no rx serif;”>Anthony Strogen considers the future of cycling in the wake of Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal

For the cycling world, the last fortnight has felt like a surreal and purging apocalypse – a storm that has lingered on the horizon for years. With the release of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s dossier of evidence against seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, the last remaining shred of credibility of cycling’s biggest ever star was eroded; the final exclamation point of a decade long saga. The damning 202 page booklet contained sordid details and almost unbelievable testimony from a plethora of former associates and friends of the Texan.

Although the latest revelations have been the most explosive developments in any doping story involving Armstrong, it is by no means the first time that his name has been at the centre of allegations regarding performance enhancing drugs. After his incredible recovery from cancer, Armstrong returned to cycling and claimed a stunning maiden victory in the 1999 edition of the Tour de France.

 However, it subsequently emerged that he tested positive for a banned stimulant during the race. He received a back-dated prescription and the incident was largely swept under the carpet. This was a year removed from the Festina team doping scandal that almost ruined cycling, and the theory goes that the authorities let this episode slide for the good of the sport.

 Subsequent rumours over further positive tests in 2002 and his relationship with disgraced Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, a man who was singled out in the infamous Operation Puerto as a veritable doping genius, were treated in a similar manner. Armstrong’s persona grew to an unimaginable level and this combined with his continued financial support of UCI, the cycling governing body, meant he was almost untouchable – too big to fail.

Towards the end of his career and in the subsequent years, Armstrong was dogged by allegations originating from disgraced former teammates. However, these allegations were widely passed-off by the cycling world, the riders involved pigeon-holed as jealous cheats who wanted attention and a chance to hit back at the sport that had ostracized them. The accusations did not go unnoticed though, and USADA began to compile testimony which could bring down Armstrong.

 In August, Armstrong decided not to contest the case brought by USADA, citing tiredness with what he labelled “a witch-hunt” and felt he no longer needed to prove his innocence. This was the beginning of the end. While there still remained a modicum of doubt over his guilt, this was destroyed by the release of the evidence by USADA, with page after page of statements, all of which said that he was the mastermind of an intricate and clinical doping circle.

 Riders once considered to be totally loyal to Armstrong gave accounts: Levi Leipheimer; Mick Barry; Christian VandeVelde; and even his long-time trusted general George Hincapie. Dubliner Emma O’Reilly, a masseuse who worked with Armstrong during his career, supplied an affidavit in which she confessed to hand delivering ‘pills’ to the cycling hero which she believed to be performance enhancing.

 The game is well and truly up for Lance. Any reasonable person couldn’t for one second believe him in his cries of innocence; the evidence is too overpowering to ignore. The most pertinent question arising out of the saga is where to now for cycling as a sport? It sets the sport back to the dark days of the nineties and survival now becomes a real issue.

 Not only is the integrity of the sport among the public damaged once again, but there has also been negative financial responses. The past week has seen numerous sponsors looking to distance themselves from the sport. The UCI must shoulder a lot of criticism too, as must Pat McQuaid and Heim Verbruggen, leaders who zealously defended Armstrong with little in the way of investigation. The revelations can be seen as a new beginning for cycling, as witnessed in the reactions of current members of the peloton to the Armstrong revelations, with younger riders far more critical of the once-legend. Whether or not this fresh attitude to doping can save a once proud and noble sport remains to be seen.