Lance Armstrong makes largely unwelcome return to Tour de France
Disgraced American will ride two stages ahead of peloton in aid of charity
Cyclist Lance Armstrong of the U.S. speaks to journalists before taking part in Geoff Thomas’s ‘One Day Ahead’ charity event during a stage of the 102nd Tour de France cycling race from Muret to Rodez, France. Photo: Fred Lancelot/Reuters
In a supermarket car park 80 miles from the finish of Thursday’s Tour de France stage something stirred from the Tour’s past: a bus, a horde of reporters and television cameras, a Texan drawl. Lance Armstrong had returned to French roads, to ride the “One Day Ahead” challenge with the former England footballer Geoff Thomas, who hopes to raise £1m for CureLeukaemia.
Armstrong is accompanying Thomas and a group of amateur cyclists riding the stages of the Tour from Muret to Rodez and Rodez to Mende 24 hours ahead of the Tour de France peloton; the ride began on Thursday in the less-than-romantic surroundings of the Leader-Price car park in the little town of Vernet, just to the south of Toulouse and not far from the start of Friday’s stage 13.
In a crush of reporters, Armstrong was asked whether he believed the Tour de France was now clean. “How can I answer that question?” he replied. “I am not a specialist.”
Although there was a media throng to greet him, just like in the good old, bad old days when he doped his way to seven Tour de France wins, Armstrong’s presence has not been universally welcomed. Brian Cookson, the head of cycling’s governing body, the UCI, got his response in early when the ride was announced in the spring, saying: “It is undesirable, I think it is disrespectful. I think there are plenty of ways of raising money for charity that Lance could do.”
The response this week from French media and team managers has been similarly negative although the head of the race, Christian Prudhomme, pointed out that “one day before the Tour, the road is open to anyone”. Tour cyclists such as Geraint Thomas and the race leader, Chris Froome, have expressed their reservations.
On Thursday, the Europcar team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau, a long-time proponent of clean cycling, said he did not like Armstrong’s return. “He embodies what will remain the Armstrong generation and he has come back. I don’t like that at all.” His view was echoed by Vincent Lavenu, the head of the Ag2R team, who said: “We know what the Armstrong years led to. We know what they gave in terms of polemic, media and legal sagas. He’s come back to the Tour but the news is not where he is. His trip is not the best news for our sport.”
Armstrong told the website cyclingnews.com: “I understand people’s reactions. I understand there are still some hurt feelings and that’s a process I’ll walk through for a long, long time.”
As might have been expected Armstrong used the occasion to make the point that he feels he has been unfairly excluded from the Tour, when other former drug-takers such as Richard Virenque are prominent working for media and sponsors. “They’re all here – why am I not welcome? Because I’m a doper? If that were the rule, the caravan would almost be empty. I don’t mean the riders in this Tour but in the press room, the commentary boxes, team cars. No disrespect to those guys. We all rode in an unfortunate era. But if you’re going to apply a standard it has to be universal.”
With exquisite timing Armstrong’s arrival coincided with the embarrassing revelation that Team Sky have a former soigneur from his US Postal team on their payroll, albeit in the innocuous role of warehouse manager at their base in Belgium. There is no hint that the Belgian Peter Vebeken – who also worked as a soigneur, or “carer”, at Sky in 2012 and 2013 – has been involved in wrongdoing, and Sky are adamant he met their ethical criteria. But the fact that he worked at US Postal on a freelance basis in 1999 is a reminder that cycling’s past is all but impossible to escape.