Team Sky is a well-oiled machine. The team has been built on a scientific, methodical, ‘marginal gains’ philosophy with a strict anti-doping policy whose greatest achievement is Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France triumph.
And that controlled approach extends to the British-based team’s PR message – but the revelations against Lance Armstrong have seen that message skid off track.
“He is still a legend of the sport,” Team Sky rider Alex Dowsett told the BBC. “A guy who had cancer came back and won the Tour de France. I think it’s not really important and I really don’t think it matters.”
Doping is an emotive issue and Dowsett would have grown up as a young rider with Armstrong as an idol – a legend – at a time when drugs were rife in the sport and there were, as it turns out, few true heroes. In fact, USADA’s report goes as far to say that 20 of the 21 podium finishers during Armstrong’s reign have now been directly linked to doping.
And Essex-born Dowsett also has reason to be thankful for Armstrong’s continued involvement in the sport having ridden for the Trek-Livestrong development team before signing for Team Sky in 2011.
But it matters. Armstrong built his reputation as a clean rider – a cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner – but has now been exposed as a vindictive bully who lied to millions of loyal fans, who have, like Armstrong, consistently batted away allegations surrounding the former US Postal rider, all while he made millions of dollars in the process.
Armstrong may cut an isolated figure after the revelations but he isn’t without support in the peloton. Dowsett’s fellow Brit, Steve Cummings, has highlighted Armstrong’s charity work, while 2008 Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez has pointed to the fact that the 41-year-old has never failed a doping control.
But USADA’s revelations against Armstrong are thorough, conclusive and utterly damning.
“All I know is that we all are racing clean. So, it was a different sport back then,” added Dowsett, who is currently riding the Tour of Beijing.
A different sport, maybe, given the prevalence of doping in Armstrong’s era, but it matters that, even now, the truth about what USADA are calling the “most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen” is laid bare.
Doping remains and it’s somewhat ironic that, on the same day that USADA published its evidence, Ag2r La Mondiale rider Steve Houanard was provisionally suspended and removed from the Tour of Beijing after failing an out-of-competition test for EPO on September 21.
The sport is in a better place, though, thanks to pioneers like Dave Brailsford and young riders who like Dowsett who herald a new age for cycling – and to solely vilify Armstrong from what was a dark era for cycling is wrong.
But as the ringleader – the conductor of the orchestra – it matters that Armstrong has been exposed.
UPDATE: Alex Dowsett later clarified his comments on BBC Radio 5 Live: “When I first referred to Lance as a legend a couple of months ago it was referring mainly to what he has done for cancer.
“The Livestrong charity is something I rode for when I was with the Trek Livestrong team and I saw all the good that it did.
“It has really raised the profile of cancer awareness and raised huge amounts of funds. I rode for his development team and I did meet him a few times but I don’t think I’d want to [shake his hand].
“It’s what [the revelations] could do in terms of tarnishing the sport. It could put us all out of not just our jobs but doing what we love.”