Professional cycling has a long history of high profile doping scandals. Jacques Anquetil, who won the Tour de France’s general classification five times in eight Tours from 1957-64, stated that “[y]ou would have to be an imbecile or a crook to imagine that a professional cyclist who races fro 235 days a year can hold the pace without stimulants.” However, doping reached a new level in the 1990s when EPO, a blood boosting drug, combined with blood transfusions and other sophisticated forms of doping that went well beyond stimulants and morphine in terms of performance enhancing effects, became common in the professional peloton. While Americans are most familiar with the case of Lance Armstrong and his now-vacated seven Tour de France titles, Mr. Armstrong’s wins were preceded and followed by the 1998 Festina Affair, which saw many riders and officials on Team Festina arrested during the 1998 Tour (only half of the field finished the race) and 2006 Operation Puerto, which swept up many of the sport’s top riders. History would prove that the era of doping scandals was long from over, and while not proof positive, the 2023 edition of the Tour had the fastest average speed in the history of the race.
When a sport has a confirmed doping problem on the level of professional cycling (note, that far more diligence has gone into investigating doping in cycling than major American team sports), it is tempting to try to rationalize the results as being endemic in a a particularly troubled field of endeavor. Prompted by an interesting assertion about Lance Armstrong in a recent article, I will consider whether a doper dominating a doped field is evidence that the doper, had he (or she, this is also applicable to women’s sports although I will focus on men’s road cycling here) been clean would have still dominated the field if everyone else was also clean. Despite having seen many arguments that one can extrapolate clean dominance from doped dominance, I will make the case that when a critical mass of the dramatic personae are doping, it is impossible to say what would have happened in a world where everyone was clean.
The Tour de France is the biggest event in professional road cycling. It takes course in 20-21 stages over the course of three weeks, always ending on the iconic Champs Elysse in Paris. The Tour is a brutal test of endurance, and winning the Maillot jaune (“Yellow jersey”) for leading the general classification (best overall time in the race) requires a rider to be a strong climber in the high mountains, as well as a good time trialist, while avoiding trouble over more than 2,000 kilometers over the course of three weeks (mileage may vary somewhat year to year depending on the particular course and how the race plays out). The vast majority of riders at the Tour are not competing to win the race overall, but are there for other purposes including, but not limited to, team support, hunting for individual stage wins, competing for honors and awards other than the general classification, or getting into ultimately doomed breakaways to make sure that the team sponsor is seen by TV cameras. The select few riders who have genuine ambitions to compete for a high placement in the general classification often go into the Tour with full backing from their teams.
Prior to 1999, the Tour de France had four five-time champions: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain. A certain Lance Armstrong had been a bit player in his first Tours de France, finishing one Tour (1995 in 36th place) and capturing two stages, but never being thought of as a player for the overall win. In 1999, having recently recovered from a near-fatal bout with testicular cancer, Mr. Armstrong won the Tour de France in dominant fashion. He would go on to win the next six Tours through 2005, setting the new record with seven Tour de France wins and the record for most consecutive Tour wins with seven (Mr. Indurain had won all five of his Tours consecutively from 1991-1995). It is worth noting that only Mr. Armstrong’s 2003 Tour win was meaningfully in doubt in the final week – he won the other six comfortably.
Of course, Mr. Armstrong, like many of his peers, engaged in doping – both chemical doping and blood transfusions – to boost his performance during his Tour wins. After years of denying that he had doped, Mr. Armstrong confessed in 2012 and, unlike his peers, he was stripped of all of his cycling accolades starting from the 1998 Vuelta a Espana (a three-week race in which he finished 4th). I came across an interesting passage written by USA Today sports columnist Mike Freeman, which reads as follows:
A similar question could be asked of Lance Armstrong, who would have likely been the greatest cyclist in history without the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
This passage is ambiguous. See the two possible readings:
- Mr. Freeman is arguing that a clean Lance Armstrong would have achieved similar results at the 1999-2005 Tours had everything around him stayed the same; or
- Mr. Freeman is arguing that had Mr. Armstrong been clean and had all of his rivals also been clean, Mr. Armstrong would have been the best stage racer and achieved similar results at the 1999-2005 Tours.
