The confession by Lance Armstrong that he used performance-enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles gives professional cycling “its best chance to reform itself,” says the former owner of Team High Road, the San Luis Obispo-based squad that once competed at the sport’s highest level.
Bob Stapleton owned and ran Team High Road from 2008 through 2011, fielding both men’s and women’s teams. The High Road men’s squad regularly competed at events like the Tour de France, cycling’s premier race.
Armstrong’s success in the monthlong Tour de France made him the star of professional cycling. But he admitted to Oprah Winfrey this week in an interview to be televised on her OWN channel Thursday and Friday that he used drugs to reach the pinnacle of his sport.
That admission, Stapleton said Tuesday, could push cycling’s leadership to clean out the corruption that has allowed performance-enhancing substances, such as drug use and blood doping, to occur.
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“I hope Lance really tells all,” said Stapleton, who lives in San Luis Obispo. “It is a terribly corrupt sport — there is no question. As distressing as the Lance saga is, this could bring about positive change for the sport.”
Stapleton said the use of performance-enhancing drugs by Armstrong and his teammates in the years he won the Tour de France had to be known by the officials overseeing cycling, the International Cycling Union.
That organization is chartered by the International Olympic Committee, said Stapleton, so the IOC will need to clean house, even by going so far as to decertify the union if necessary.
Stapleton also hopes cycling adopts a lifetime ban for any rider caught cheating.
Stapleton’s own High Road squad grew out of drug scandals that enveloped a team owned by T-Mobile, the German telecommunications company. High Road was a pioneer using stringent drug-testing methods of its riders that are now followed by more squads.
Stapleton said there were several times during the Tour de France that the High Road team would stay at the same hotel as Armstrong’s group. Stapleton recalled having conversations “around the dinner table” with the Texan. While the topic of drug testing did not come up, Stapleton said Armstrong impressed him as “one of a kind as far as motivation, focus, drive and determination.
“It is not surprising that he was determined to be the best at everything, including doping.”
Stapleton said Armstrong’s fall has no equal in sports. “This has to be the biggest collapse of an iconic sports figure in history,” he said, given that Armstrong was the face of his sport for a decade and was credited with making cycling popular in America. Until his rise, cycling’s attraction was largely limited to Europe.
“Cycling is a small sport, and he was a giant in it,” said Stapleton. “As an outsider, I was always stunned at the mixture of awe and fear people had for him.”
While acknowledging that it is not politically correct to defend Armstrong right now, Stapleton said that many of the top riders Armstrong competed against during his seven-year run were themselves using performance-enhancing substances.
“He beat a bunch of guys who, for the most part, were cheating because he was better than them. He was more focused and worked harder. Personal motivations made him remarkably good, but unfortunately, it also included cheating.”