Actions of a disgraced hero cannot blight a sport for all

Lance Armstrong in action
Lance Armstrong in action
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With cycling now confronting historic drug use, Alan Ramsay argues the Lance Armstrong scandal shouldn’t overshadow the sport’s future.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency report into Lance Armstrong was damning.

For those who had watched him achieve the seemingly impossible – coming back from cancer and winning seven Tour de France titles – it was also both upsetting and frustrating.

The revelation that Armstrong was a “serial cheat” means the history books of cycling will have to be rewritten and as the sport conducts its own inquest into the extent of drug use among its top athletes of the past, more revelations are surely inevitable.

However, for those like me who have been closely involved in cycling, there is also a sense of frustration and a desire to ensure that this scandal is not allowed to infect the entire sport.

Mark Cavendish, one of Britain’s best ever road racers, spoke for many when he said: “There are cheats in all sports and all walks of life. Where else but cycling is there such a determination to be clean and truthful?”

He is right, but I do wonder whether anyone is listening.

It was 45 years ago that I first got on my bike. I was to a large part inspired by the then cycling legend Tom Simpson and set out with dreams not unlike those of a young Bradley Wiggins.

Simpson was Britain’s first road race World Champion and for many lads like me, a hero. Born in Durham where his dad worked in a nearby colliery he grew up in Nottingham, but despite these ordinary roots he had taken on the rest of the world and won.

Like Armstrong, Simpson’s story did not have a happy ending. He rode to his death during the 1967 Tour de France and the subsequent post-mortem found traces of amphetamine in his blood. It became clear that Simpson, like many others of that era, had been popping pills to survive one of the most demanding endurance events in sporting history.

However, I don’t regret that it was he who sparked my own love of cycling. The reality is that every sport from horse-racing to athletics, from swimming to snooker, has had its issues with doping and match fixing and while it is right that these are investigated, we shouldn’t allow the events of recent weeks to overshadow the great joy cycling can and does bring.

On the back of Team GB’s Olympic success we have a great opportunity not only to promote cycling and in raising awareness of the benefits of the support, we might also increase the woeful lack of respect many other road users afford to the humble cyclist.

This is not a new problem. Forty five years ago I was out training one winter. It was bitterly cold and, as I used to in the days before helmets became commonplace, I was wearing a woolly hat. About half an hour into my ride and on a busy dual carriageway doing close to 30mph I felt something hit me hard on the back of my head. It was an egg.

There were jeers and taunts from a passing white transit van and like most of these incidents I didn’t manage to catch the registration details and those responsible were never caught.

Over the intervening years, there have been other incidents. There was the time I was cycling along a quiet moorland road when a car pulled up alongside.

The man in the passenger seat lent out and pushed me so hard that I almost lost control completely. Worse still, twice last year I was knocked off my bike by careless drivers, sustaining both damage to the bike and injury to myself.

In many ways I have been lucky. To date 98 cyclists have been killed on the road this year. I have long campaigned for tougher penalties for those convicted of dangerous driving and for a cycling proficiency test to be a standard requirement before anyone is handed a driving licence.

That might sound a drastic measure, but if we are to reap the benefits that cycling can bring to everyone then we must take action.

Most people don’t aspire to be Olympic champions, they simply want to be able to ride a bike without fear and, while we are still riding on the success London 2012 brought, now is the time to campaign for better cycle routes and for greater driver awareness.

We are a nation where obesity levels are rising and where the government should be doing everything in its power to get people active and any money which can be invested in promoting and protecting cyclists would be well spent.

The Lance Armstrong scandal may have done much damage, but cycling will always remain a sport for all.

Alan Ramsay is a member of RoadPeace, the national charity set up to improve road safety.