Jim Tanner: Quest on still to boil Lance

Jim Tanner: Quest on still to boil Lance

June 15th, 2012 by Jim Tanner in Sports - Columns

In this Feb. 22, 2009 file photo, Lance Armstrong prepares for the final stage of the Tour of California cycling race in Rancho Bernardo, Calif.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

The lengthy saga of Lance Armstrong seemingly won't go away.

The seven-time Tour de France champion was thrust into the spotlight once again Wednesday when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed formal allegations of doping violations against the world-famous American bicycle racer. If the charges hold up -- no sure thing in the murky world of professional cycling and performance-enhancing drugs -- Armstrong could be stripped of the seven Tour de France titles he won from 1999 to 2005.

Armstrong was a force of nature in cycling during his time, and his success and the inspiring story of his battle with testicular cancer made him one of the most popular figures in the world.

Despite rumors of doping throughout his career, many people (especially cancer survivors and supporters of the Livestrong charity he founded to benefit cancer research) wanted to believe he was clean. But the steady drip-drip-drip of rumors and allegations have taken their toll on his reputation, and these latest charges no doubt will further erode his image.

As he has throughout the many allegations of doping throughout his career -- including an investigation recently abandoned by the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles -- Armstrong has denied any involvement in doping.

"These are the very same charges and the same witnesses that the Justice Department chose not to pursue after a two-year investigation," he said in a statement released on his website. "These charges are baseless, motivated by spite and advanced through testimony bought and paid for by promises of anonymity and immunity."

Certainly the credibility of the witnesses will be a key part of this latest case. In the past, Armstrong has been accused of doping by former teammates such as Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, riders who have been exposed as drug cheats and liars. For better or worse, Armstrong hasn't changed his story and can point to a history of no failed drug tests.

The USADA doesn't claim to have a smoking gun in this case, either, rather claiming to have blood samples "fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions" -- whatever that means.

But let's not be naive. Professional cycling -- especially during the 1990s and early 2000s when Armstrong was the dominant force in the sport -- has a long and tortured history with performance-enhancing drugs. That dates back to British rider Tom Simpson, who died during the 1967 Tour de France on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in the French Alps after taking amphetamines in an attempt to improve his performance.

By all accounts doping was pervasive during the Armstrong era. In the past decade Landis and Alberto Contador have been stripped of Tour de France titles after failed drug tests, and rumors long have swirled around Armstrong.

In his new book "Racing Through the Dark," Scottish pro cyclist David Millar explains the basis of the suspicions and circumstantial evidence that have surrounded Armstrong.

"Lance is a charismatic but controversial man," writes Millar, an admitted doper who served a two-year ban and has returned to cycling as an advocate for cleaning up the sport. "All the good he's done has been tarnished by the never-ending accusations.

"His wins in the Tour de France came during what was one of the most doped periods of professional cycling. Almost every single one of his ex-teammates who attempted to come out of his shadow was caught for doping, and some have also made allegations against him. Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, Floyd Landis -- they were all Lance's lieutenants who changed teams and tried to beat him. Yet, once on other teams, all of them ended up failing doping controls."

In the world of sports and PEDs, where there's smoke there's almost always fire. It is hard to believe that there is absolutely no truth to the multitude of accusations against Armstrong -- especially considering how much doping was a part of the culture of cycling during that period.

But regardless of the outcome of the latest USADA charges, Armstrong is part of cycling's past. The real challenge for cycling -- and sports in general -- is less about what happens to Armstrong and his seven Tour titles and more how younger athletes move forward from here.

Next May, the USA Pro Cycling Championships will come to Chattanooga, bringing the best American male and female cyclists to compete for national supremacy. Most if not all of these riders have come of age in the years since Armstrong's era of dominance. Many of them were inspired by Armstrong's dominance last decade, but hopefully they've learned something from the hubris of that era as well.

What lessons have been learned by this next generation of cyclists? That is a much more important question than whether the USADA can finally make doping charges stick on Lance Armstrong after more than a decade of investigations.

Let's hope these young riders (and all athletes) have been paying attention.