Former French rider and proponent of cycling “à l'eau claire”, Christophe Bassons, told Cyclingnews on Wednesday that he “hopes Lance Armstrong can live with the consequences” of the ongoing federal investigation into the seven-time Tour winner and his erstwhile US Postal team.
Bassons, who clashed with Armstrong during the 1999 Tour over the Frenchman’s outspoken views on doping, was reacting to comments by Floyd Landis in an interview with the Sunday Times’s Paul Kimmage published earlier this week. In the article, Kimmage cited Bassons as someone who rejected the drug-taking that Landis saw as a necessary evil to fulfil his ambitions in the Tour de France.
Landis wasn’t familiar with Bassons’s story, but seemed impressed by what Kimmage told him.
“It seems to me like he tried to do what I considered as option C as I was thinking this stuff through and figured it was not worth my time, especially in the United States where Lance was now a big superstar and nobody knew who I was,” Landis said.
“I’m impressed. I don’t know how many guys would [have the strength of character not to dope] but there’s not a lot… I don’t know [Bassons]. I would like to know him though.”
Now working for the Agence française de lutte antidopage (AFLD) in the Aquitaine region of south-west France, Bassons said today that Landis’s admiration was “kind but misplaced”.
“I don’t think I was courageous not to take drugs,” the former Festina, Française des Jeux and Jean Delatour rider told Cyclingnews.
“To me, courage is all about overcoming fear, and I was never scared. I was just lucky - I’d had a balanced upbringing, lots of love in my life, and no void which made me want to dope. Refusing to take drugs was easy for me, whereas other people have things missing in their lives which mean that’s not the case. Doping is always a response to a void, a need – whether it’s for money, or success, or love, or something else. That’s why it’s a mistake to fight the war on doping in terms of health – because, if you actually analyse it, doping responds to a need there too, because you can be healthier doing the Tour de France on drugs than without anything.”
Bassons says that, while the public, media and authorities view doping in terms of “legal” and “illegal”, an athlete will often superimpose his own ideas of what is legitimate and what is not. Landis, for example, told Kimmage that, for him, doping was a means – the only means in a sport allegedly riddled with corruption – to realize a Tour de France dream.
“I don’t know why Landis had that dream, why he needed that, or indeed why he lied for all those years – you’d have to look at his upbringing, his values – but there’s always something behind it,” Bassons argued.
“Everyone has their own sense of legitimate and illegitimate, which is different from what is licit and illicit. For example, I might think it’s legitimate to drive my car at 90kph in an 80kph zone, if me being late means that my son will walk out into the school playground and not see his dad. For Richard Virenque, doping was legitimate because, for some reason, he needed the love and admiration of the public. For some riders from Eastern Europe it’s legitimate because they need money for their families – which is hard to condemn. Or a teenager might take steroids and go to the gym to pump iron because he’s uncomfortable with his body. In that case, doping serves his need – it perpetuates it too, but as far as the kid is concerned it solves his particular problem…”
It’s this philosophy which leads Bassons to play down talk of his heroism. And yet, in many people’s eyes, his words and actions throughout his short career amounted to precisely that.
On the morning after Armstrong’s emphatic solo victory on the first alpine stage to Sestriere in the 1999 Tour, Bassons cast doubt on the legitimacy of the American’s performance in his daily column for Le Parisien. Later that day, Bassons claimed, Armstrong rode alongside him in the peloton to relay a terse message. "He said it was a mistake to speak out the way I do and he asked why I was doing it,” Bassons recalled later. “I told him that I'm thinking of the next generation of riders. Then he said 'Why don't you leave, then?'".
Armstrong later corroborated the story. He also added: "[Bassons’] accusations aren't good for cycling, for his team, for me, for anybody. If he thinks cycling works like that, he's wrong and he would be better off going home.”
Bassons duly left the race before stage 12, mentally exhausted. He retired from the sport, aged just 27, two years later.
Prodigiously talented, not to mention successful, in his amateur days, you’d think that he might now harbour some bitterness about a riding career which ended so prematurely. But you’d be wrong - both about that, and about whether he bears any personal malice towards those like Landis, who cheated and lied for years, or towards Armstrong.
“I don’t like to judge or criticize anyone – not Landis, not Armstrong – because everyone has their own reasons for acting the way they do,” Bassons reasoned.
“I don’t care what anyone does, as long as they don’t try to stop me from living my life, or doing my job, which is what bothered me about Armstrong. But, again, I won’t judge. With him, I think it’s obvious there was a need for success. He didn’t have a relationship with his father, and his upbringing wasn’t easy, then I think what was already a hard character probably became more and more entrenched in those ways as he got a bit of success with triathlon and then in cycling, plus money and adulation….”
He continued: “The one thing I would add about Armstrong is that I’m not sure he’s as proud of the person he is today as I am of myself. Whatever you do in life, you have to accept the consequences of your actions, like I accepted the consequences of my decision to get out of cycling, without looking back. So I hope that he has the mental resources and the money to deal with the consequences of what he’s done all these years, I really do. But I also hope that the truth comes out. And I don’t envy Armstrong, that’s for sure…”
Asked finally whether he would welcome any communication from Landis, Bassons didn’t hesitate. “Avec plaisir,” he said.