Nine years ago, Jen and I went to a bar on the Haymarket, had a few drinks, met some fellow cycling fans and watched Lance Armstrong fall off his bike. The famous tumble on the road to Luz Ardiden caused by a spectator’s musette caught in Armstrong’s handlebars had taken place earlier that day, although we hadn’t turned up with the intention of watching the yellow jersey and Iban Mayo have a whoops-a-daisy. We didn’t even know it had happened – both of us had been at work, Twitter hadn’t been invented yet, and mainstream news outlets didn’t give a toss. The reason why we went to watch a big screen at a West End watering hole had something to do with engaging in what was a unique experience for us in 2003: being in a room with other bicyclepeople who liked watching bicycle races. Because we knew very few people who did.
The shindig at the Sports Café was organised by Phil Cavell and Julian Wall of Bikepark in Covent Garden, which later evolved into Cyclefit, the business which is more or less responsible for bicycle fitting becoming a standard part of the bike-buying process. Paul Callinan, who had chatted to me at the Hillingdon circuit when I tentatively started racing, was among those attending. A few months later, after Bikepark stepped down from organising its two popular weekend group rides, Paul and a couple of friends would seize the momentum by reviving a name that Jules had coined in the mid-nineties for the early incarnation of his shop’s team – and so it came to pass that the all-new London Dynamo, which started life as a discussion in Paul’s kitchen, became a phenomenon that swiftly (and inadvertently) grew to be bigger than every long-established club in the south-east. Also propping up the bar on that July evening was Nick Peacock (he later sold me his Merlin frame after he became Dynamo’s second club captain, although I think we didn’t get round to speaking to each other that night) and triathlete-turned-demon-time-trialist Martin Williamson, one of many kindly ’Mos who gave me a lift to races during my first season as a non-car-owning fourth cat. But that night we were all more or less strangers to each other.
So there we all were, the many and varied chums of Bikepark, watching Armstrong fall off, get back up, wallop his groin into his top tube as he came out of his pedal and then solo away to victory. Chapeau! Except no one exclaimed “Chapeau!” or “Hat!” because it hadn’t occurred to any of us yet that pretension or irony had a place in cycling. The mood was more of muted amazement rather than the whooping, roaring enthusiasm you now get at Look Mum No Hands! during an eventful moment of a big race. This was fascination before it evolved into fandom. And we all know the aspects of Armstrong’s story that fascinated us: beating cancer and then beating everyone, a singular character with a single ball. Personally, I loved watching his movements on the bike, swaggering when he was out of the saddle, and the robotic, propulsive, high cadence when he was seated – a contained, measured ferocity. Yet most of the conversations that night weren’t about Armstrong or pro cycling, but about our own, more modest, adventures: where we had been riding, where we planned to ride or race, each of us glimpsing the others’ characters and experience (invariably much greater than mine) by learning about their cycling history.
And when Dynamo began, I still didn’t know who my riding chums actually were. They each had a name, a bike and stories about their riding, all of which helped to identify the less vocal members who dwelt beneath the ubiquitous mask of helmet and sunglasses, but the life they lived beyond our weekly 50-mile training loop across the Surrey Hills was a distant vista. Before setting out one Sunday, Paul muttered wearily to me about having practically no sleep because he had been on call all night. Ah-ha, I thought – a doctor! It took a while for me to discover that he actually worked in IT for a bank, and being on call involved piping zeroes and ones to the Far East in the early hours of the morning. But at least I knew his name – I can still recall the delight at discovering “Nicholas Peacock” on the finishing list of Dynamo’s inaugural Beginners’ Series race, because the surname was part of a long-standing in-joke between myself and Jen. (And as it’s a slightly bizarre gag which isn’t aimed at Nick, it’s probably best Jen and I keep it to ourselves…)
Dynamos were Dynanonymous to each other – but the one name everyone knew, whether they had a rich history of riding or had just started out, was Lance Armstrong. There was a unique combination of factors that led to Dynamo confounding a British Cycling official’s prediction to Paul that we would probably attract a total of around two dozen members: as the only club to have a regular ride in the cycling mecca of Richmond Park, we were conspicuous; we welcomed all-comers; we were, and still are, a friendly bunch; and, in a major departure from the aesthetic of the time, our jersey didn’t comprise a clumsy mélange of fonts and colours or resemble something an estate agent might hammer onto a stick. But I think the main reason why Dynamo grew so rapidly was due to a pool of new, unaffiliated riders who had recently taken up the sport after an English-speaking athlete had caught their attention by repeatedly winning the Tour de France. Armstrong was the key that unlocked the entrance to a previously clandestine world – and if he could get on a bike after what he had been through, then why couldn’t you?