A strict reading of Mr. Freeman’s passage suggests the first interpretation: That a clean Lance Armstrong would have been stronger than the best road cyclists in the world who were on drugs. However, that reading would be absurd – As I will discuss below, blood boosting drugs and other blood doping methods have a major effect on the results of a very long three-week stage race that is often decided in the high mountains, wherein performance is decided by one’s power to weight ratio over the course of a steep climb. Moreover, as I will explore in more detail below, Mr. Armstrong showed few if any signs of climbing at the level necessary to compete to win the Tour de France prior to the 1998 Vuelta a Espana, well after he later admitted to having already been doping and when he was already 26 years old.
The second interpretation, inaccurate or not, is much more interesting. We have ample evidence in Mr. Armstrong’s seven Tour wins from 1999-2005 that he was the best stage racer in the world for that period in the context of the peloton of the day. In light of the fact that most of Mr. Armstrong’s top rivals either tested positive for drugs, subsequently admitted to doping, or were implicated in doping scandals, we can say that a doped Mr. Armstrong was the best cyclist against a largely (not necessarily entirely, but largely) doped field of riders who were strong enough to contend for the Yellow Jersey at the Tour.
Thus, for the purpose of this article, we will assume arguendo that Mr. Freeman’s position is that we can extrapolate from a doped Mr. Armstrong being the best stage racer in a doped field that a clean Mr. Armstrong would have been the best stage racer in a clean field. This alternative, even if it is what Mr. Freeman meant, is not worth considering because it can be readily dismissed out of hand.
(Note: I am not focusing on the claim that if one accepts Mr. Armstrong’s results that he was “the greatest cyclist in history.” For whatever it is worth, I think he would have a strong case as the greatest Tour de France rider in history on account of his record seven Tour wins, all consecutive, and his large number of stage victories to go with the overall wins. But historians of cycling will note that other great stage racers accrued a broader array of accomplishments even if one grants that none accomplished more at the Tour. I have most often seen Eddy Merckx, who had some doping issues of his own, cited as the greatest cyclist of all time.)
Lance Armstrong inspires strong opinions. While this article is about extrapolating clean results from doped results rather than how history should understand Lance Armstrong, I will offer my own views lest people misinterpret the purpose of this article.
Mr. Armstrong was a cheater. Moreover, as I will explain, I do not think it follows from Mr. Armstrong having been stronger than other cheaters while he himself was cheating that he would have been the strongest clean cyclist if everyone was clean.
However, I do think that history has treated Mr. Armstrong unfairly for the essential act of his cheating. Only Mr. Armstrong, and not other notorious doping cases such as that of 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis (Mr. Riis’ stunning stage 16 rampage up Hautacam in his 96 Tour win still stands as the fastest ascent of the climb 27 years later and quite possibly the most awe-inspiring show of strength on a summit finish in Tour history), 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, or 1998 Tour winner Marco Pantani (the list could go on), has been stripped of all of his results (I will note that initial Tour winners Floyd Landis in 2006 and Alberto Contador in 2010 lost their titles – but those were for positive test results during the race rather than after-the-fact findings). Moreover, Mr. Armstrong was investigated far more thoroughly than other similarly egregious cases apart from Team Festina in 1998. Many records and results from the 1990s (see above) remain untouched despite the fact that many of the cycling grand tour climbing records are still from 1994-98. Antoine Vayer, who worked as a coach for Team Festina before becoming a prominent anti-doping advocate, opined that Mr. Armstrong and other top climbers produced less watts from 1999-2005 than did climbers from 1994-98 on account of not “being able to take EPO in an unlimited way” (see also).
I will add that I think many governing bodies in cycling used taking down Mr. Armstrong as the basis to suggest that the problem was fixed – when in reality there has been serious problems in cycling cleanliness since then as well.
