Is Lance Armstrong the Drug Cheat extraordinaire, the multi-millionaire that has bullied multiple international cycling and sporting organisations, befuddled the media with highly paid PR consultants, held the silence of numerous cycling (drug cheat) compatriots for years and cheated hundreds of drug testing controls (both blood and urine) in and out of competition. Or is he just a super athlete, a Don Bradman, a Jim Thorpe, a Nadia Comaneci, a Muhammad Ali, a Martina Navratilova, a Tiger Woods, or any other of the world’s great athletes.
Armstrong (b. Sep. 1971) started his athletic career at the age of 12 as a swimmer and finished 4th in the Texas 1500m state final. At 13 he was winning triathlons and by 87-88 was the top ranked 19 and under triathlete in the US – he was not yet 17!! In fact he became a triathlon pro at 16, and was US national sprint champion at 18 and 19yo. He won the U.S. Amateur Cycling Championship in 1991 as a 20yo, and then represented the U.S. in the 1992 Summer Olympics coming 14th – he was still a 20yo..
Lets just pause here. Quite obviously, at 20, Lance was not a multimillionaire capable of manipulating drug tests, media commentary or international sporting organisations. He was simply an athlete who had already excelled at swimming, triathlon and cycling. He had already demonstrated his endurance capability by his 12yo 1500m swimming performance, he had demonstrated his all-round athletic capability at the age of 17 by beating others 2 years his senior in US national triathlon championships and at 20 and 21 years he was beating some of the worlds best in cycling.
In 1993, as a 21 yo, Lance Armstrong won 10 one-day international cycling events and stage races. He stunned the cycling world when he became one of the youngest riders to ever win the UCI Road World Championship, held in pouring rain in Norway that year – remember he is a 21 yo. Prior to his World’s win, he took his first stage win at the Tour de France, in the stage from Châlons-sur-Marne to Verdun. He was in 97th place overall when he abandoned the 1993 race in the Alps after the 12th stage. He was still a 21 yo.
On October 2, 1996, then aged 25, Armstrong was diagnosed as having developed stage three testicular cancer (Embryonal carcinoma. The cancer spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. On that first visit to a urologist in Austin, Texas, for his cancer symptoms he was coughing up blood and had a large, painful testicular tumor. Immediate surgery and chemotherapy were required to save his life. Armstrong had an orchiectomy to remove his diseased testicle. After his surgery, his doctor stated that he had less than a 40% survival chance.
Ed Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin has talked about Lance’s athletic capacity, in particular his muscular efficiency and in particular his lactic acid efficiency. In addition to a high VO2 max, Coyle’s components for athletic excellence include low lactic acid levels, and Armstrong has the lowest levels Coyle has ever seen. As we all know, or should know, when people reach exhaustion, their muscles build up acid, lactic acid, which causes the muscles to stop contracting and start to ‘burn’ and that is about the time the mind starts telling the body to slow down or stop. Lance’s muscles produce about half as much lactic acid as the average person’s muscles do when they get fatigued – he gets told by his mind LESS OFTEN to slow down or stop. This allows him to recover much faster than other people, including other professional cyclists. “You can see when Armstrong races, he can attack better than anybody,” Coyle said. “He makes a break, then backs off and then breaks again, wearing others down until they can’t recover, and then he just takes off.” Why? Well simply because Lance’s ability to absorb higher levels of lactic acid than his competitors allows him to continue surging with half the debilitating effect it has on his competitors.
And now for the real biggie for Lance and this is easily demonstrated by his pedalling rate when climbing prior 1996 versus post 1996. He has improved his muscular efficiency. There may be two ways to improve efficiency through training. One way is to train for higher maximum capacity—in other words, to increase the upper limit of performance (as a sprinter might). Another way is to train for greater submaximal capacity—to expend less energy for sustained performance (as a marathoner might). Lance aimed for and achieved both versions, his muscular efficiency was at least 8% higher than any other TdF cyclist. And at that elite level 8% is more than a winning margin.
Coyle suspects that Armstrong was able to convert fast-twitch muscle fibers to slow-twitch muscle fibers – which in many ways harks back to his 12yo 1500m swimming success. While fast-twitch fibers are good for sprinting, for example, slow-twitch muscle fibers are twice as efficient and are good for endurance sports. With more slow-twitch muscle fibers, and increased muscle power, Armstrong is able to move his legs faster for longer. As a result, his pedaling rate has gone up from 85 revolutions per minute to 105. Now if you think about that for a minute, Lance has improved his pedalling ‘efficiency’ by at least 20%. I say efficiency with some reservation as from a technical perspective a simple comparison of cycling revolutions per minute is fraught with all sorts of questions.
I guess the question now is does EPO, blood doping, etc. change muscular efficiency and lactic acid tolerance. Well let’s get down to basics, yes they can, but all are easily identified with controlled testing. Additionally, each would need to be done prior an event to be effective and across a 21 day event would need to be used regularly over the course of the event, particularly in the latter stages, in which case each would be easily identified by controlled testing. So simply, to effectively drug cheat over the 21 days of the TdF, would be almost impossible.
So where do I sit on this issue of Lance Armstrong and performance enhancing drugs. Well I would like to believe that Lance is another of the world’s great athletes. Why? Well if we are to believe those that say be bullied and paid for protection, then why could not others do the same and why could Lance perform so exceptionally as a junior athlete when it is very unlikely he had the wherewithal to effectively dope cheat. All Lance’s others competitors in the professional cycling world, that have labelled him as a dope cheat have been caught for one thing – doping!! Tyler Hamilton is the classic example. He rides with Lance in US Postal, sees what Lance can do – scary stuff, at least to Tyler. Tyler isn’t caught doping on US Postal but after he leaves?? So what? The story is Tyler is caught because he left US Postal?? No, Tyler is caught because he doped after he leaves, because he knows he needs to compete with the Lance Armstrong he has seen at US Postal. Tyler’s stories of doping are based on his doping after US Postal, not when part of that team. Why is it that the dope cheats never actually win, except on rare occasions, like Bjarne Riis, the TdF 1996 winner.
I do believe Lance is an exceptional athlete. Why? Well its sort of simple. Here we have an athlete who from his earliest years has demonstrated exceptional athletic ability, in fact from 12 to 20 years of age, when his wins were US state and national. A year later he is a world champion and winner of 10 international cycling events. That is not luck, nor drug cheating, its athletic ability of an exceptional nature. Lance is not quite a Don Bradman (Australian Cricketer), but he is damn close. And even if my belief is wrong and he did cheat. And he cheated in an environment where we believe that ALL cheated, the thing is that Lance still won. And if you think about it, all the drugs do is enhance the performance you already have. They don’t make the average Joe an Olympian. They give you maybe 5-8% better performance – at TdF level – so even that doesn’t change Lance Armstrong’s performance.