Scrolling through the archives last week, I stopped at Place Saint Lambert in Liege, Belgium. Twice I remembered being there. The first time was for the start the much loved one-day classic bicycling race known as Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It was a Sunday in April, 1984, and I still have a photograph taken the morning shortly before the start of the race.
It was shot by a photographer we knew only as Nutan and it showed Belgian cycling champion Eric Vanderaerden worming his way through masses of fans to the start line. As he did so a man in his early 30s held a baby in his left arm, and with his right hand he stretched the child's left hand forward until the infant's fingers touched the cyclist's back.
Devotion to a sport had never been so poignantly expressed.
Twenty years later, I was back in Place Saint Lambert. It was a Friday evening the day before the start of the 2004 Tour de France, and the innocence with which I'd come to this square in '84 was long gone. This would be Lance Armstrong's sixth Tour de France victory, and though present to cover this race, I had come also to defend a book I'd co-authored with French journalist Pierre Ballester, L
The book would sell more than 100,000 copies and reach No. 2 on the French bestsellers' list, but to Armstrong and those around him it was the Satanic Verses. In the Salle de Presse the previous day, U.S Postal team director Johan Bruyneel saw me arrive and said at the top of his voice: "Hey, Mr. Walsh, good job, good job eh!"
"I can absolutely confirm that we don't use doping products," he said. Questioned about accusations made by former masseuse Emma O'Reilly, Armstrong said O'Reilly had been fired "for inappropriate issues" before adding it wasn't his style to attack her. Judith McHale, then president of Discovery Communications, said there was no better ambassador "for quality and trusted information" than Armstrong.
Now, in Liege, he would deal again with
Belinfante then asked about specific allegations made by former teammate Stephen Swart. "Ah, no comment," replied Armstrong. Later Belinfante tried ask him about Emma O'Reilly. "Next question," Armstrong said. Belinfante didn't cover cycling, didn't understand the omerta that operated within the sport and couldn't relate to the general passivity.
Midway through the press conference, I raised my arm to ask a question. It was ignored. That afternoon I was supposed to travel by car with an English journalist, but he told me he couldn't carry me. He feared being denied access to Armstrong if I was seen in the same car as him, though I had traveled with this journalist since 1984.
He would later write a book,
Walking through Place Saint Lambert the following evening, I thought about the events that had taken me to this place. How Armstrong had struck me during a three-hour interview in Grenoble at his first Tour de France in 1993. A kid then, so Texan and impressive: "Physically," he said, "I'm not any more gifted than anybody else but it's just this desire, just this rage, I'm on the bike and I go into a rage when I just shriek for about five seconds. I shake like mad and my eyes kinda bulge out. I swear, I sweat a little more and the heart rate goes like 200 a minute."
This desire helped him through cancer, got him back to the Tour in 1999 but from there, we went our separate ways. A young French rider Christophe Bassons came between us. Bassons had just turned 25, was talented and ambitious but was not prepared to dope. To anyone willing to listen during the first week of the '99 Tour, he said you couldn't be in the top 10 without doping. Armstrong went after him, literally, and began the bullying that would see Bassons railroaded out of that summer's Tour.
On a quiet country road about 60 miles from Saint Flour on stage 13 a banner was draped across the road: FOR A CLEAN TOUR YOU MUST HAVE BASSONS. Bassons was back home by then, beaten into submission. Ten days would pass before Armstrong arrived on the Champs Elysees clad for the first time in the maillot jaune, but I knew he was doping. No clean rider would have turned on Bassons as he had. The champion wasn't what he seemed.
Through the 13 years that have passed since then, Armstrong has been a central part of my journalistic life. How to prove what you knew to be true, that was the challenge. He called me "the worst journalist in the world," referred to me as "the little f------g troll," tried to pressure Betsy Andreu (a source for
It's been a good journey because the truth was never hard to find in this story. You only had to be interested in looking. What made it interesting was how many people Armstrong had watching his back. At that press conference in Liege he thanked the journalists who had reached out to him and told him he had nothing to worry about. In the highest places he had friends. But he couldn't stop Andreu, O'Reilly, Swart and others from telling stories that contradicted his, and you had to spend only 10 minutes in their company to know they weren't lying. They couldn't be bullied into silence.
I think now of how unreal it all was: "The Blue Train" zooming up the early slopes of the Col de Telegraf in 99, Armstrong on the climb to Hautacam in 2000. "He came upon us like an aeroplane," said Richard Virenque, a rival who also doped. In 2001, Rudy Pevenage, a rival team manager, said: "When others gasp for air with open mouths, he rides with a closed mouth, as if there is nothing to it."
That was how it was in the era of Armstrong, unreal. Writing in the French newspaper,
And at Liege through that weekend in 2004 we were still in the grip of Robocop's domination. Belinfante could see I was a black sheep of the cycling family. Pitying me, he asked if I'd like to do an interview for his television station. He sent a link to the piece last week, recalling a time and a Tour de France that wasn't much fun as it happened.
The last question he asked was if I thought Armstrong would win the 2004 Tour. "This is a strange answer," I said, "but I mean it: I don't care. I don't care who wins the race, what I care about is clean sport. We must come back to the Tour believing in it more than we do now. This is a bad time for cycling but I hope the times will get better and they will get better if we're honest."
Pro cycling isn't a perfect place now, far from it. But it's better than it was.