To be sure, Mr. Armstrong brought much of his disparate treatment on himself. His chief rival at the Tour, Jan Ullrich, did not parade around the world as a champion of clean sports or viciously attack and threaten people who questioned his results. 1996 Tour champion Bjarne Riis did not claim to be anything more than a bike rider. Mr. Armstrong’s immediate predecessor in Tour dominance, Miguel Indurain, dominated an arguably even more EPO-ridden field than did Mr. Armstrong and, like Mr. Armstrong, he showed no signs of being a Tour contender until he finished 17th at the Tour at age 25 and 10th at age 26 (note, however, that Mr. Indurain had proven to be a top time trialist and won a number of prestigious short stage races prior to turning into the dominant grand tour rider of the 1990s). That Mr. Indurain has not faced anywhere near the same scrutiny is likely owed in part to the fact that his demeanor and conduct were very different than Mr. Armstrong’s. More-recent four-time winner Chris Froome, who escaped what should have arguably been a suspension for a positive test and has not been stripped any of his achievements, showed far fewer signs of being a high level professional clean cyclist than did Mr. Armstrong before he became a dominant grand tour rider.
But questions about whether Mr. Armstrong deserved to lose all of his results and how much Mr. Armstrong’s behavior regarding his doping should influence his treatment are beyond our scope. This article is concerned with the fact that Mr. Armstrong was the best doped cyclist competing against a field of largely doped Tour contenders.
I recently wrote about the comical intentional walk numbers accrued by baseball’s all time home runs leader, Barry Bonds. While the article was not primarily about the doping allegations surrounding Mr. Bonds, those allegations could not be avoided entirely. Mr. Bonds is widely suspected to have started doping around 1999 when he was 35 years old (evinced in part by his suddenly putting on a significant amount of impressively toned muscle). Mr. Bonds was, statistically, the best baseball player in the world during the 1990s, well before he is suspected to have started doping. However, as great as he was in the 90s, Mr. Bonds’ offense reached stratospheric levels from 2001-2004, wherein he posted his four best seasons consecutively and what may have been the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. One could make a case that Mr. Bonds’ finest effort was his age-40 season in 2004, wherein he set numerous single season records that still stand, most notably for on base percentage.
Mr. Armstrong, like Mr. Bonds, had a career that can be broken into arcs, and like Mr. Bonds, Mr. Armstrong underwent a transformation in the 1990s. However, where Mr. Bonds, assuming all of the doping allegations and timelines are correct, is the case of someone who was already at the top of the sport using drugs to reach video game heights, Mr. Armstrong is the case of someone who was a strong, but not overwhelming, rider whose best performances came in one-day races prior to becoming a dominant Tour rider in his late 20s.
Mr. Armstrong became a professional cyclist in 1992. Mr. Armstrong began posting notable results in 1993 at age 21, including a win at stage 8 of his debut Tour de France (he did not ultimately finish that Tour). However, it was after the Tour in 1993 when Mr. Armstrong notched what would stand as his greatest accomplishment prior to 1999, winning the one-day World Championship road race and earning the honor of wearing the world champion’s Rainbow Jersey for one year (placing second, notably, was Miguel Indurain, who was coming off the third of what would be his five consecutive Tour wins). While many Americans are only familiar with the Tour, it is worth noting here that winning the World Championship is a tremendous honor and a career-defining accomplishment for many riders. Riders who believe that the course suits them often plan their entire seasons around peaking for the race. For Mr. Armstrong to have won the World Championship road race in 1993, especially as such a young rider, showed great potential. However, winning a one-day race, no matter how prestigious, is a very different thing than winning the grueling multi-week Tour de France.
After a quieter year in 1994, including another non-finish at the Tour, Mr. Armstrong had a big year in 1995. He won the Tour DuPont, which was the biggest stage race in the United States at the time, and the one-day Clásica de San Sebastián, which is one of the more notable one-day stage races. He also had his best Tour prior to 1999, capturing stage 18 in honor of Fabio Casartelli, a teammate of his who had died in a crash on stage 15 of the Tour, and finishing the race in a respectable 36th place overall.
Mr. Armstrong achieved still more impressive results in 1996. Despite pulling out of the Tour early due to illness (which turned out to be related to his cancer), Mr. Armstrong notched several major results that year. He repeated as winner of the Tour DuPoint and won one of cycling’s major classic one-day races, La Flèche Wallonne, while finishing runner-up at two more, Paris-Nice and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Mr. Armstrong finished 4th overall at the Tour de Suisse, which is a major one-week race right before the Tour de France, and he posted an impressive 6th place at the Individual Time Trial in the Olympics.
