Why my dad, a former Olympic bicycle racer, sympathizes with the disgraced former Tour de France champion
My father, Rick Ball, was a serious amateur cyclist in the late 1960s and early 1970s who represented the U.S. in the 1971 Pan Am Games and the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. He raced while pursuing his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison; upon finishing his degree, he chose academia over racing, and last year he retired as chairman of the math department at the University of Denver.
Long before Lance Armstrong brought the sport to the American consciousness, I grew up in a family that watched the Tour de France religiously, at odd hours due to the time difference, on obscure satellite networks. My dad is also a bit of a libertarian where performance-enhancing substances are concerned, an avid consumer of non-F.D.A.-approved vitamin supplements ordered from exotic foreign websites and catalogs. Given this combination of interests, he's not unsympathetic to the position Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion who admitted last week to taking performance-enhancing substances after years of denials, now finds himself in.
This weekend, my father and I watched Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey together. Then I interviewed him about it. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What was your experience with performance-enhancing drugs in cycling?
I practiced at a time when the American sport had not gone through the dramatic increase in standards that it subsequently went through, as soon as [the American racer] Greg LeMond came on the scene [in the 1980s]. It was such an interesting sport back then. It was practiced mainly in major urban areas—Chicago, New York, New Jersey, etc., because they had immigrant populations, and a lot of the bike clubs were organized around that ethnic identity. You would race in the Chicago area and, honest to goodness, you could hear a half dozen languages in the peloton. The Germans would be speaking German to each other, the Belgians would speak Flemish, the French would speak French, the Italians would speak Italian.
[The drug culture was] not on this side of the Atlantic, as far as I can tell, and I think I have a right to say that, because virtually all of my racing [took place in the U.S], aside from a couple of international excursions as part of the national team, and I never ran into it. Never once. Maybe it was there, but it was totally invisible. However, there were people at the time who took it upon themselves to go to Europe and race for some period of time, and they brought back stories, and the stories were without exception about the ubiquity of drugs.
The typical story would go something like this: You're in Belgium, you're riding local races which occur three or four times a week. These are dinky little races in far-flung, rural parts of the country which draw enormous crowds, and are practiced under the most primitive conditions. So the race would start in some little cafe, you'd go to this cafe to change into your race clothes, and you'd be queued up for the public bathroom, which would be this tiny closet. And there'd be a bunch of racers around you, and someone would open up a valise, and there would be row upon row upon row of hypodermics.
And one day there would be some racer that you knew or had raced with or had trained with and you would drop him off the back—he couldn't get out of his own way. And two days later you couldn't hold his wheel—this was just not the same rider, not the same human being. And this was just at the lowest level of amateur riding.
So under those circumstances you're very soon forced to deal with that. You're not going to be competitive with that if all you've got are the legs God gave you. I have no confidence that I would not have started taking that stuff in that situation, no confidence.
What kind of drugs were they in those days?
There was a lot of amphetamine use. That was the drug of choice for many, many years. This was way before EPO [Erythropoietin, the blood-enhancing hormone used by Armstrong], which was originally discovered to diminish one of the pernicious effects of dialysis, which is the diminution of red blood cells. EPO is an indigenous hormone—we all make this hormone, it is in response to this hormone that the body makes red blood cells. That's why it's nearly undetectable.
But it was not around at that point—it was mostly speed-related substances. There's a famous episode in Tour history about a British rider named Tommy Simpson. He was Britain's great hope—no British rider would again figure into the Tour with that prominence for several decades—and he was leading the Tour [in 1967] at the point when the race came to central France, to a famous climb that is often to this day incorporated into the Tour, up a peak which juts out as an aberration from the plains of central France, a peak called Mont Ventoux. It is reviled by all the riders because it's so doggone hot in that part of the country, and the climb is brutal and unrelieved, just going up a cone, no relief, no trees, nothing. Simpson began to get into difficulty at some point along the climb, and at some point he began to wobble, and the story is that he eventually fell over, and when his support crew rushed to his aid, his dying words were, "Put me back on the bike." Afterward, they found amphetamines in his blood.
That's pretty chilling. In light of stories like that, how do you view the use of these substances?
I'm not sure I have much to add to the debate about that. In the case of Lance Armstrong, I really can't shake the feeling that it's rather a shame that one of the dominant athletes of our time, in a sport that I love, is now only regarded or is mainly regarded as a public curiosity.
Had I had Lance Armstrong's body, and had I had the possibilities he had, I have no confidence that I would have refused the blandishments to which he eventually succumbed.
Or a disgrace?
Or a disgrace, worse yet. But the things that I remember are the descriptions of this young man who was coming up, when he was not yet understood as the talent that he proved to be. And you should hear these descriptions. I remember the world championships, this was before Lance was sick—he came out of nowhere and he decimated the field. Just decimated the field, and everybody was rocked on their heels, because where did this guy come from? This is when he was 20 pounds heavier than he was the rest of his career—after cancer he had actually gained an advantage by paring off a good deal of his muscle mass.
But that's the part I don't think is widely appreciated. He is a genetic freak in terms of his gifts. It's just something almost otherworldly.