So the blue train of the US Postal Service team unwittingly begat a blue, black and orange locomotive – although it is there that the parallels, like two diesels thundering towards each other, must screech to a halt. I can dimly remember a line in Procycling magazine claiming that Armstrong-related catchphrases such as “No chain! No chain!” and “How d’you like them apples?” had become de rigueur on club runs – and oh, how I cringed, because from my experience of Dynamo, amateur cycling didn’t take hero worship or wish fulfillment to those extremes. Talking about Armstrong, or pro cycling generally, was an excuse for men (sadly, there were only men in those days) to indulge in the necessary human act of gossiping, sharing our awe about feats that had amazed us, trading information, often as a means of trying to work out who would do what the next time around. Would Jan Ullrich ever win another Tour? Could winning the Dauphiné prove to be a poison chalice for the Texan? And, inevitably, along came the only question that never went away: do you think Lance is clean?
Fast forward a few years, and half a dozen ’Mos are sitting on one of the benches outside the Roehampton Gate café in Richmond Park after the Parkride. I’m one of them; two others are also long-standing members (although they’re not the Dynamos I mentioned earlier). Armstrong has decided not to contest the US Anti-Doping Agency’s case against him, and the consensus around the table is that, as a result, no one will truly know if the man stripped of his seven Tour wins ever cheated. Most think the case should never have been pursued because it happened a long time ago, everyone was at it, and USADA doesn’t have any authority in the matter anyway. One Dynamo calls USADA boss Travis Tygart “Travis Dickface”.
Well, Mr Dickface does have the authority, and USADA’s 200-page report released yesterday, featuring damning testimony from every American Tour rider who rode for USPS and Discovery, may convince the doubting Dynamos I listened to that morning. Perhaps I should have pointed them in the direction of the truth: there were some professional cyclists who asked Tygart to sit in as an observer when they were questioned as part of the original federal investigation into USPS – so USADA had to pursue the allegations, because this is what they are funded to do. Anything less would have been corrupt.
But I didn’t say anything. And I’m pleased I kept my trap shut, because the opinions I heard that morning were not those of diehard fans desperately clutching at straws; they were an expression of disconnection from a complicated story that has been twisting and turning for years. True, a few of my cycling chums have followed the slow, inexorable exposure of the EPO years, but they tend to be the minority whose interest in pro cycling began prior to Armstrong’s appearance. I get the impression that most of the cyclists I know have simply not followed the diffuse trail of whispers and nose-tapping which has been played out mostly on fan sites and forums. They’re not angry or disappointed about Armstrong’s fall from grace, because they’ve not been exposed to much of those areas of the internet where anger and disappointment reigns. Threads on our own forum these days about tyre choice, groupsets or any other quotidian aspect of bike riding dwarf those about Armstrong, while the full-throated, joyful cheers we’ve given to Wiggins, Cavendish and other home-grown heroes are more passionate, more engaged than the interest anyone had showed for the Texan. One reason for that enthusiasm is that the likes of Wiggo and Cav are British, and their Olympic exploits were performed on roads we’ve all ridden. Another reason, of course, is that the performances have become more believable.
So let’s remember the Tour de France 1999-2005 in this way: lots of people took loads of drugs and did some amazing things, and we all had a good time witnessing them. But like the big screen looming over our conversations that night at the Sports Café, Armstrong’s adventures have proved to be just the background noise to our own experiences on bicycles. It’s not about the bike rider who brought us together – if, indeed, it ever was.