However, while Mr. Armstrong had an impressive collection of results in his early years, capped by the World Championship, the win at La Flèche Wallonne, and two Tour stage victories, it was not until 1998 that he showed any indications of contending in the general classification of a major three week stage race. Mr. Armstrong missed all of 1997 while recovering from his cancer treatment and returned to racing in 1998. Among his final non-voided results, Mr. Armstrong won his first two European stage races at the Tour de Luxembourg and Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt. However, it was at the 1998 Vuelta a Espana, which like the Tour de France is a brutal three-week race which demands elite climbing chops, that Mr. Armstrong announced his arrival (note the 1998 Vuelta is beginning of Mr. Armstrong’s officially voided results). For the first time since the 1995 Tour, Mr. Armstrong completed a three-week grand tour, but this time finished the Vuelta in 4th place overall, coming just 2’18” behind the overall winner, Abraham Olano (Mr. Olano was later implicated for doping during the 1998 Tour).
10 months after finishing 4th at the Vuelta, Mr. Armstrong entered the 1999 Tour as the leader of team U.S. Postal Service and won his third overall Tour stage in the Prologue to take the first Yellow Jersey. He confirmed his time trial form with a win in the longer individual time trial in stage 8, resuming the overall lead. The question remained whether Mr. Armstrong could hold on in the mountains – he had been much stronger in the time trials than on the climbs in the 1998 Vuelta. Mr. Armstrong answered those questions in stage 9, dropping the field on the summit finish at Sestrières at the end of a 133 mile stage to win the stage by 31 seconds and open up an insurmountable 6’03” lead over second place in the race. All that was left to do for Mr. Armstrong in the second half of the race was to hold his margin, and hold he did until the penultimate stage 19, an individual time trial, in which he captured his fourth stage win before riding into the largely ceremonial final stage 20 in Paris to cement his first win at the Tour de France.
Aside from early doping allegations, some questioned whether Mr. Armstrong had truly proven himself as the best rider at the 1999 Tour. Many top cyclists, including the previous two Tour winners (Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani) were absent, in part due to the after effects of the major doping scandals at the 1998 Tour. However, Mr. Armstrong returned and confirmed his position as the best stage racer in the world at the 2000 Tour de France, defeating 1997 Tour champion and 1996 and 1998 runner-up, Jan Ullrich, by 6’02”. As we know, Mr. Armstrong would not relinquish the title of Tour champion until he decided to retire after winning his seventh consecutive Tour in 2005. Below, in chart form, I show Mr. Armstrong’s results at the 1999-2005 Tours:
|Road Stage Wins
|Time Trial Wins
|7’37” over Alex Zülle
|Prologue, Stages 8 and 19
|6’06” over Jan Ullrich
|6’44” over Jan Ullrich
|Stages 10 and 13
|Stages 11 and 18
|7’17” over Joseba Beloki
|Prologue and Stage 19
|1’01” over Jan Ullrich
|6’19” over Andreas Klöden
|Stages 13, 15, and 17
|Stages 16 and 19
|4’40” over Ivan Basso
As I noted earlier, only the 2003 Tour was in doubt in the final stages. Mr. Armstrong’s other six wins were decisive and the races were generally out of reach (barring Mr. Armstrong running into trouble) by the end of the second week. Mr. Armstrong proved his worth in both the high mountain stages and the time trials in his seven Tour wins.
Winning seven consecutive Tour de France titles was sufficient to establish Mr. Armstrong as the world’s finest stage racer from 1999-2005. Mr. Armstrong was mono-focused on the Tour during that period, meaning his entire schedule was focused on peaking for three weeks in July. But he did notch a few other notable results during the period, namely overall wins at the one-week 2001 Tour de Suisse and 2002-2003 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré races and a Bronze Medal at the individual time trial in the 2000 Olympics.
