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Jacob Tipper journal: about Lance

Rider journals 2020: Jacob Tipper #06

Jacob Tipper and five other cyclists are keeping rider journals for The British Continental this season. The 28-year-old Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling rider is a three-time UCI road race winner. This is Jacob’s sixth journal entry.

All views expressed are Jacob’s own.

Some kids dream of being Batman, we dreamt of being Lance

BBC iPlayer recently dropped the latest Lance Armstrong documentary. The genre was a staple favourite in the KGF household. All aged 28, we see Lance as our hero, so we have watched all of his documentaries. He took seven Tour de France victories when we were too young – and not quite smart enough – to have thought critically about his performances; none of us read L’equipe at the time.

Disclaimer: this is just a bit of a review and opinion piece. I haven’t fact-checked anything, and my opinion is biased. I will be open with you about this though, so you can appreciate the context within which I’m writing.

If you grow up as an endurance athlete, you are probably a little bit odd. Everyone else is playing football or rugby, and you’re spending your Friday night not down Wall Heath park drinking 1:1 ratios of vodka to coke, but racing Halesowen Friday Night track league (although there were always the nights it was rained off).

If you named your sporting hero as Haile Gebrselassie … you were normally considered a bit weird. But then there was Lance: the one guy who transcended the sport

So, if you named your sporting hero as Haile Gebrselassie, or anyone outside the England football team starting 11 you were normally considered a bit weird. But then there was Lance: the one guy who transcended the sport, the guy who meant your niche yellow band was suddenly cool. Suddenly, as Lance got more and more fame, that weird sport you did wasn’t quite so weird.

While some kids dream of being Batman, we dreamt of being Lance. And unfortunately, no matter what he’s done or what he may continue to do going forward, you still can’t remove the impact he had at such a formative age.

If you think it’s wrong that I’m too proud to discard all affection for a childhood hero, the hero I had before I discovered cycling was Lee Hughes, West Brom’s number one goal scorer. That was until he killed four people in a drink driving incident then fled the scene. So in that context, there were people a lot worse than Lance you could have grown up respecting.

The synopsis of the latest Armstrong documentary is similar to most. First, there’s the story of Lance as a triathlete and a bit of a nob head from an early age. Nothing new here, although it was good to see the extra depth of just how good a triathlete he really was, aged 15, competing against the likes of Mark Allen (multiple Ironman champ). And while I understand triathlon was a bit niche back then, check out Allen’s Ironman times, he was a world-class athlete. 

Tour de France, 2000. Yellow jersey holder and Tour Leader Lance Armstrong leads Marco Pantani up the final hill of Mont Ventoux. Photo:Simon Wilkinson/SWPIX.

Lance admits to doping when he was 21. In that year he won his first stage of the Tour, as well as the World Road Championships. Consider the people he was beating were also doping, likely on better stuff than a 21-year-old first-year pro could get hold of. So you can’t say he wasn’t always destined for greatness.

We then get our first token appearance from Betsy Andreu. While it’s nice knowing there are some people out there with worst accents than my own, it would be lovely to watch one programme about Lance without her. I can only assume appearing in Lance documentaries is her full-time job the amount she seems to pop up.

Anyway, on to a slightly different dimension to what we normally see, the start of the EPO era, Gewiss ripping it up, and it shows Lance getting pumped in a two-up kick by Serhiy Ushakov (failing to mention Lance did still win a few days later). It shows him looking pissed. World champ at 21, now 23, and his results aren’t getting any better. He knows everyone around him is lit. And interestingly his teammates point out how frustrated he was at the time, furious with the EPO cheats. But, obviously, he came around, introduced to Michele Ferrari by the king of cycling himself, Mr Eddy Merckx.

Just putting it out there, when he gets out of prison, how good would a tell-all documentary on Michele Ferrari be. Giving us all the ins and outs on how lit Cipo was, what Menchov was munching on, and what a motor pacing session with Fuglsang is like. It would be amazing. Hopefully Louis Theroux is reading this and getting inspiration. If worse came to worse I would let Stacey Dooley do it.

Tour de France, 2001, Stage 10. Aix Les Bains – L’Alpe d’ Huez. Lance Armstrong during his assault on L’Alpe d’ Huez. Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

Then we go straight to the cancer part. It is still pretty emotive and an uncomfortable watch for anyone, but again one of the added dimensions of this documentary was the impact you saw it have on the people of Texas supporting Lance and the increased awareness it caused. This was before Lance was the brand we know him as now. You still see the tangible impact he had on the cancer community.

We get to see Lance being a bit useless at Cofidis. Then a nice little taste of the Festina scandal. I didn’t realise how many riders just packed up mid-Tour and went home, like that wasn’t in any way suspicious.

