picky tack on developing a case against Armstrong, I find analyses like that which the excellent Science of Sport engaged in during the 2010 tour to be far more compelling.  Rather than focusing on accusations from exceptionally biased people (the affair has proven, if nothing else, that Lance Armstrong is a very unpleasant person to have as an enemy) or on a weight on circumstantial evidence, the scientific case against Armstrong (more exactly, against his claim that he never used illegal performance-enhancing drugs) boils down to several largely inarguable “facts”:

1) The most talented, best trained, and most motivated cyclists of the current, post-EPO testing era are significantly slower (~5%) than those of the Armstrong era up the same TdeF climbs.

2) EPO, homologous blood doping and the like are estimated to give a 5-10% performance boost for an athlete already in peak condition.

3) Virtually all Lance Armstrong’s contemporaneous rivals (Riis, Ullrich, Hamilton, Landis, etc) have either admitted to or been implicated in illegal performance-enhancing drug use.

Two conclusions are then possible: that Armstrong was in his prime almost categorically better (for reason of physiology, method, and determination) than anyone else; or that Armstrong was doping.  I see no third option.

I also think that both are almost certainly the case.  Armstrong doped.  To think otherwise seems to go against a massive weight of evidence.  I also think that many of the prerequisites for Armstrong’s success have nothing to do with drug use, legal or otherwise.  The 2010 tour only served to highlight that winning such a race is a game of manufacturing your own luck.  Frank Schleck failed to do so well enough on the cobbles, and his brother may well have lost because of it.  Evans and Armstrong both crashed out of contention.  Yet for seven straight years Armstrong managed, by skill moreso than luck I would argue, to go against the numbers and do everything right.

It is certainly not unprecedented for an athlete to operate, if only for a season, on a level far beyond anyone else.  In almost all respects Armstrong must have done so, and thus I think it sad that such a great human achievement will, to a certain extent, be lost amid the noise.

4 responses to “Cases for and against Armstrong”

  1. Have you read “From Lance To Landis”? I just finished it……very interesting read.

  2. I’d also recommend the book “Blazing Saddles: The Cruel and Unusual History of the Tour de France”. It details each and every year of the Tour devoting anywhere between a couple paragraphs to a couple pages about each year. I have a far better grasp on how entangled doping and bicycle racing are because of it.

  3. Titles noted. I ought to read more and internet less.

  4. Lances team (the entire operation) was the best in cycling history. They were the best planners, strategizers (is that a word?) and executioners. Lance was one of the best bike handlers ever, which allowed him to tak risks on descents, and through technical sections. He as you said, made his own luck. He can’t do that as well anymore, as his skills – and perhaps drug use – have waned. And I think along with all of that, his teams were the best cheaters. They figured out how to beat the system, either using the very latest drugs or knowing how to buy/bribe the testers, or both. Among other things I’m sure as well. It’s no coincidence that those who left USPS but continued to dope were almost immediately caught.

    It is sad. And I think LA will be remembered as one of, if not THE, greatest villain in sports history.

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