Mr. Armstrong made a brief comeback to cycling in 2009. He competed in the 2009 Tour de France, coming in third place overall after four years away from the sport. His 2009 Tour was highlighted by his battle for team leadership with teammate Alberto Contador, who had won the 2007 Tour de France along with the 2008 editions of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana. Mr. Contador and Mr. Armstrong were in second and third place, 6 and 8 seconds behind the Yellow Jersey, going into stage 15 of the Tour, which ended with a mountain-top finish at Verbier. Mr. Contador settled matters by launching a stunning attack on Verbier that neither Mr. Armstrong nor anyone else had an answer for, and Mr. Armstrong would settle for an impressive (later vacated) third-place podium finish at age 37 after four years of retirement. Mr. Armstrong made a second attempt to regain the Tour crown in 2010, but his effort was undone by the bad luck (in the form of multiple crashes) that, with the exception of 2003, he had managed to avoid in his previous eight Tours. However, unlike in 2003 wherein Mr. Armstrong crashed violently on stage 15’s final climb on Luz Ardiden before recovering, attacking, and winning the stage while putting 40 seconds into his main rival, Jan Ullrich (who, in a very sporting moment, opted to wait for Mr. Armstrong when he crashed instead of attacking himself in a very sporting moment), there would be no such recovery in 2010. (With all of that being said, Mr. Armstrong finished 21st overall in 2010, which was a better placement than in any of his pre-1999 Tours.)
Would a Clean Mr. Armstrong Have Been the Best Stage Racer in a Clean Field?
We know that Mr. Armstrong was the top stage racer in the world from 1999-2005. We also know that both he and most (if not all) of his top rivals at the Tour de France were engaged doping. As a threshold matter, we will accept as true that a clean Mr. Armstrong would not have won the Tour de France, much less seven consecutive Tours, racing clean against a largely doped field. Mr. Armstrong himself was asked whether it was possible to win clean from 1999-2005. He stated that it depended on which races a rider wanted to win, but with respect to the Tour de France, he stated:
No. Impossible to win without doping because the Tour is an endurance event where oxygen is decisive. To take one example, EPO will not help a sprinter win a 100m but it will be decisive for a 10,000m runner. It’s obvious.Lance Armstrong
I submit this quote only to note that the ultra-competive Lance Armstrong himself opined that he would not have won the Tour de France clean. Thus, we will interpret the prompt for this article differently: Can we extrapolate from the fact that a doped Lance Armstrong dominated a largely doped peloton at the Tour de France from 1999-2005 that a clean Lance Armstrong would have had similar success against a clean peloton? I am using similar success instead of the same success – that is, the question is not whether Mr. Armstrong would have won seven consecutive Tours from 1999-2005 in this alternative universe, but instead whether he would have been the best grand tour rider. Winning the Tour requires luck and talent, as we saw when some bad luck in 2003 very nearly cost Mr. Armstrong his fifth consecutive Tour victory.
While Mr. Armstrong conceded that he would not have been able to win the Tour from 1999-2005 without doping, he took the position that had he and everyone else been clean, he would have been able to win the Tour with the help of his U.S. Postal Service (1999-2004) and Discovery Channel (2005) teams:
What I wish would have happened, I wish kids from Plano and Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and Brooklyn and Montana, as young Americans, if we’d have gone to Europe and everybody was fighting with their fists, we still win, I promise you that.Lance Armstrong
Interestingly, however, Mr. Armstrong did not base his reasoning on the fact that he dominated the Tour with his team while doping against a doped field. He made a different argument:
We said we worked the hardest, had the best tactics, best team composition, best director, best equipment, best technology, recon the courses. All the things we said, we did.Lance Armstrong
Is he right? Was the (charitable) interpretation of reporter Mike Freeman’s quote correct?
To begin, I do not think we can extrapolate clean performances from doped performances beginning with the early 1990s. There are several reasons I hold this view.
Firstly, not every team necessarily doped in the same way or had the same doping program. I think the argument that Mr. Armstrong’s teams were so dramatically better than everyone else at doping is a stretch, especially when one considers that there were other powerful teams in the peloton – but to be sure, U.S. Postal had more resources and clout than some smaller teams. I note this only to point out that the mere fact 10 riders were doping does not mean that they were all doping in the exact same manner. Mr. Armstrong himself may be case-in-point. He emerged as a grand tour contender after moving to team U.S. Postal Service in 1998 after having previously rode for the Motorola Team prior to his cancer diagnosis in 1996.
