Over the next several weeks, an agency that investigates doping in the US, the eponymous US Anti-Doping Agency, will send its findings on disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong to the International Union of Cyclists. The report will clear up some questions. It has already answered one, before anyone's read the report: why, after more than a decade of cat and mouse, did Lance Armstrong stop fighting accusations of cheating in bike races now?
Many of Armstrong's former associates have spent the past month saying that the big surprise in Armstrong's case, more than his guilt, is that he gave up. "I was initially surprised," former teammate Tyler Hamilton told the Guardian today, "because Lance never backs down from a fight. It's the first time we've seen that happen." Absent any new scientific, legal or medical data, what broke the unbreakable Armstrong?
Answer: the anti-doping agency's incipient report. Hamilton, who claims Armstrong shared the illegal supplement EPO with him on numerous occasions, claims the report will be devastating to Armstrong. In today's must-read Guardian interview, he claims that witnesses are lining up against Armstrong ("You can say I am lying, but you can't say all ten of us are lying"). Yet, he still hasn't offered anything resembling proof, in the scientific or statistical sense. It's a legal case.
French sports broadsheet L'Equipe offered more details, suggesting the accusations forthcoming from the American investigation are "30 times" worse than the current claims against the former racer. L'Equipe's version is useful because most of the accusations focus on a French event—the Tour de France—and the International Cycling Union, which will receive the report and ultimately decide Armstrong's fate, is based in neighboring Switzerland.* If anyone can get a sense of what the UIC is considering, L'Equipe is perhaps the best-positioned.
What's unusual about the Armstrong debacle is the lack of any commentary on his actual performances. In what is essentially a tale of he-said, she-said, there's very little statistical analysis of how fast the guy went.
Partly, this has to do with the nature of cycling, the sport: there aren't really standards for "fast." There aren't world records to break like in swimming or track and field. When Marion Jones ran, it was fishy, because she'd pushed records waaaaaay further than seemed likely. She'd doped. When Armstrong rode, he just rode faster than the next guy.
But for one data point, which curiously doesn't surface more in the Armstrong story: the mountain climbs of the Tour de France. The key event in Armstrong's case, the Tour de France draws much of its drama from its century-plus of history. The route, which changes annually, usually hits a few storied climbs up roads in the French Pyrenees and Alps.
Among the most historic of the Tour de France's challenging climbs is the infamous snaking ascent up a virtual cliff to a ski station in the French alps, called the Alpe d'Huez. And here's the thing: we have times for climbing the Alpe d'Huez going back to 1952. We have closely-clustered, nearly annual data going back to the 1970s, when leaps of technology toward better bikes, smarter nutrition and modern training start to level out a bit. (Comparing 1952 to 1998 tells you more about the bikes than the riders—specifically that a bike made out of steel weighs more than one made of space-age carbon fiberglass. We already knew that.)
The fastest rider to ever climb the Alpe d'Huez was an Italian named Marco Pantani. Pantani, a sylph of a man, famous for his fearless sprints up the steepest of mountains, in fact holds three of the five fastest times up the eight-mile course through 21 switchbacks, each steeper than the last.
In 1997 Pantani set the top time of 37 minutes, 35 seconds. In 1994 he'd done it a shade more slowly, thirty-eight flat, and in 1995, just a few seconds slower, thirty-eight-o-five. And then, in 2004, after a lifetime of doping allegations, disqualifications for suspicious tests, and races in which he matched the then-invincible Armstrong pedal-stroke for pedal-stroke, Pantani died of a cocaine overdose.
The other two of the fastest times ever on the Alpe d'Huez? Lance Armstrong, who was just one second off the late Pantani's record in 2004, and with him around 38 minutes in 2001. After that on the list of fastest rides up the mountain are several riders later disqualified for doping.
To get to anyone clean on the list, you have to drop way down to the man considered the greatest rider ever, before Armstrong: the '80s-era Basque-Spaniard champion Miguel Indurain. Indurian is considered beyond reproach for doping and is comfortably slow when compared to the riders who came less than a decade after, in the heart of the doping—and Armstrong's—era. Indurain, whose heart is said to have beaten 30 times a minute at rest, and who spent nearly a decade battling depression after losing the Tour to a man who later admitted doping, climbed the Alpe d'Huez in a comparatively pokey thirty-nine and a half minutes. Circumstantially, that may be the fastest time for a person who isn't juiced. Officially, he's one of the slower winners on the mountain.
What does this tell us? Nothing, legally speaking. In terms of Armstrong's defense, looking at the data from the Alpe d'Huez tells us that the report from the US to the French agency is confirming what cycling's few statistical references suggest is probably true. In terms of the sport of cycling—of what we tell kids, perhaps is one standard—it also tells us something more, but to know that you have to look even further down the list of times on the challenging Alpe d'Huez.
Among the slowest victories on the mountain turns out to be an epic 1986 battle between American Greg Lemond and his fierce rival, the French champion Bernard Hinault. Should Armstrong be stripped of his seven Tour victories, Lemond will retroactively become not just the first American to win the prestigious race, but again, the only one. That year, Lemond and Hinault did not speed up the hill. Close in the standings for the overall title, they were wary of tiring in the days to come, and played mental games with each other all the way up the mountain—now attacking, next feigning retreat, then accelerating again. They stayed ahead of the field, but they did not simply try to outrun the other, knowing too well that tiring on the Alpe could provoke costly exhaustion in the next day's stage. Today, the race up the Alpe between Lemond and Hinault is a classic.
This is what the report seems likely to say: that what Armstrong did was change his sport so that the race, for a while, seemed like it always went to the swift. Cycling's history—Indurain, Lemond, Hinault—suggests otherwise. Breakaway riders don't usually stay in front for long, and if the race is long enough, they almost always get caught. You tire more riding alone. Over a long course, the breakaways inevitably get caught.
* An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the International Cycling Union.