Then on to the seven years we all know and love, just showing Lance to be an absolute rock star, dating celebrities, making the most notable charitable impact of anyone I can think of in my lifetime (bar maybe Live Aid). But he got millions of people wearing his Livestrong wristband. It’s at this point it’s really hard to think you would change anything. Retire from cycling clean, aged 24, a nobody (in the grand scheme of things), or temporarily being the biggest sports star on the planet. While his regular ‘I have no regrets’ attitude comes across as arrogant, and not in the least bit remorseful, you can see why he would come to that conclusion.

What would I stand to benefit from doping? I would swap a coaching income for a minimum wage Pro Conti contract, then spend a few years sat at the back, dodging crashes

By no means am I saying everyone should dope. I mean, what would I stand to benefit from doping? I would swap a coaching income for a minimum wage Pro Conti contract, then spend a few years sat at the back, dodging crashes. Lance on the other hand already had the ingredients to be the best. If cycling had happened to be clean, would he still have been the cancer-conquering champion?

Then it takes a bit of a turn. 

The story goes on to suggest Lance’s influence got Hamilton banned shortly after he put him away in a TT up Ventoux. There are numerous little snippets of Pat McQuaid trying his hardest not to admit he was corrupt as f**k, and seemingly trying to remember what bits of information are now out there, and which bits he still needs to keep secret.

Lance complains about Carlos Sastre winning the Tour and how he thought that showed he could easily come back and win. Then there’s the standard ‘I hate Floyd’ part, which is quite comical in how blunt it is. And we get the general downfall of Lance.

Most of it is fairly straightforward but there are just a few little talking points I think brought up.

Lance: Good or Bad? I think you get a fairly honest reflection of a flawed individual. He’s by no means unintelligent, he understands all these flaws. But in a kind of psychopathic manner just embraces them fairly honestly. I think if the question were ever put to him, ‘Lance, are you a nice person?’, I think he would jump to all his charity work, all the good things he’s done. But if you forced him to get down to the crux of it, I think he would answer no. And how many people at the top of any sport are? Michael Jordan didn’t actually come across all that well in his documentary. And that’s just sport. In business or politics, there is always an extreme dog-eat-dog attitude needed, one that isn’t going to win you many popularity contests.

However what the documentary did remind you of, was the power of Livestrong at its peak, what Lance did do for cancer sufferers. Be it for his own ego, it almost doesn’t matter, the awareness and support he created for a good cause was staggering for a cyclist.

Then, selfishly, the sport of cycling that anyone reading this now likely loves and enjoys would not have been the same without Lance. Trek bikes must be one of the biggest benefactors of his success financially, but the whole sport grew during his time thanks to his pull. The UCI played along with Lance’s game for good reason; doping scandals aren’t good for a sports reputation. Just look at tennis, they rarely have doping scandals… because they don’t go looking for them.

Tour de France, 2001, Stage 10. Aix Les Bains – L’Alpe d’ Huez. Jan Ullrich of the German Telekom team during his climb on L’Alpe d’ Huez. Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

This brings us to the hypocrisy in the sport. A rather touching part was Lance’s admiration for Jan Ullrich, to the point where Armstrong breaks down discussing Jan’s mental health. The sport has thrown plenty of riders to the wolves. Some may say Lance deserved the negative press. Ullrich was driven to mental health issues, while Zabel is revered. Pantani took his own life while how many other Italian dopers live on as stars. My favourite example is from Floyd Landis himself: ‘how is Lance the bad guy but Jonathan Vaughters the patron of clean cycling?’ They were on the same team taking the same drugs, and it’s hardly like Vaughters started off well signing how many ex dopers or current dopers to his teams? Using David Millar as the face of clean cycling … give me a break.

You cannot be pro-Eddy and anti-Lance when it transpires Eddy was the one who set Lance up with Ferrari

And for anyone defending Eddy Merckx. Well, things were different back when he was done for doping three times! If you want to be against all dopers, that’s fine. But you cannot be pro-Eddy and anti-Lance when it transpires Eddy was the one who set Lance up with Ferrari (I assumed this isn’t actually new info, I had just missed this revelation before).

So, for all the bullying, the cheating, the corruption, I don’t think you can by any means call Lance a knight in shining armour. But, for all he has done for the sport, and even more importantly for cancer sufferers, I also have no regrets in supporting him. I quite frankly think the world is a better place for him. Maybe it wasn’t for Betsy Andreu. But like I started off with, maybe look at the bigger picture. Being a bully but earning millions for charity vs OJ Simpson, Lee Hughes, and Adam Johnson. Maybe Batman’s a bit of a nob too but let’s try and remember our superheroes for the good they do.

Find out more

Jacob Tipper journal: why the UCI and Groenewegen were both at fault for the horror crash in Poland

Jacob Tipper journal: this one time, in China…

Jacob Tipper journal: the cyclist’s A to Z to surviving coronavirus

Jacob Tipper journal: inside the Saudi Tour

Jacob Tipper journal #01: the domestic rider’s guide to winter training camp

Rider journals 2020: introducing Jacob Tipper

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