Secondly, I am open to the possibility that the same doping may affect different riders in different ways. I am not suggesting that there is a scenario where a rider will not benefit from EPO or blood doping. Both of those methods, as well as many related methods, clearly boost performance for any rider. I am suggesting instead that one rider may have more room to benefit from doping than another rider. For example, the two best Tour riders from 1995-2005 were Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Ullrich. Both Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Ullrich – were on the big side for modern grand tour winners, and being big is significant since climbing is a function of power-to-weight ratio. Is it possible that big riders who were more built for time trials could benefit more from the popular doping of the day than smaller riders more built for climbing? Was there more value in doping getting a bigger man to climb well enough to hold serve in the mountains than getting a smaller man to perform a little bit better in the time trial? Another example, of course, is the 1991-95 Tour winner, Miguel Indurain, who was even bigger than Messrs. Armstrong and Ullrich, noting here that Mr. Indurain was never sanctioned for a positive test and has not admitted to doping. It is not clear cut – the diminutive Marco Pantani, who won the 1998 Tour and Giro d’Italia, was likely the greatest climber of all time from 1994-1998 if one pretends he was clean. But this is something to consider. So too is the possibility that, for example, a rider with a lower VO2 max may have more to gain from certain kinds of doping than a rider with naturally higher capacity.
I recall when I watched most of the Tours in the 2010s (starting with Mr. Armstrong’s comeback in 2009) that there was a trend of riders dropping significant amounts of weight and winning the Tour by climbing at an elite level and somehow, despite looking emaciated, posting elite time trial performances. Again, one has to wonder whether certain kinds of doping may allow riders to cut bulk while still maintaining their power on flats, and whether that benefits some riders with certain natural characteristics more than others.
A good non-cycling example is track and field. There are still some standing women’s track and field records from the 1980s – many of which from East Germany and former Soviet bloc countries that we know were running national-scale doping programs. One popular method of doping was illicit testosterone supplementation. Male athletes also dope with testosterone, but one needs to only consider for a moment why a wild west environment for testosterone usage will warp women’s performances more than men’s performances – women have much lower natural testosterone levels than men. Thus, slightly curbing what track athletes could get away with in doping made it possible for some 1980s women’s track records to stand for decade without the same thing occurring on the men’s side. One could also speculate from this why the Eastern Bloc countries had far more success in women’s track and field than they did in men’s track, but that is beyond our scope.
Thirdly, keeping the first and second points in mind, doping warped the status of every rider – including clean riders. For example, most contenders for the Tour de France can count on their teams for support. Mr. Armstrong’s helpers during his Tour included Roberto Heras, who won the Vuelta a Espana on four occasions, and Floyd Landis, who was briefly the winner of the 2006 Tour de France before he was stripped for a positive test during the race (Mr. Landis went on to play the leading role in triggering the investigation that brought Mr. Armstrong down). Jan Ullrich had to establish superiority over his teammate and 1996 Tour winner, Bijarne Riis, to win the 1997 Tour, and he would finish behind one of his teammates, Andreas Kloden, in the 2004 Tour. Also among Mr. Ullrich’s teammates was Alexandre Vinokourov, who won the 2006 Vuelta a Espana before being thrown out of the 2007 Tour for in-race blood doping. The point here is that doping established the pecking order on all of these teams. Being recognized as the second best rider on a team going into the Tour could cost that rider opportunities and team support to compete for the win even if he turns out to be the best rider on the team during the race.
Finally, we cannot say with certainty what the clean capabilities of many of the top riders from 1999-2005 were. For example, Mr. Armstrong has admitted that he first used an indisputably banned substance in 1993. There is no evidence that there was any point in Mr. Ullrich’s professional career when he was clean. The same can be said of many of their top rivals. Perhaps one could dig into their amateur times or some period when they were very likely clean – but it is likely the case that the clean capabilities of many of the riders will be forever unknown. Moreover, I would argue that the benefits of doping in the past do not necessarily disappear. Mr. Armstrong has claimed that he was clean in 2009-10, although many have raised evidence to the contrary (he was stripped of his results in 2009-10 on account of circumstantial evidence of doping). But for the sake of argument, let us throw away all doubt and assume here he was clean in 2009. Mr. Armstrong still then, by his own admission, entered the Tour with remarkable experience that he necessarily gleaned from past drug-fueled performances. Moreover, it was on account of his past results that he entered the race as co-leader with Alberto Contador, who had won the 2007 Tour de France and 2008 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana during Mr. Armstrong’s retirement – establishing himself as the best stage racer in the world and someone who would have clearly been the absolute leader of any other team (for whatever it is worth, I already noted Mr. Contador was stripped of what would have been his second consecutive Tour title in 2010 and his win at the Giro d’Italia for a positive test in the 2010 Tour – which would naturally call into question whether he was clean when he won team leadership over Mr. Armstrong on the climb to Verbier).
Thus, my position is that there is no clean (pun intended) way to disentangle the mass of doping-influenced results from 1999-2005. We can speculate or focus on riders who are believed to have been clean during that period, but it is all for naught. We cannot necessarily extract clean results from doped results and there was likely enough doping that we cannot confidently pick a clean peloton from the doped peloton. Moreover, even the performances of the clean riders were affected by racing in an otherwise doped peloton. To make up an example (note this is entirely made up, not referencing any real rider) – let us say we could prove with certainty that the 8th place finisher who came in at 17 minutes behind the winner in one year was the best clean rider. Maybe we can take an additional step and say that he would have been better than the seven riders ahead of him based on natural ability. But would he have necessarily won if he had the pressure and responsibilities of a team leader instead of someone who was satisfied with a top-10 finish? It is impossible to say.
In the universe we live in, we can say for a fact that Mr. Armstrong was able to shoulder the responsibility of team leadership and muster the focus day in and day out for seven consecutive Tours and more than 140 stages, to almost always stay out of trouble, gain time when he needed, and conserve time elsewhere. Floyd Landis, the man who blew the whistle on doping on Mr. Armstrong’s teams and struggled through a long legal battle with and threats from Mr. Armstrong, described Mr. Armstrong as “the best cyclist that I’ve ever raced with,” despite having full knowledge of the precise parameters of Mr. Armstrong’s doping regimen (not to mention plenty of bad blood with Mr. Armstrong). Granting all the chemical enhancement, we saw Mr. Armstrong consistently make good in-race decisions, race with composure, and overcome great adversity in 2003. Granting the strong circumstantial evidence that Mr. Armstrong doped during his 2009-10 comeback, we saw him claw his way to a (now-vacated) podium finish at the Tour at age 37 after more than three years away from racing. I note this all to highlight that just because a particular cyclist who did not dope may have had the physical ability to contend in a clean field is not proof that he would have actually been able to bear the weight of the Maillot jaune in the latter half of the Tour de France.
I will, however, submit that I am highly skeptical that a clean Mr. Armstrong would have been a dominant grand tour rider against a clean field. He showed few signs of being an elite climber – even at the human as opposed to mutant level (borrowing the term mutant from Antoine Vayer) – prior to 1999, when he was 27 years old (one could generously say 1998). As I noted, he had established he was an excellent rider and one of the best one-day riders in the world from 1993-1996 and he posted some decent performances in high-class one-week-and-shorter stage races, but it seems like a stretch to say that someone who had never consistently climbed at an Tour-contending level until the latter half of his 20s – granting all the strangeness of Mr. Armstrong reaching a new level only after defeating a very serious cancer case – would be the most likely rider to have emerged as the king of the Tour in a clean field. The same could be said of Mr. Armstrong’s chief rival, Mr. Ullrich, who did show elite Tour ability with a runner-up finish at the 1996 Tour at age 22, but was not clean when he did so.
In the end – we should accept the results from Mr. Armstrong’s era as they were. Mr. Armstrong was the best Tour rider in the world that existed (note again that there is a reason why cycling did not re-award Mr. Armstrong’s vacated Tour wins). Rather than try to imagine a universe where everyone was clean, it would be more worthwhile to accept what actually did happen and to give recognition to the riders who we know to have been, or are strongly believed to have been, clean – the riders who tried to do it the right way and never had a reasonable chance to find out what they could have accomplished had they not been in a distinct minority.